Avant-Garde “Insider” P.V. Narasimha Rao
Newspaper: Avenue Mail
Date: 28th June, 2021
28th June 2021 marks the end of the centenary celebrations of the father of Indian economic reforms, Telugu icon, linguist, scholar, and one of India’s pioneering prime ministers- Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao, or P.V. Narasimha Rao who was the 9th Prime Minister of India from 1991-96.
Hailing from an agrarian background from the village of Laknepalli in Warangal, in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, Rao was a bright child with a progressive mindset even in his childhood. After his initial village education, Rao graduated in Arts from the Osmania University. With a law degree from Fergusson College in Pune, Rao was ready to take on the world. In the 1940s, Rao edited a Telugu weekly magazine called Kakatiya Patrika under the pen name Jaya-Vijaya, a writing passion that will be his lifelong indulgence. Summarizing Rao’s literary dabble government website www.pmindia.gov.in posts “A man of many interests, he likes music, cinema, and theatre. His special interest lies in Indian philosophy and culture, writing fiction and political commentary, learning languages, writing poems in Telugu and Hindi, and keeping abreast of literature in general. He has successfully published ‘SahasraPhan’, a Hindi translation of late Shri Viswanatha Satyanarayana’s famous Telegu Novel ‘Veyi Padagalu’ published by Jnanpith; ‘Abala Jeevitam’, Telugu translation of late Shri Hari Narayan Apte’s famous Marathi Novel, “Pan Lakshat Kon gheto”, published by Central Sahitya Academy. He translated other famous works from Marathi to Telugu and from Telugu to Hindi and published many articles in different magazines mostly under a pen name.” In his lifetime, scholar Rao could speak 10 languages fluently and even learnt computer languages to keep up with the advent of mass computerization.
In the mid-1940s, his attention turned towards the exploding Indian Independence movement which was negotiating its way under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Post-Independence he joined the Indian National Congress (INC) signaling his entry into full-time politics. After becoming an MLA in the Andhra Pradesh assembly, Rao quickly rose the ranks to become the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1971, the year India was in a war with Pakistan over Bangladesh. In his short tenure of 467 days as Chief Minister, Rao efficiently enforced the land reforms and land ceiling acts.
A loyalist of the Gandhi family, he was particularly close to Indira Gandhi who promoted him to central deputation away from state politics. He handled the home, foreign affairs, and defense portfolios under the leadership of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, traveling extensively to U.K., West Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Egypt to further India’s foreign policy.
But the watershed moment in his career came when he had to fight his way in the Congress party meeting in the aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The likes of Sharad Pawar, Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari and Pranab Mukherjee stood in competition for the post of the Prime Minister and the office of the Congress President. The sympathy wave generated from the horrific demise of Rajiv Gandhi threw the Congress party into a leadership challenge when the Congress landed in pole position with 244 seats and 36% vote share to form a minority government with outside support. Rao did not even contest the Lok Sabha elections for 1991 and was on the verge of retirement from politics when destiny threw him into the ring as the top contender as India’s prime minister. With the thumping support of most Lok Sabha MPs, Rao was elected not only as Prime Minister but also as Congress President giving him total control over government and party.
Rao’s battle was only half won when he became an accidental Prime Minister. India’s low forex reserves, trade deficit, and financial obligations precipitated an unprecedented economic crisis. India was in a dire situation with money left for a mere three weeks' worth of imports and on the edge of bankruptcy unable to meet its financial requirements. A search operation began to find an incredible resume as the next Finance Minister. Rao was a shrewd politician and came up with a shortlist of men to take up the job in the Finance Ministry. The economist Rao wanted to be Finance Minister was I.G. Patel who declined the post. Bureaucrat P.C. Alexander suggested the name of Dr. Manmohan Singh who had previously served as professor of international trade, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, advisor to Prime Minister of India on economic affairs, and the then chairman of the University Grants Commission apart from a treasured virtue of being apolitical. Between them, they struck a partnership that saved India and its economy, the benefits of which we are still reaping even today. Rao’s greatest contribution has been to give a free hand to Singh to do as needed to get India out of the economic crisis, dismantle the license Raj and unleash landmark economic reforms while he dealt with the hefty political management of those decisions. The opening up of the economy and liberalization put India on a path of recovery, growth, and prosperity.
