Half Lion, An Outsider’s Portrait of Rao

Venkata Kondubhatla

A new book, Half Lion:How Narasimha Rao Transformed India, by Vinay Sitapati, was released on Rao’s 95th birth anniversary.

The first biography of Rao focuses on his role in economic reforms, foreign policy and his welfare schemes, and tries to analyze Rao’s role in Babri Masjid demolition, paying close attention to the events that lead up to the crisis.

Venkat

Venkata Kondubhatla

More importantly, two points stick out of this book: First, how Rao was able to implement his revolutionary policies, and yet able to run his minority government for a complete term, and the second, the mosque demolition was a collective responsibility of the Congress Party and that Rao cannot be singled out for all the blame.

The book compares Rao to Deng Xiaoping, who transformed China, and Ronald Reagan of the United States. Both had majority governments and strong support within their parties, whereas Rao had no such support and little power to maneuver the changes. Yet, how this political genius was able to bring about so much change, with so little power is what the narrative tries to answer in this well written biography. With about 110 interviews, access to Rao’s personal dairy and archives,and a great deal of research, the book, Half Lion — titled to suggest that Rao had played lion, fox and mouse to achieve transformation — demystifies the myths about its subject and the first Congress prime minister of India from outside Gandhi family.

A Much Awaited Biography

Rao was a complex person. He spoke little of himself, though in his last days he made an effort to write a series of books to tell his story and the controversies surrounding him. Unfortunately, he died in December 2014,with only one book, The Insider, out that covered his journey from childhood till his chief ministership under Indira Gandhi. The sequel (Insider-2) was written him but not so far published.

Though there was a general discontent among common people regarding Rao’s treatment by Congress Party and downplaying his role in economic reforms, no one-neither his close associates, nor media pundits-has made any significant effort to tell his story to the outside world. Political leaders rarely admired him, and his anniversaries came and went without much celebration at least until 2011.The only politician who regularly attended the memorial meetings held in Delhi was former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh.  Rao was generally ignored and his legacy was slowly being buried. His light has faded except for a few flickers once in a while. This book, however, by an outsider Sitapati, a PHD fellow from Princeton University and a professor at Ashoka University,has started a whole new debate about his legacy.Biography is the orphan of the academia, the author writes in his book and it holds perfectly well at least in the case of books written on Rao.

Rao, The Liberalizer

The book shows readers how Rao implemented reforms by doing away with the cursed permit and license raj, opening up to the foreign investment, and devaluating the Rupee. The author begins by explaining how Rao himself had undergone transformation from being an ardent socialist to a reformist. He writes that Rao was a fixer by instinct, and inheriting India that was on the blink of a default and with economy in crisis, began to address the root cause and started fixing it. Sitapati writes that Rao, soon after becoming prime minister, read an 8-page note on economy given to him by Naresh Chandra, cabinet secretary, at the time, prepared by the previous government. Rao understood that the economy needed reforms soon after reading the report, Sitapati notes. A socialist in the evening was converted into reformer by morning the next day.

The book emphasizes on the point that Rao is the father of the economic liberalization and that without him the reforms could not have happened. He contends that even if Manmohan Singh hadn’t become the finance minister, the reforms would have taken place, as Singh was carrying forward the reforms agenda already conceived by Rao. Any other person as finance minister would have carried out the agenda, though Singh’s contributions to imparting depth to the reforms couldn’t be ignored, Sitapati concludes.

In bringing these reforms, Rao adopts Chanakya and Machiavelli’s strategies-pushing reforms as a continuation of Rajiv’s policies, playing up the poor economy to defend the reforms and so on. Sitapati writes that Rao was a rightist when it came to reforms and leftist when it came to welfare. Rao wanted to distribute the benefits of the liberalization to the poor. His slogan was ‘reforms with a human face’. He didn’t believe in the trickle down effect of economic reforms. Consequently, Rao contributed a lot towards education and other welfare programs by appointing right people for the jobs, such as K.R.Venu Gopal, writes Sitapati. Unlike economy, in education and foreign policy, Rao was an expert. A fast learner, Rao gained an insight into the economic crisis soon after taking over as PM.

