Open Essay

PV Narasimha Rao: The Saga of the Southerner

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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An anecdotal portrait of the PV Narasimha Rao you may not know

AT OUR VERY LAST meeting, PV Narasimha Rao asked me for an exhaustive note on the Babri Masjid controversy. “Never mind how critical, just put down all you knew and thought. I want your own views.” He said he had asked others for similar reports.

I got the feeling in those final months that his mind ranged over events and incidents of the past without ever relinquishing its grip on the present. I never saw anyone else in that rather forlorn Motilal Nehru Road bungalow when I called on my not very frequent trips to Delhi. But overheard snatches of conversation when he was on the telephone indicated a deep involvement in mysterious happenings. I had an impression of legions of shadowy followers at some remote distance to whom he gave instructions and from whom he received reports. Hanging up on those intriguing exchanges, he would turn to me in brooding silence. On one occasion he murmured, “I am the only Congress Prime Minister not of the family to complete a full term,” as much to himself as to me. “And I’ll never be forgiven for that!”

Narasimha Rao is identified today with reforms. Popular thinking associates reforms with FDI (foreign direct investment). But his soaring vision saw money as only the immediate means to grander long-term objectives. True, the innovations introduced under him yielded $350 million in American investment between July 1991 and August 1992 against $650 million during the previous 44 years. True, too, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew compared him to Deng Xiaoping, father of China’s economic miracle. But I couldn’t see him proclaiming like Deng that it was glorious to be rich. His vision towered over the aims of mere economists. “There will be blood on the streets,” he exclaimed, if he waited for the ripple effect of foreign investment to solve the problem of poverty. I was interviewing him for Singapore’s Straits Times in 1994 when he gave a humanitarian rationale for liberalisation I couldn’t remember hearing before. The real reason for foreign capital was to free domestic resources for social welfare and infrastructure. “We need roads, houses, schools, hospitals…We must build them ourselves!”

Calling himself “a lover of obscurity”, Narasimha Rao said he had never had a visiting card. Silence was a reply, he believed, inaction a form of action. Soon, people were calling him Chanakya

No one thought the future could be at all exciting when Narasimha Rao was sworn in as Prime Minister on 21 June 1991. At 70, he had been around a long time, rather like a piece of well-worn furniture. He seemed colourless in his dhoti and shawl. He lacked a power base. He was in poor health. His party didn’t command a majority in the Lok Sabha. Rivals coveted his job. South Block diplomats, who had worked under him during his long stewardship of external affairs, mocked his silences. “When in doubt, pout,” they tittered. Some comments were not printable. People did not expect him to have views on Economics, relations with the United States or on anything in particular. They did not expect him to go against the tide.

They didn’t know the old stick-in-the-mud had been playing with computers for a decade, and had compared Thai and Telugu keyboards with King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. Or that he was working on a voluminous autobiographical novel, The Insider , which he gave me in 2000, writing the year as ‘2K’ like a young American. They didn’t know he had bluntly told King Birendra, “I will treat Nepal as a sovereign country providing Your Majesty does not treat me as a subject!”

There will be blood on the streets,” he exclaimed, if he waited for the ripple effect of foreign investment to solve the problem of poverty

He was as eclectic as Emperor Charles V who spoke Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to his horse. A Brahmin who was at ease with Islamic culture, he knew English, Hindi and Urdu, in addition to his native Telugu. He had learnt Sanskrit and taught himself Spanish. He played the piano to exercise his arthritic fingers. He reflected the cultural synthesis of Nizami Hyderabad, which was many worlds fused into one. He brought to governance a mind that was supple and subtle. Calling himself “a lover of obscurity”, Narasimha Rao said he had never had a visiting card. Silence was a reply, he believed, inaction a form of action. Soon, people were calling him Chanakya.

When I took him a copy of Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium, the book I had started at the East-West Center in Honolulu, he asked when my story of the upturn in Indo-US relations began. I had no hesitation in mentioning Indira Gandhi’s first meeting with Ronald Reagan at a conference Mexico’s President Jose Lopez Portillo hosted in October 1981 at Cancun, the billion-dollar sanctuary of shimmering beaches, velvet golf courses, gleaming hotels and lush condominiums carved out of a 14-mile island at the north-eastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. “So the world didn’t begin with the birth of Atal Bihari Vajpayee!” was his tart reply.

They didn’t know he had bluntly told King Birendra, “I will treat Nepal as a sovereign country providing your Majesty does not treat me as a subject

HE WOULD HAVE been wryly amused at the sudden spurt of interest in his life. I haven’t yet read Vinay Sitapati’s Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India , partly because Calcutta’s Bengal Club sold tickets for a session on the book, which I thought was commercial and unclublike. But the title recalled Narasimha Rao dwelling on their overlapping names —simha/singa— when he visited Singapore. The other two somewhat self-serving volumes might have prompted speculation about the authors’ expectations from heaping belated praise on him. Sanjaya Baru’s earlier book tried to expose Manmohan Singh’s political naiveté. This—1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History —suggests Manmohan Singh is no economist. Had he read this repetitive regurgitation of already well-known facts, Narasimha Rao might have been relieved he didn’t have a media adviser. At least not someone who fancied himself a personality in his own right and bit the hand that fed him.

When my editorship was usurped while I was on sabbatical leave in Honolulu, he wagged a wicked finger and chuckled with a gleam in his eye, “This couldn’t have happened in the public sector!” The background to the dig was that my paper, The Statesman , was firmly committed to private enterprise. He was not. His warning against rapid reforms when orthodoxy threatened to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev confirmed his preference for the status quo. Manmohan Singh was not sanguine about his lasting commitment to reform, especially when Narasimha Rao announced subsidies and other concessions.