The major decisions taken by Nar-Man were to devalue the rupee, abolish the Controller of Capital Issues which decided the prices and number of shares that firms could issue; reduced tariffs from an average of 85% to 25% and rolling back quantitative controls; introduced the SEBI Act to regulate the stock market; encouraging foreign direct investment; the opening of the equity markets to foreign institutional investment among other critical decisions. Meanwhile, Rao contested by-elections to become a member of the Lok Sabha and won with a record margin of over five lakh votes from Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh which entered the Guinness Book of Records.
Rao's relationship with Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia Gandhi went through several ups and downs throughout his tenure due to uneven communication and misunderstandings that rocked their personal equation. Its only decades later, in 2020, that Sonia Gandhi finally praised Narasimha Rao for “his bold leadership that saved India through grave crisis through many accomplishments and contributions”.
It was in Rao’s tenure that the long-standing Babri Masjid dispute shocked the nation when on 6th December 1992, kar sevaks demolished the centuries-old mosque, and Rao was accused of looking the other way while India’s secular credentials were at stake. The stain of Babri never really washed off his entire lifetime. The aftermath of the Babri incident led to the 1993 bomb blasts across 12 locations of Bombay that left 256 people dead and 1400 injured on 12th March 1993. His role as the home minister during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots was also brought into question.
Rao was instrumental in taking the steps in nuclear security which eventually led to the Pokhran II tests in 1998. After the Pokhran I test of 1974, initiated by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, successive governments maintained a state of moratorium in fear of international sanctions. Rao reversed that policy by giving the green signal for preparing for a second test. The irony only being Rao did not get to execute the nuclear tests in his tenure but passed on the plans to Atal Bihari Vajpayee who pushed the button to huge electoral benefits.
One of the biggest triumphs of Narasimha Rao was in foreign policy when he mooted the “look east policy” which was a paradigm shift in India’s policy towards Southeast Asian countries. The growing clout of China in Southeast Asian economies had to be addressed by India by deeper engagement and strategic involvement in partnership with these countries. Using his experience as the Foreign Minister earlier he devised the policy to engage with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore which was aggressively pursued by Prime Ministers after him as “Act East Policy”. Rao had to deal with the growing influence of the United States under Bill Clinton, the dismantling of the Soviet Union and deepen ties with Israel.
Narasimha Rao moved from one crisis to another during his tenure. The Latur earthquake, the Purulia Arms dropping case, the Harshad Mehta stock market scam where he was accused but could not be proved of having taken Rs 1 crore as a bribe, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) bribe for votes to defeat the no-confidence motion, his association with dubious godman Chandraswamy, the Babri Masjid riots, rebellions within the Congress party, dismissal of the Kalyan Singh government, and the final solution to the Punjab crisis amongst many other.
After losing the general elections in 1996, Rao was forced to step down as Prime Minister after completing a full term as a minority government and as Congress President. He lived a quiet life in Delhi as a former Prime Minister. In 1998, PM Vajpayee released Rao’s insightful book “The Insider” which took the publishing world by storm. His relationship with Sonia Gandhi never repaired in his lifetime. When Rao died due to complications arising from a heart attack on 23rd December 2004, his mortal remains were not allowed in the AICC headquarters and his body was moved to Hyderabad where the Prime Minister and his senior cabinet members paid homage. Dr. Manmohan Singh and much later Sonia Gandhi have hailed him as a pioneer in governance initiatives and acknowledged his contribution to the development of India.
The legacy of P.V. Narasimha Rao will be of an avant-garde who thought out of box solutions to the many problems India was facing. He many have bungled in some situations but the long-lasting initiatives that he initiated are bearing profitable fruits, strengthening India even after decades.