‘Half Lion’ – The Convoluted Legacy of PV Narasimha Rao


Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao, the ninth Prime Minister of India, was a man of immense contradictions. Although a lifelong socialist and a Nehruvian, he will perhaps be best remembered for dismantling the license raj system and leading the Indian economy to a new era of liberalization, privatization and globalization. Always an obeisant supporter of the Nehru-Gandhi family during the Indira-Rajiv era, after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, he worked discreetly, albeit unsuccessfully, to decouple the fortunes of the Congress Party from those of its first family. He was a man who could bring in far reaching reforms at lightning speed and at the same time, dither and sit over crucial decisions, often to the immense frustration of his supporters. As a chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, he could not last beyond two years because of his rash implementation of drastic land reforms; as a Prime Minister, he navigated patiently through treacherous party men, an economic crisis, lack of simple majority in the House, the demolition of Babri Masjid and multiple no confidence motions to run a minority Government for its entire term.

Vinay Sitapati’s ‘Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India’ is an authoritative account of the often tumultuous and undoubtedly far reaching regime of PV Narasimha Rao. Written in lucid style, it is an exhaustively researched biography, aided no doubt by the author’s ability to get access to the opinions of some of the most powerful men and women of that period, as well as the private handwritten notes of Rao which he had assiduously maintained over his long public career. A journalist and a PhD scholar by profession, Sitapati spares no effort in examining in painstaking detail the many significant events that marked Rao’s tenure as the Prime Minister.

By most accounts, Narasimha Rao was an intriguing character. A linguist, author and scholar, he was fluent in ten languages, including in seven Indic languages and three foreign ones. Although a lawyer by profession, he had keen interest in foreign affairs, education, health and other public policies. A life-long learner, he became familiar with three Computer languages after turning sixty and regularly used a laptop at a day and age when most youngsters were not familiar with any computer system. He was also curiously close to a number of Hindu holy men, and just before the 1991 elections, considered giving up politics for a life in religion.

Rao was a man who spoke little, if at all, but when he did, he spoke with authority and often a sharp sense of humour. He read volumes of academic journals and prepared religiously before important meetings. His decisions, with a few exceptions, were often carefully studied and well thought out. But when he was convinced of the merits and politics of a decision, he could act with decisive speed.

Many of the contradictions of Rao’s life and character can be explained by the fact that he was not an idealist but a pragmatic, a believer in ends over means. Although he was elected as a public representative for four decades, he did so without cultivating any substantial base among any caste, community, region or religion. In fact, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from three different states – Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha; the fact that he could speak fluently the local languages of all the three states also helped. As a floating MP without any natural base to represent, he was also not beholden to the interests of that base. This gave him enormous political dexterity and allowed him to be ruthlessly pragmatic.

Unlike Nehru, Indira or Rajiv, all of whom were brought up inside cocoons of privilege and had to strain to understand the misery of their less fortunate countrymen, Rao was brought up in a remote village of pre-independent Nizam’s Hyderabad, spent his teens in a boarding school and was married off at the age of ten. He was well aware of the reality of an everyday Indian; it was a part of who he was. At the same time, he was also a brilliant student, among the best ones of his province in his time. He spent his student days devouring Marxist literature. He was often lonely and brooding. As a minister first in Hyderabad and then in Delhi, he maintained tenuous links to his wife and children. He forsook his personal family life and instead immersed himself in public life. As a result, he suffered from a major identity crisis – he was at the same time too earthy to be comfortable among the elites of Lutyen’s Delhi and too sophisticated to find peace in the idyllic life of his village. This explains why, in spite of being a minister in Delhi for more than two decades, he had few friends there and could never become the consummate insider. This also explains why he wore his political career lightly and was never too attached to the same, willing to give it up for a life of retirement and scholarly pursuits.