On one occasion he murmured, “I am the only Congress Prime Minister not of the family to complete a full term,” as much to himself as to me. “And I’ll never be forgiven for that!

But he was no ideologue. He could be flexible. “I follow the Nehru line,” he declared early in his prime ministership. When I persisted with the daunting economic problems India faced and the conditions the International Monetary Fund was apparently insisting on, he replied as Chanakya might have done, “Manu the Lawmaker gave the law. It was up to each Brahmin to interpret it.”

Appointing Manmohan Singh (after IG Patel declined the invitation) was part of his interpretation. When the new Finance Minister complained people were accusing him of selling out to foreign interests, Narasimha Rao retorted dryly, “Who would want to buy this country anyway?”

Despite his circumspection and Singh’s misgivings, things did happen. Visiting New Delhi, Coca-Cola International’s president, John Hunter, cautioned, “Don’t blink. You may miss something.”

Narasimha Rao dug out a sentence about replacing a ‘lethargic, inefficient and expensive’ public sector with one that was ‘leaner, more dynamic and profit-oriented’ from the platitudinous verbosity of Rajiv Gandhi’s 1991 election manifesto to justify economicliberalisation. He sent Naresh Chandra, the former cabinet secretary, to the US as head of the first Indian delegation to seek investment, and explained Singh’s reform proposals to Lal Krishna Advani, regarded by many as Prime Minister-in-waiting, without breathing a word about them to his own cabinet or party colleagues. He feared alarmist newspaper headlines, an outcry in Parliament, and resistance in the Congress ranks. Advani gave his blessings.

When the new Finance Minister complained people were accusing him of selling out to foreign interests, Narasimha Rao retorted dryly, “Who would want to buy this country anyway?

Belying predictions, Narasimha Rao held the Congress party together, forcing its chieftains to accept his authority. He converted a minority into a handsome majority and neutralised the BJP. When the Indo-Soviet treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation ended, he extended it for another two decades without fuss or fanfare. Two days earlier, India had successfully launched the Prithvi-III ground to air missile. The Look East policy was part of a major foreign policy initiative that countered the perceptive assessment of a German- born American ambassador, John Gunther Dean, that India was too wrapped up in India to bother with foreigners. Like the Middle Kingdom, India focussed on itself. Dynasties came and went, kingdoms rose and fell, but the struggle for survival went on. Indians had known too much tumult to be quickened by a historic consciousness. Hence the isolationism Henry Kissinger lamented when he said India “has yet to assume a role commensurate with its size on the international political stage”.

Acutely aware of the danger of India being “the only country left in the whole world” without proper relations with Israel, Narasimha Rao instructed Lalit Mansingh in the embassy in Washington to court two influential US lobbies, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee with 55,000 members and a $14.2 million budget and the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai B’rith whose director had quietly visited India in Rajiv Gandhi’s time. Although this wasn’t the initial intention, economic reforms brought India closer to the world. His presentation at Davos was titled, ‘India: Changing Course for Globalisation’. I did wonder who he was trying to convince when he declared there could be no turning back on reforms that were irreversible because they were evolutionary. But Lakshmi Niwas Mittal and Ratan Tata might never have surfaced in Britain if he hadn’t convinced Indian businessmen used to protection and nervous of foreign competition that they, too, could enjoy a slice of the global cake.

Sanjaya Baru’s earlier book tried to expose Manmohan Singh’s political naiveté. 1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History suggests Manmohan Singh is no economist. Had he read this repetitive regurgitation of already well-known facts, Rao might have been relieved he didn’t have a media adviser

REALISING INDIA COULD not solve its problems without American help, he was prepared to go much farther than any previous Prime Minister in cooperating with the US. But he weighed risks and returns, kept an eye on domestic sensitivities, and was wary of cooperation becoming capitulation. The American ambassador’s intervention when nuclear tests were planned must have rankled. “So long as you want an independent country, it will have to be non-aligned,” he told cheering Lok Sabha members. His government supported the US on the Security Council resolution against ‘international terrorism’ but abstained when economic sanctions were imposed against Libya.

The Insider whom Delhi treated as much more of an Outsider than Narendra Modi retained his southern loyalty to the end. No doubt warned of this, Bill Clinton began his conversation when he telephoned to thank the Prime Minister for his letter of good wishes with “You are a southerner. So am I”. Nikhil Chakravartty, famous for declining a Padma Shri with the pungent comment that accepting an official decoration and claiming to be an independent journalist was like wearing a chastity belt in a brothel, was one of his few non-southern intimates. He urged me to talk to his bright young Malayalee secretary, Ramu Damodaran, and recommended Shyamala Cowsik, the diplomat in charge of Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet because she was “from the South” and “strong”, unlike her Punjabi predecessor. He told Cowsik and West Bengal’s governor, TV Rajeswar (another southerner) that although he had briefed me for an hour on Nepal, I had written exactly the opposite of what he had said. It was a mark of the man’s greatness that my waywardness made no difference. He continued to see and talk to me as before.

Governance was more than media management, more even than exercising power. As he said in Singapore, he had always believed that the answer to the problems of democracy lay in more, not less, democracy. The hall exploded in applause but the comment earned Lee’s undying enmity. Narasimha Rao didn’t care. His duty lay to his people. Liberalisation and FDI were manifestations of the care and compassion that were of the essence of governance.

It’s a matter of profound regret to me that I never got round to writing the Babri Masjid note he wanted.

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