A lively narrative of a turning point in democratic India

“The ambiguities and contradictions of Narasimha, half-lion, are precisely why he is able to slay the demon,” a line from Narasimha Avatar, BhagavathaPurana on the first page of this tome of 391 pages says it all. The biography of the late P.V. NarasimhaRao who transformed India is presented in fifteen chapters by a brilliant young political scientist, journalist and lawyer.  As K.Natwar Singh wrote Sitapati ‘resurrected’ NarasimhaRao. And that is no ordinary achievement. In fact, Natwar Singh’s piece on P.V.Narasimha Rao in his beautifully crafted book Walking with Lions is a masterpiece.

Prof. Ayyagari Prasanna Kumar

Prof. Ayyagari Prasanna Kumar, Director, Centre for Policy Studies; Former Rector and Retd. Professor, Andhra University

Vinay Sitapati’s credentials are impeccable.  He studied at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru and at Harvard University.  He is completing his doctoral dissertation at Princeton.  Passion for detail and perseverance of a good researcher in collecting material from several sources are allied to a racy style of writing.  Natwar Singh describes the work as “an extraordinary portrait of an erudite and Delphic prime minister” while Ramachandra Guha calls it a ‘fascinating study’ that ‘brings Rao vividly alive’.  P.V.NarasimhaRao’s Insider was tedious stuff and difficult to go through.  Sitapati’s biography is almost unputdownable.  It is also timely because as the author says in the twelve years since his death P.V.NarasimhaRao continues to be ignored by his party.  Even when the Congress was in power both at centre and in Andhra Pradesh the government did not celebrate his birthday.  Much worse is the fact that no leader holding such high position ever suffered public insult and ridicule as P.V.NarasimhaRao in the history of modern India.  The very first chapter titled Half-Burnt Body is a moving narrative of what happened on December 23, 2004 when P.V.NarasimhaRao passed away.  On December 24, when the procession carrying P.V.NarasimhaRao’s body from his house 9 Motilal Marg slowed at 24 Akbar Road, the Congress party headquarters ‘the gate to the compound wall was firmly shut’.  The practice of taking the bodies of past Congress presidents inside the party headquarters to enable the party workers to pay their last respects was not done and despite the presence of several senior Congressmen no cadres were found and no slogans heard.  It was ‘deathly silence’.  That the body of former prime minister was not permitted to be cremated in Delhi and sent to Hyderabad is too well known to need mention here.  Sitapati quotes Natwar Singh in explaining the reason for Sonia Gandhi’s dislike of P.V.NarasimhaRao.  ‘Rao realized that he didn’t have to report to Sonia as prime minister.  He didn’t.  She resented that’.

Andhra Socialist 1921-71 is the chapter that follows which traces the birth and early life of P.V. in his village Vangara and his adoption to the rich neighbouring couple.  In 1937 NarasimhaRao stood first in higher-secondary examination in the entire state of Hyderabad.  He went on to study at Pune and obtained a law degree in first class.  His desire was to pursue higher studies at Oxford or Cambridge but was drawn into politics and even expelled from college for singing Vandemataram. He came under the influence of Swami Ramananda Tirtha a saint and political leader who impacted young NarasimhaRao’s political career. Quite appropriately the third chapter is titled Puppet Chief Minister 1971-73.  The young socialist patriot who had gifted away many acres of his land to the poor was committed to land reforms.  In May 1972 he swore that he would implement land reforms ‘whatever be the consequences’.  He was prepared ‘to stake and burn his own career’ for achieving the goal.  That rattled the landlords and elite classes and P.V.NarasimhaRao’s inevitable exit and exile followed sooner than expected. 

Essentially a scholar and a voracious reader of books who knew ten languages including three foreign, NarasimhaRao had very few close friends or loyal supporters in the party.  But he was always consulted on important matters and entrusted with the responsibility of writing reports and statements.  Indira Gandhi after returning to power in 1980 made him the foreign minister and P.V. effectively played the ‘twin roles of a foreign minister and domestic trouble shooter’.  NarasimhaRao was regarded as a highly successful foreign minister whose articulation impressed many in both advanced and developing countries.  One is reminded of his lecture in 1983 as Minister for External Affairs at Andhra University in Visakhapatnam where his one hour speech on India’s foreign policy was heard with rapt attention.  “If the foreign minister” he began with a quip “is seen and heard too often at home and the home minister abroad it is not good for a democracy”. 

