Tales of a modern-day Chanakya—P.V. Narasimha Rao

Narasimha Rao’s mind holds complex insights on leadership most of us would never have imagined


Former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao. Photo: Reuters
Former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao. Photo: Reuters

As I begin to write this on a Sunday evening, until a little while ago, #25yearsofreforms and #ManmohanSingh were trending across India on the micro-blogging platform Twitter.

All this, because as I write this, it is 24 July 2016—25 years to the day a bewildered nation stared at the only television channel we had access to: the state-controlled Doordarshan. Manmohan Singh, then the finance minister of the country, started reading out his budget speech. He told us in no uncertain terms the country was bankrupt. There was a deficit of Rs.7,719 crore in the Union budget. And that to get things moving, people would have to get used to a few bitter pills. Like higher taxes, stop getting used to government subsidies, and accept the idea that foreign companies would get into India.

He sounded like the kind of man we could trust because he was very unlike the politicians we had gotten used to. The mild mannered gentleman studied economics at Cambridge and had a doctorate on the theme from Oxford. He was an academic, who used to teach at the Delhi School of Economics before he was inducted into governance.

I am a child of the economic reforms. Then in my first year at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, most of my time was spent peering through microscopes and all of this sounded like gobbledygook. My counterparts in the economics department looked and sounded flustered and excited all at once. Nothing made sense to me then and I tried to go through newspapers. Not that it made much sense either.

A headline in The Indian Express, for instance, said: “Fiscal correctives to reverse inflationary trends: Manmohan”. Whatever, I muttered, and plodded on.

Political leaders across all parties condemned him. George Fernandes called it a “…budget that would benefit scoundrels”. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is now in power, said: “It will fuel the fire of inflation and the rise in fertilizer prices will hit farmers hard whereas higher support prices have never benefitted farmers. The common man will suffer.” But to be fair to him, he had filed a caveat. “I like the budget but not many of the proposals.”

Not just opposition parties, even those within the Congress thought of him as an unfettered man on the loose. Forty members of Parliament from the ruling Congress party sought an audience with Singh’s boss, the newly inducted Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

It was facilitated by Ghulam Nabi Azad, then minister for parliamentary affairs. Rao was grilled by all of them with the vocal Jayanti Natarajan, a close confidante of Sonia Gandhi, leading the brigade. He dodged their questions by telling them he was just a politician like them and was simply doing what a qualified man like Singh was telling him to do.

What they didn’t know, what I didn’t know, and what most of us didn’t know, until now, is that all of this was actually being orchestrated by the diminutive, uncharismatic prime minister whom we all thought owed his job to the Gandhis, India’s so-called first family. This story started to unravel through the pages of Half Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India, by Vinay Sitapati, a book that has now got everybody’s attention.

By the time I was through with it, I thought Sitapati had blown a few notions in my head. So I connected with him and asked if he’d engage in a conversation. I wasn’t interested in the machinations of what happened in Delhi. The book covers all of that in much detail. But I got the impression Sitapati had left a lot many things unsaid. What is it that he left unsaid in his book?

I asked if he’d be open to talk about it. He was game. What emerged out of it was a riveting conversation that contained insights on how leaders operate—not just in politics, but in pretty much any domain.

Insight #1: Leaders can be evil

Leaders can be evil for reasons explicable and inexplicable. That is why I started out telling Sitapati that while his book did change my impression of Rao as a diminutive man, I also wondered whether or not he was too sympathetic to Rao.

Sitapati didn’t argue with me. Instead, he went deeper and said there are footnotes and literature on the theme in the book, 11,000 to be precise, that will stand up to any scrutiny and provide evidence of three things.

1. P.V. Narasimha Rao started as a foot soldier who rose to become the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. He then held various portfolios in the central ministry that made him familiar with how Delhi operates before he assumed office as prime minister. Not by a majority vote, but by consensus, and he was acutely aware of it.

No other prime minister in the history of contemporary India, including Narendra Modi, holds this distinction. While Modi was a foot solider and chief minister, he was catapulted as head of state before getting familiar with politics at the centre. This left him confounded for a while and it is taking him time to get used to the place. But not so with Rao.

2. Then there is his highly despicable role in the Sikh riots. Like every other Congressman, he got a clear message from Rajiv Gandhi’s office to back off. Rao was in a unique position then. He was home minister and the Constitution of India conferred upon him the power to ignore Gandhi’s orders. The police reported to him, and not the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). But why did Rao listen to his party? Why did Rao choose to stay mum and let innocent Sikhs be butchered after Indira Gandhi was assassinated?

All of Sitapati’s research and poring over Rao’s notebooks and archives did not yield anything on why Rao behaved the way he did. History will never forgive his silence, whatever his reasons. Was it an unstated lust for power because he knew he didn’t have the charisma to acquire power on his own terms?

3. Then there were his personal relations. He could be mean and petty in his interactions. He had a reputation as well to use people around him to further his own interests. Contrary to popular perception that he was a Gandhi family loyalist, fact is, he used them to get into power. But Sonia Gandhi got the snub when he thought the timing was just right and did what he had to do. This is morally ambiguous territory. On the one hand, he had to use the family to acquire power. On the other hand, if he had to implement his vision of India, she had to be snubbed. Will history condemn him for that? It depends on what set of lens you decide to apply. Because the idea of morality has no singular definition.

