Book Discussion

Half Lion: How PV Narsimha Rao Transformed India

16 May, 2018    ·   5469

Report of the discussion on Dr Vinay Sitapati's book, Half Lion: How PV Narsimha Rao Transformed India, held on 25 April 2018 at IPCS.

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) hosted Dr Vinay Sitapati, Assistant Professor, Ashoka University, for a discussion on his book, Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India. It was chaired by Ambassador (Retd) Salman Haidar, Patron, IPCS, and former Foreign Secretary, Government of India.

The author first encapsulated Narasimha Rao's character through an anecdote. During his defence ministership Rao apparently heard a conversation between Rajiv Gandhi and a friend on the need to reduce import restrictions on computer peripherals and how his cabinet members would not understand. Curious, Rao called his youngest son, Prabhakar, who was an electrical engineer in Hyderabad and asked: "What is a computer?" Rao hired a tutor and learnt how to use the computer his son sent him the next day. Computers turned out to be his only friend when he died a lonely man.

According to the author, this story struck him for three reasons. First, that Narasimha Rao was a political survivor who learnt to mask his ambitions. Second, that he was innately a curious man. He read extensively and knew multiple languages, and started learning the piano and Spanish towards the end. Third, he had the ability to adapt rapidly to suit emergent circumstances. For instance, he made policy moves when he felt the political atmosphere was right. However, the myth that Narasimha Rao could never make the right decisions persisted and at some point it consumed him and eroded his self-confidence, despite being contrary to reality.

The author began working on this book - and this subject - in early 2015, although he was initially asked by Penguin to write a book on Sardar Patel. For the biography, the author interviewed 110 people who knew or were close to Narasimha Rao, including Ambassador Haidar. People who did not him were also interviewed. The intention was to write a bibliography, and not a hagiography. A balance was struck by interviewing people who knew him as he was in his private life, as well those who disliked him. By getting access to his private diaries through his family - Rao maintained a daily diary - the author observed that Narasimha Rao was comfortable with his loneliness. For instance, in one of his first diary entries just before Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and the 1991 elections, Rao recorded his observations regarding Gandhi's denial of a Lok Sabha ticket to him on the grounds of old age. Narasimha Rao recorded his dejection, and how a gap had appeared for the first time in his legislative career after 34 years.

The main argument in the book according to the author is that the principal architect of reforms in India was Narasimha Rao, with the secondary position being shared between Manmohan Singh and Amar Nath Verma. Though many people despised Amar Nath Verma, he was in fact the enforcer who brought the bureaucracy behind domestic liberalisation. When Dr Sitapati started out to write the story of liberalisation in India, he was confronted by many fundamental queries on when liberalisation and the move away from the Soviet Union started. For example did India liberalise in 1990, or in 1985 when Rajiv Gandhi was in power or does it go back to Indira Gandhi's second term? Did the move towards the US begin with Rajiv Gandhi in 1985? Or after the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall? Or did it start during Indira Gandhi's second stint in 1980 when she visited the US before making it to Moscow (Moscow had retaliated by removing references to Indira Gandhi in their textbooks)?

The second thrust of the book is that Rao inherited a country in deep crisis. Rajiv Gandhi had just been assassinated; the Soviet Union was in the midst of collapse; there was balance of payment crisis with the IMF refusing to lend money to India, and uncertain relations with the US. Compounding this was that Rao had a minority in parliament, and his own party disliked him given his lack of charisma. However, he was behind the single biggest transformation in India after Nehru. So while most transformational leaders like Reagan or Thatcher get an absolute mandate of their own, Narasimha Rao was able to bring about changes amidst inherited confusion and chaos.

Given the lack of mandate and power, Narasimha Rao knew how to win like a lion. He also knew how to lose, and when to lie. His prime ministership saw deregulation of aviation and the freezing of further recruitment into Indian Airlines in addition to a golden handshake retirement scheme. Similarly, it was in his tenure that the television revolution happened in India. He also presided over the formal recognition of Israel.

Rao did not get along with his father, and while he was building his political career, his wife took care of their family land. He had a long-term relationship with Laxmi Kantamma, Congress MP from Andhra Pradesh. He was able to insulate each of these from the other, which was important in the way he dealt with problems during his prime ministership. This explains to some extent why the four prime ministers who preceded him had the blueprints to bring about economic reforms but lacked the political ability to enact them. In contrast, Rao had the political calibre and the ability - never taking credit for his work, and erasing his fingerprints from history.

Given the constraints, much of the story of Narasimha Rao's transformation in India has to be pieced together from interviews, but his legacy is undeniable.  

Rapporteured by Varalika Mishra, Assistant, Operations and Outreach, IPCS