Rao is often compared to Chanakya, the legendary Indian master in statecraft, the Machiavelli of India. However, in many ways, he is very similar to Richard Nixon, the former Republican President and Vice President of USA. Both were brilliant and flawed characters, introverted and cunning, the rare politicians who valued results over ideology. Both were elected after making improbable comebacks from the threat of obscurity, to helm their nations in particularly fraught times in their respective histories.  Once in office, they were quick to seize the crisis to take crucial steps whose reverberations are still felt today – Rao by liberalizing the economy and Nixon by normalizing ties with China. Both ended their rules in ignominy, although there is no doubt that Nixon’s was much more scandalizing. Where they probably differed was that Nixon arguably had no moral compass at all; Rao’s moral compass, on the other hand, was occasionally malfunctioning, but most of the times, it pointed in the right direction.

Rao’s political achievements were significant, especially given the constraints he had to face. Given the lack of majority of his Government and his relative lack of appeal to any particular class of voters, the very fact that he could survive for five years was a masterful achievement. One may recall that in the period between 1989 and 1999, India had seen six other minority Governments, none of which could survive beyond two years.

The economic liberalization was largely orchestrated by him. Even though he allowed Manmohan Singh to take the credits, he used a number of tricks, including coaxing, cajoling, threatening, invoking Nehru, making gross exaggerations and massive understatements and clever sleight of hands to keep the reforms running. With hindsight, one may think that the reforms were a fait accompli, but at that point of time, they were anything but. Steeped in a culture of socialism and a deeply ingrained fear of multinational companies, the entire Congress party apparatus had to be convinced of the utility of the reforms, not to speak of the unrelenting opposition of the unions and communist parties. It was a mammoth and Herculean task, all the more remarkable since Rao before 1991 had shown no sign of faith in free market. The effect of these reforms on India proved to be deep and lasting.

It is instructive to note how Rao’s economic legacy has stood the test of time. Future Prime Ministers have attempted to largely preserve Rao’s economic reforms, while making small tweaks and changes at the margins. There has been no wholesale course correction along the way. Rao’s vision of India gradually becoming a social democracy, ala some of the Western European countries, through rapid economic growth and high expenditure on the poor and the downtrodden, was put to fruition by the United Progressive Alliance government.  The failures of his economic policies – mainly his inability to sell economic reforms as a vote getting measure – were also passed on to his successors, none of whom could package the reforms in a way that would be appealing to the general voting public.

Other major achievements of his Government include initiating a policy of closer foreign ties with USA, Israel, China and South-East Asian countries, resolving to a large extent the internal security situations in Kashmir, Punjab and Assam and making substantial progress in the development of nuclear weapons technology. In fact, after extensive research, Sitapati comes to the conclusion that India was ready to become a nuclear power in 1996; but the same was deferred to 1998 only because of the loss of Rao in the 1996 general election. In many of these cases, Rao’s socialistic, Nehruvian instincts were at odds with the post-Soviet world in a flux; but, he was quick to learn and make decisions on the basis of the changed realities. Another admirable trait of Rao was that he was comfortable in downplaying the revolutionary nature of some of his decisions, to reduce the resistance to their implementation. He realised that deep seated, entrenched interests are often not comfortable with dramatic changes and it is better to camouflage such actions under a veneer of incrementalism and continuity, even though this could result in downplaying his legacy at a later date.

Rao’s failures were also many. Any discussion of Rao’s legacy would include the Babri Masjid demolition and the ensuing riots that followed. But Sitapati here provides a justifiable defence of Rao’s action, or rather inaction, during those dark days. The Government of Uttar Pradesh in 1992 was headed by Kalyan Singh, a Mandir supporter. It was a BJP administration and the police and other paramilitary forces in that state had to report to the BJP Government. So, the only way the Central Government could have absolutely ensured that there would no demolition was by invoking Article 356 and dismissing the state Government. But the dismissal of a state Government in anticipation of a law and order situation would have been undesirable, as well as open to legal challenges. The Cabinet also refused to recommend the same unequivocally to the Prime Minister. In other words, it was a Catch-22 situation and there were no easy choices before the Government at the Center.

True to his nature, Rao tried to work out a back channel compromise with the leaders of BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal, extracting promise from their leaders that the mosque would not fall. But given the number of kar sevaks at the site (a few hundred thousands) and the communally charged atmosphere, even these leaders had scant control over the action of the kar sevaks, or were willing to blindside the Government into a false sense of complacency. Either way, the mosque came down, India’s secular credentials were damaged forever and massive communal riots followed.