Following Indira Gandhi’s tragic assassination Rajiv Gandhi took over as prime minister and in the election that followed sympathy wave secured for the Congress party the highest number of seats in LokSabha.  NarasimhaRao did not agree with Rajiv’s decisions like foundation – laying ceremony at Ayodhya for a Hindu temple and sending troops to Sri Lanka to help in quelling the revolt there.  But Rao seldom ventured to offer unsolicited advice.  Instead as the HRD minister he was busy initiating reforms in the field of education.  Sitapati quotes DaniRodrik and Arvind Subramanian in describing the economic reforms of Rajiv Gandhi as ‘baby-steps not leaps and helped existing businesses rather than new ones’.  After undergoing coronary bypass surgery at Houston NarasimhaRao returned home only to be advised by Rajiv Gandhi to take rest and keep out of the 1991 general elections.  Interestingly enough when Rao was preparing to leave Delhi to lead a quiet life in the midst of books; he received an offer from SiddheswariPeetham in Courtallam to head it after snapping ‘material and emotional bonds of worldly life’.  NarasimhaRao replied with characteristic silence,  saying neither yes nor no. 

The unfortunate and premature exit of Rajiv Gandhi caused by the gruesome assassination led to a crisis in the Congress party.  But sympathy for Rajiv and his family helped the Congress party to secure the highest number of seats, though short of majority in LokSabha. The Congress leaders went into a huddle with most of them pleading with Sonia Gandhi to lead the party.  The most unlikely name emerged out of a series of meetings and discussions and with Sonia Gandhi giving her approval NarasimhaRao was elected President of the Congress Party on May 29, 1991.  Once he became the prime minister NarasimhaRao began to consult loyal and experienced persons like Dr.P.C.Alexander.  When I.G.Patel declined to be the finance minister P.C.Alexander wasted no time in persuading Dr.Manmohan Singh to join the cabinet as finance minister.  That was the turning point. The  soft spoken Manmohan Singh wanted the full support of the prime minister and the government.  P.V.NarasimhaRao, though politically weak, remained a tower of strength to his able finance minister.  In the words of Sitapati “in a single day, NarasimhaRao and Manmohan Singh had done more than anyone to dismantle the three pillars of the licence raj; monopolies for the public sector, limits on private business, and isolation from the world markets”.  The author lucidly explains how the economy was pulled out of crisis and put on the path of growth by the extraordinary political skill of prime minister NarasimhaRao by ‘disguising change as continuity’ in carrying out economic reforms.  Tarun Das wrote that ‘Rao was both strategic and shrewd.  He knew the difference between what needed to be done and how it has to be done’.  Rao depended on incorruptible and efficient officials like G.V.Ramakrishna, K.R.Venugopal, B.N.Yugandhar and P.V.R.K.Prasad for implementing his policies and programmes.  For surviving political crises that confronted him almost every day during his five year tenure, he sought the help of crafty politicians, intrepid and talented political warriors like the irrepressible Subramanian Swamy, astrologers and  controversia lGodmen like Chandraswami. The Fall of Babri Masjid is the title of a full chapter on the preventable national tragedy and the biggest failure of prime minister NarasimhaRao.  Sitapati writes in detail how NarasimhaRao blundered in trusting the BJP led UP government and not imposing President’s Rule, despite escalating tension and intelligence reports.  The mosque ‘a symbol of India’s commitment to constitutional pluralism’ was demolished by frenzied crowds, watched by people there and by thousands in front of the small screen.  The prime minister was in a state of shock and his physician Dr K. Srinath Reddy was convinced that the ‘prime minister’s reaction to the demolition’ was one of ‘honest agitation.  The body does not lie,’ said the doctor.  The chapter ends with a line penned by NarasimhaRao in his book: “Those responsible for the vandalism had got not only the Babri Masjid demolished, but along with the Babri Masjid it was me whom they were trying to demolish”. 

