In the new narrative resurrecting and venerating deceased Congress stalwarts ruthlessly cast aside by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, P. V. Narasimha Rao was the great liberalising visionary who pulled India back from the brink of an economic abyss. According to this narrative, Rao’s Finance Minister Manmohan Singh was not a reformer at heart; Rao was and Singh only championed and implemented economic reforms because his boss believed in and pushed them.
Vinay Sitapati’s very authoritative biography of Rao provides a much-needed reality check. Rao, the author points out, was actually an orthodox socialist. His first mentor, Swami Ramananda Tirtha, was a Communist. As a minister in Andhra Pradesh in the late 1960s, Rao supported Indira Gandhi’s socialist bias and genuinely believed in economic controls. As Chief Minister in the early 1970s, he was very earnest in implementing land reforms. Sitapati quotes an incident from those days when Rao declared at a conference of backward classes: “We will not tolerate capitalists, even if he is a Harijan.” Twenty years later, he was not just tolerating but actually wooing capitalists. But was this an ideological transformation or a pragmatic one? Sitapati would like to believe it is the latter.
Rao, the book points out, was not unaware of the ills of State intervention in the economy. But that did not lead to his acceptance of capitalism and free markets. “While Narasimha Rao was appalled at how government policies were being manipulated thus, he did not learn the larger lesson of this story: that the entire system of controls needed to go.”
There is one issue which one would have liked clarity on. In early 1991, when he was tasked with drafting the party manifesto by Rajiv Gandhi, Rao was still in the socialist mindset. There is a reference in the memoirs of V. Krishnamurthy about how a group close to Rajiv was preparing a reformist blueprint, which was supposed to get reflected in the party manifesto. But Rao did not incorporate many of its recommendations and Rajiv had to overrule him. Since Sitapati had unprecedented access to Rao’s private papers and diaries, one would have liked to know his version of this story.
The author takes on the oft-repeated and well-accepted point—that there would have been no reforms without a crisis and that whoever was prime minister in 1991 would have had no choice but to reform. Four earlier Prime Ministers, he reminds us, had been faced with a crisis as well as presented with favourable opportunities and reformist ideas, but they did zilch.
He also argues that if Rao’s party rivals—Arjun Singh and N.D. Tiwari—had become Prime Minister, they would likely have halted reforms after the foreign exchange crisis in February 1992 because their instincts were against economic reforms. But so were Rao’s, so why did he continue with reforms well into 1996? Could a politician who came from a control mindset have sold liberalisation to an unconvinced party, as Sitapati shows Rao did in the Tirupati session of the Congress in 1992 unless he started believing in the philosophy of liberal economics? Sitapati quotes Rao’s reply to an interviewer: “My model is not Margaret Thatcher but Willy Brandt.”
One would also liked to have known more about Rao’s thoughts on the electoral failures of 1996 and applying the brakes on economic reforms, as well as details about how he tackled Congressmen opposed to reforms.
But Rao isn’t just about economic reforms. The book also points out how Rao was “the crafter of a fresh vision for India in the world”.
It was under Rao that the first steps to normalising relations with Israel were taken, that economic diplomacy got supremacy, that there was a near-breakthrough on Siachen, that a new paradigm opened in India-China relations. Rao was also the first Prime Minister to travel to South Korea. All this may be well known to foreign policy wonks, but not the general reader.
The chapter on India going nuclear confirms what was known—that India was very close to a nuclear explosion under Rao and that he reversed the decision at the last minute. There is a blow-by-blow account of India’s nuclear preparedness but Sitapati does not explain the last-minute U-turn. This is something he says Rao took with him to his funeral pyre. Rao’s sagacity comes through when he prioritises economic security for nuclear security. This book is a fascinating, extremely well-researched account of Rao’s journey from a village in Andhra Pradesh to Raisina Hill, which throws light on how his personality evolved over the years.
It shows how Rao transformed from a Chief Minister who underestimated the opponents of change (land reform) to a Prime Minister who managed to steer far-reaching economic reforms in the teeth of opposition. He initially did not fathom Indira Gandhi’s need for a Chief Minister who was both powerful and powerless and paid the price for it. Over the years, this naiveté got eroded and he became an adroit power player. His Machiavellian mind comes through in how he manoeuvred to become Prime Minister after Rajiv’s assassination as well as in how he played the Babri card and the economic reforms card to tackle both the leftists and the RSS-BJP lobby. He very adroitly put reformist bureaucrats in economic ministries and leftist bureaucrats in the social sector ministries.
His penchant for postponing decisions or not taking them at all was an old one. Way back in 1948, Rao had to choose between his mentor, Tirtha, and his former employer, also a Congressman. Writes Sitapati: “Rao did neither, cleverly cultivating a relationship with each bloc without alienating the other.” But the book also shows Rao could be decisive when he wanted—when he was clear that something was good for the country.
The book clears the air on several issues, including Rao’s role in the Babri demolition as well as the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Sitapati is very clear that Rao was not complicit in the demolition nor should he be accused of inaction. The main charge against Rao was that he did not impose President’s rule in Uttar Pradesh ahead of that decisive kar seva in December 1992. Sitapati shows that not one of Rao’s cabinet colleagues—including Arjun Singh who later blamed him—came out strongly in favour of central rule. It was Rao’s penchant for consensus building that did him in, he argues.
On the 1984 riots, the author points out that Rao had been sidelined by the Prime Minister’s Office. But Sitapati takes care to ensure that a sympathetic account does not become a rationalising account. He very rightly points out that, as Home Minister, Rao owed it to the people of the country to have asserted himself and called out the army. The book also busts the myth about Sonia Gandhi being a tragic widow staying aloof from politics—she had a clear role to play in the selection of the Prime Minister after Rajiv’s assassination. In fact, Rao, as Prime Minister, felt obliged to brief her regularly in order to keep rivals at bay (and that the rivals succeeded when he stopped briefing her). The arrogance of the Dynasty also comes through in an incident Sitapati recounts of Rahul Gandhi saying “that man is not a Congressman.” This, about a man who was in the party before Rahul’s father was born, who enjoyed the trust of his grandmother and his father, and whom Sitapati describes thus: “whatever the inner half of Rao may have thought, his public half never faltered in praise of the Nehru-Gandhis.”
Sitapati recounts an incident during Rao’s last days when he was hospitalised and Sonia Gandhi visited him late at night and spent four hours with him. Rao reportedly argued about the shabby treatment meted out to him till the wee hours. It would have been nice to know more about the exchange; could that have prompted the vindictive decision to not allow his cremation in Delhi and not even allow his body into the Congress headquarters? The book also provides a peep into the private Rao—his relationship with his wife and children. But it stands out for the dispassionate and dignified way in which it deals with the two women in Rao’s life, politician Lakshmi Kanthappa and journalist Kalyani Shankar. But on this issue, Rao’s children deserve more credit. No biographer willingly holds back interesting snippets about the subject’s personal life. The problem is usually created by the family or the people being written about. Rao’s children could have given Sitapati access to his private papers with strings attached. They clearly didn’t.
Biographies can be either hagiographic or hatchet jobs. Sitapati’s book is a rare balanced account, not stinting on praise where it is due, and criticism where it is warranted. It is also extremely authoritative—there are attributions for practically everything (including mundane facts like the colour of the jacket Manmohan Singh was wearing during his first Budget speech). This is one of the best political biographies in a long time.
Seetha is a senior journalist and author
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