While with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to blame Rao for this tragedy; perhaps given the constitutional challenges he faced and the information that was available to him at that time, he made the best effort he could. What was not defensible, however, was standing by silently as the Home Minister while thousands of Sikhs were butchered in open day light in the streets of Delhi, after the death of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Sitapati again makes the point that the Delhi Police during the Sikh riots was directly being controlled by the Prime Ministers’ Office, by-passing the office of the Home Ministry; this does not though excuse the fact as a Home Minister, Rao was a silent witness to one of the most gruesome episodes of state abetted communal rioting in modern Indian history.

Rao’s streak of pragmatism had its downsides as well. In order to secure his position as the head of a minority government, he resorted to bribing some of the regional party politicians. There is at least one instance where he probably bribed the MPs of Jharkhand Multi Morcha to secure their support for a no confidence motion. His Nixonian tendencies were also apparent in the way he used the state intelligence agencies to keep a close watch on other politicians, both from his own party and the opposition. Prior to 1996 elections, he also instructed CBI to proceed on the Hawala Scam, a dubious scandal where important politicians like Arjun Singh (an influential rebel Congress leader) and LK Advani (leader of BJP, the main opposition party) were implicated with scant proof. All of these were morally indefensible and politically odious steps, and served to significantly dilute the legacy of Rao. There was also the stench of multiple other accusations of corruption that Rao had to face, although he was subsequently acquitted in all of them. His experiments in welfare reforms also met with failures.

Another crucial dimension of Rao’s tenure was his often fraught relationship with Sonia Gandhi, the reclusive widow of Rajiv Gandhi and the Head of the family that had controlled the Congress Party since independence. While initially, he took pains to pay weekly visits to Sonia Gandhi, the frequency of their interactions gradually waned as Rao became more confident of the stability of the Government as well as his position in the Party. This allowed their relationship to wither and fracture, resulting in his legacy being completely erased from the collective memory of the party once he had relinquished office. In the sycophant culture of Congress, one cannot prosper without being suitably deferential to the first family. One may wonder if Manmohan Singh, the future Prime Minister of the country, had internalized this lesson; his almost complete submission to the first family would later be cited by the critics to allege his weakness as a leader and dilution of the constitutional post of Prime Minister.

At the end of Rao’s regime, India was on the path to long term economic growth, its ties with US and Israel were becoming stronger after years of neglect, its internal security was in a far better shape and it was on the verge of becoming a nuclear superpower. However, the fruits of the reforms initiated by Rao’s administration were to accrue over the years and decades to follow and none of them were palpable to the citizens of India at that moment. Instead, the negatives of Rao’s regime – the bickering between Congress leaders, the whiff of multiple scandals, the devastation wrecked by the communal riots and an anodyne Prime Minister who downplayed his economic achievements and failed to connect intimately with the public –were remembered by the voters in the 1996 election. As a result, the tally of Congress came down dramatically in the 1996 election, to around 140 seats and it was no more even the single largest party in the House. It also permanently lost any ability to compete in vast swathes of North India, including in the populous states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. After the defeat, the rest of the Congress Party was relieved to see the back of the Prime Minister and he was allowed to spend the last eight years of his life in obscurity, fighting the cases piled up against him, estranged from the Party leadership.

PV Narasimha Rao was a complex, fascinating character and his time as Prime Minister of India was equally complex and fascinating. While Sitapati analyzes in excruciating detail the numerous achievements and failings of his life, at times, he tends to give Rao the benefit of the doubt, even on occasions where Rao was clearly on a morally sticky wicket. While ‘Half Lion’ is by no means a hagiography, the author’s excellent work is marred to some extent by his attempts at explaining away the failings of Rao’s character and administration. Whether Rao was a great leader is a debatable question, but what is beyond doubt that he was an immensely consequential leader who steered our country through an extremely precarious stage in its history. He is a leader who needs and deserves to be studied thoroughly, and ‘Half Lion’ is a brilliant attempt at that.

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