Insight #2: Leaders do it quietly

In hindsight, a quarter of a century after economic liberalization was initiated, everybody from the Congress party to his opponents now in power want to claim credit for it. Fact is, everybody back then, beginning with Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and even Manmohan Singh, who was on the fringes of power, knew what needed to be done. It was all there in draft papers for everybody to see. India needed a social democrat at the helm. But it would come at a huge personal cost. Who would carry the cross? Nobody had the muscle in them.

It took a fundamentally lonely man to do it. He figured he’d need to keep a low profile, use the Gandhi family for air cover and the face of a credible Manmohan Singh even as he pretended to be part of the old guard. He worked his way back into favour and made himself indispensable. He had to be seen as a nobody, look himself in the mirror and admit every day credit may not come his way. He was comfortable with that.

In hindsight, there is now consensus liberalization created growth and an increase in income levels. Even the poorest Indian is better off after Narasimha Rao than before him. Sitapati says he isn’t sure yet what the extent of inequality was before liberalization. But his research makes it clear that in terms of absolute prosperity, Indians are better off after Rao than they were before him.

To do that, he had to micro-manage things. That is why there are as many mobile phones in the country now. For instance, when Rao took over as PM in 1991, there were no mobile phones.

What existed were five million landline connections on the back of a network created by a man called Sam Pitroda, a friend of Rajiv Gandhi’s, whom the Congress party’s textbooks describe as the father of the telecom revolution in India.

Fact is, after Rao took charge and opened the economy up, as things are, over one billion Indians use mobile handsets. His own party has tried to obliterate this achievement of his. In fact, Sukh Ram, his communications minister, was dead against allowing private and foreign investors. But Rao outmanoeuvred him politically despite having no support.

This is not to suggest he made no mistakes. He did. But he set India on a trajectory. The astute politician in him though removed his fingerprints because “reforms” were a dirty word in the nineties. And he never let himself forget he was a man without a mandate.

This level of self-awareness is what drove him to co-opt his fiercest opponents. That is why he receded into the background and invited Sukh Ram to place the first cellular phone call to Jyoti Basu, Rao’s fierce Marxist political rival in West Bengal.

Then there is the idea of the welfare state. Education, health and rural development schemes during Indira Gandhi’s tenure were poorly funded. In fact, during her reign in the sixties, poverty actually increased. That her policies were disastrous was obvious to Rao. Mrs Gandhi did nothing about it. When he took over, Rao’s experience in all of these ministries and as chief minister came in handy. He quietly upped funding to education, health and rural development schemes from Indira Gandhi’s period.

The reforms he crafted during his tenure and which continue are in sync with Indian realities. The credit never went to him. Clamour and claimants continue to wrangle over it.

Then, take foreign policy. The Soviet Union, until then India’s best friend, was disintegrating. Rao had the foresight to see India had to move towards the US and shake hands with Israel in an emerging unipolar world.

If he did that though, traditionalists would baulk and the large Muslim community would go against him. In a master stroke, he invited Yasser Arafat as a state guest to India, hugged him in public, had the images published widely in the media, and described him as a “household name” in a speech he personally crafted over at least four drafts. In public he heaped Arafat with praise.

Privately though, he told Arafat that if he wants India to help his cause, the only way out would be for India to resume talks with Israel. That would involve resuming diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv. The crafty man that Arafat was, got the sub-text and conceded ground. Everybody was appeased and a few days later on 29 January 1992, India resumed formal ties with Israel.

Few world leaders inherited the toxic economic, political and internal catastrophes that Rao did. That he dealt with them and didn’t choose to take credit is unparalleled, argues Sitapati.

Insight #3: Leaders are lonely

Sitapati was reluctant to talk about this. But I pushed him hard to imagine what Rao would do if he were in Modi’s shoes. Like I’ve mentioned earlier, there is one fundamental difference between Rao and Modi in how they assumed power. Modi has lost time in understanding Delhi.

Sitapati also thinks Modi has misunderstood the scale of his mandate. A majority in the Lok Sabha is not enough. You have to win in the Rajya Sabha as well. In a democracy of the kind that India is, you cannot be seen as a domineering figure. It is important to take the states, the judiciary and the bureaucracy along. The Indian government is full of players who can veto every move of yours. The stalled goods and services tax (GST) bill is a case in point.

And finally, Modi is surrounded by people he trusts. As opposed to that, Rao surrounded himself with people whose abilities he trusted. But he trusted nobody, except himself. He was a loner. Rao didn’t have a faction or a coterie. That made him an ideal consensus leader. He didn’t come across as threatening and converted loneliness into a virtue.

Modi may do well to learn from him. As Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady of the US, put it so eloquently: “It is necessary for us to learn from other’s mistakes. You will not live long enough to make them all yourself.”

Listen to the full podcast and coverage on liberalization at www.foundingfuel.com.

Charles Assisi’s Twitter handle is @c_assisi.

READ MORE