Sitapati lavishes high praise on NarasimhaRao’s quiet but effective steps in restoring political stability, firmly laying the path to economic progress and launching new plans and projects for industrial development.  As Atal Bihari Vajpayee  said NarasimhaRao was the ‘true father’ of India’s nuclear programme.  Scientist Dr. Arunachalam said that of the five prime ministers he worked with, Rao was the best in understanding the importance of technology in building national policy.  Dr.A.P.J.AbdulKalam, lauding the professional excellence of NarasimhaRao, said that for Rao the ‘nation is bigger than the political system’.  In the words of prime minister Vajpayee: “Rao told me that the bomb was ready.  I only exploded it”.  Sitapati writes that Rao was also the ‘crafter of a fresh vision for India in the world’.  

The author is at his best in portraying Rao as a queer combination of lion, fox and mouse.  “This ability to assess the situation and play mouse, lion or fox – as need be – was Rao’s paramount skill”.  Analyzing the qualities of Rao’ head and heart Sitapati writes that as a young man Rao’s personality contained both Hamlet and Don Quixote.  In childhood Rao ‘loved the sixteenth century Telugu poem RaghavaPandaveeyam that could be read as both Ramayana and Mahabharata as the situation demanded’.  He displayed ‘a skill in dealing with state politicians that Indira Gandhi and Rajiv lacked’. Sitapati writes that Rao faced the same question which Machiavelli had tried to answer four centuries earlier. ‘How does one use power to do good, if gaining and wielding power requires one to do evil? ‘

NarasimhaRao was neither charismatic nor inspiring as a leader, in fact, ‘a paradoxical personality’.  Biographer Sitapati does not hesitate to reveal in detail Rao’s warts and weaknesses which were widely made use of by caricaturists and cartoonists in newspapers and magazines.  The biographer also mentions the travails and tensions of Rao who became prime minister after fifty years of loyal service to the Congress party and its dynastic rulers.  ‘No national leader’ writes Sitapati ‘who achieved his scale of transformation worked under such constraints. It makes NarasimhaRao the most skilled Indian prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru, a twentieth century reformer as consequential as Deng Xiaoping.  It also makes Rao’s personality central to the transformation of India, a shift caused not by historical forces, but by the leadership of one man’.  Sitapati says that if ‘Chanakya captures Rao’s skill in politics Edmund Burke captures his vision’ NarasimhaRao, it seems, used to say that ‘India is destined to walk on razor’s edge’.  The biographer gives credit to Rao for ‘setting India off a new direction’.  His reforms transformed India as borne out by the fact that the middle class which numbered less than 30 million in 1991 soared to 300 million in 2013; 2.3 km of road in 1991 became double that number by 2012; ‘a mere 10 million air travelers in 1991 rose to 82 million in 2014’; there were 5 million telephone subscribers in 1991 compared to a billion phone subscriptions in 2015.  The prime minister’s initiatives led to stability and tranquility in some states like Punjab. 

In November 2004 NarasimhaRao became ill.  The usually imperturbable Rao lost his temper and stopped eating according to his daughter. “What’s the point in living like this?  Why do you people insist that this life should be prolonged?” he asked his family members.  When Ahmed Patel who along with Sonia Gandhi visited Rao in hospital and offered a glass of water, Rao angrily said: “You people accused me of breaking the mosque.  Now you give me water.”  His condition began to deteriorate and on 23 December 2004 he passed away.  Manmohan Singh, the then prime minister, accompanied by his wife travelled to Hyderabad to offer condolences to the family before Rao’s cremation. Rao’s name would be written in ‘letters of gold’ said Manmohan.  Vinay Sitapati has come up with a meticulously researched work on P.V.NarasimhaRao. Sitapati rights a wrong and in the process demonstrates that facts and truth cannot be thrown into the limbo of oblivion permanently.  This work is a lively narrative of the story of a turning point in the history of democratic India brought about by a least admired and most misunderstood leader.  Biographer VinaySitapati has deservedly won wide acclaim for it.

 HALF-LION : HOW P.V. NARASIMHA RAO TRANSFORMED INDIA: VINAY SITAPATI: PENGUIN-VIKING 2016    Rs699 pp 391

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