On 24 July 1991, the government led by Narasimha Rao, who also held the industry ministry portfolio, quietly tabled a statement in the Lok Sabha abolishing industrial licensing—in keeping with the then mantra of “reforms by stealth". Hours later, finance minister Manmohan Singh presented his historic budget, signalling more unprecedented course correction in the country’s long-accepted economic doctrine.

The next day, newspapers hailed the Union budget for its big-ticket reforms and the news about industrial de-licensing was buried in this. In the process, the media etched a larger-than-life narrative of Singh as the numero uno reformer, ignoring Rao’s role. The subsequent casting of Rao as a villain by the Congress leadership only reinforced this convenient narrative spawned by self-appointed cheerleaders of reforms in the media (this is not to undermine the singular contribution of Singh, but to rail against overstating his case).

Mercifully, the 25th anniversary of a seminal moment in India’s economic history has led to the revisiting of these urban legends. First off the block was a book published last year by Congress member of Parliament Jairam Ramesh, who, risking the wrath of the party leadership, argued that Rao’s role in the 1991 reforms blitz was defining. The latest effort is by Princeton University scholar Vinay Sitapati. His book—Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India—draws on Rao’s voluminous personal records to rethread, posthumously, the former prime minister’s place in popular economic history. It has all the ingredients of a good book: well written, informative, with the rigour of a diligent researcher.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps because Sitapati is a former journalist, the book begins rather dramatically, tracing the sordid political drama after Rao’s death. The Congress leadership, by then at extreme odds with Rao, was keen to ensure that he was not cremated in Delhi, just as his family was adamant he should be. Eventually, the leadership prevailed and Rao was cremated in Hyderabad. The entire episode exposes a reader to the scary inside travails of India’s oldest political party—something we rarely get to know about.

The book is not a tribute to Rao. It is a critical assessment of his contribution, which on occasion tends to be overly appreciative. It reveals to us someone whom Ramesh very famously described in his book as a man with “the charisma of a dead fish".

It traces the rise of Rao—besides all the humiliations that befall politicians and salacious bits about his female companions—through the ranks of a party which increasingly favoured palace intrigue. A former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Rao was all but done with his political career after the ascent of Rajiv Gandhi to the top job, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Then destiny intervened, giving Rao an opening to aspire to the most coveted job in Indian politics, that of the prime minister. Keeping his ambition to himself, Rao set about skilfully plotting to get ahead of other aspirants like Sharad Pawar. Eventually, he would don the mantle of the second non-Gandhi family prime minister from the Congress, a feat that was emulated by Singh when he took over for a record 10-year stint in 2004.

As the book reveals, for Rao, the key to survival was to keep the Gandhi family in good humour. To be fair, he did do so till midway through his tenure. But somewhere along the way, he dared to dream and paid the price for his audacity.

This is a book that lies at the intersection of politics and economics—a combination that is always irresistible.

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