Look East Policy

Like economy, foreign policy was also in deep crisis when Rao inherited India. The country had good relations with the Soviet Union, which encumbered relations with the United States. But, the Soviet Union got disintegrated by 1991. Also, southeastern countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand (the tigers) were thriving and India could not maintain a dominant role anymore and needed to reevaluate its relationship more as a strategic partner. India has border clashes with both China and Pakistan. The Latter was also fostering violence in India.

Rao understood all this. He established diplomatic relations with Israel and took the relationship with the United States to the next level. Rao was careful when making new friends not to ignore the old ones. Rao visited Russia before visiting the United States and invited Yasser Arafat,a Palestine leader, before shaking hands with Israeli leaders, writes Sitapati. Rao also put focus on the southeastern countries long ignored by India. When it came to Pakistan, Sitapati notes, Rao wanted the talks to take place regardless of the violence. He wanted to work on the good part of the relationship while addressing the bad part.

Above all, India’s shift from Russia to the United States should be credited to Rao, for Rajiv, who lacked pragmatism and experience, could only take baby steps toward the United States, Sitapati writes.

Poor Rao, Singled Out

The book tries to put its perspective straight in the case of Ayodhya episode: There were two demolitions planned, one was that of the mosque and the other was that of Rao. It meant that Rao was targeted from within his party.

People like Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar, who were contenders for the prime ministership after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, have turned against Rao after they came to understand that Rao was there to stay in power for the complete term. When Mosque issue came to the foreground, they put pressure on Rao without helping him in resolving the issue. In the Cabinet meeting not one minister had suggested that president rule could be imposed in Uttar Pradesh in which State the disputed structure was situated. The governor of UP, Mr Satyanarayana Reddy, sent a report to the Centre that there was no need of imposing president’s rule. The state was under BJP’s rule at the time with Kalyan Singh as chief minister, in whom Rao had no faith.

Rao feared that if he imposed president’s rule, he would have to face a no-confidence motion in Lok Sabha and his government would fall, writes Sitapati. Rao was desperately looking for someone to support him to impose president’s rule and no one was willing to categorically support him, including CCPA, the Congress core group, and Jyothi Basu, the CPI chief minister of West Bengal.Even the Supreme Court ruled against it.

So, Rao, with limited options, held secret parleys with Hindu religious leaders and swamis, and obtained promises from prominent leaders, such as L.K. Advani, of leaving the mosque untouched. All of them reneged on their promises. Rao overestimated himself when it came to reconciling the Hindu leaders. Nonetheless, the book argues, it is a collective responsibility of all the Congress leaders in demolition of the mosque.

Sitapati throws light on building the nuclear device at the behest of Rao which he could not detonate before the 1996 general elections  because of acute pressure from Bill Clinton, the then US president. Rao told Vajpayee, as soon the latter took over as PM in 1998,that the ‘saamagri’ (the material) is ready and it is for him to decide when to ignite it.

A Valuable Addition

The book presented a lot of controversial and debatable material, yet attracted little criticism. Sanjaya Baru, author of the book on Dr Manmohan Singh titled “The Accidental Prime Minister,” and also a close associate of Rao, said in an interview given to The Wire that Rao’s portrait was well depicted, though he differed with the book on how Rao had become prime minister.

Baru contended thatRao was not a nominated prime minister, as the book claims. People close to Sonia Gandhi, ‘Delhi durbar’ as he called it, have fabricated the story of Sonia nominating Rao as her second choice after Shankar Dayal Sharma declined. As per Baru, a secret ballot was held in which the South had supported Rao, and therefore, Rao won majority MPs compared to his fellow contenders Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar and had beaten them. Nonetheless, Baru said, the book has covered all the topics excellently after scrupulous research.

Also, throughout the author has maintained accuracy in his book. Though, he treated Rao fairly in case of economic reforms, foreign policy and Babri Masjid, he was critical of him when it came to his relationships with Lakshmi Kanthamma and Kalyani Shankar, and Rao’s political corruption – bribing politicians to protect his minority government, though he was not personally corrupt.

The book is a valuable addition to the literary work on India, and a great contribution to the legacy of the former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

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