P V Narasimha Rao: A resolute reformer that India chose to forget

Rao qualifies in more ways than one to be conferred with the nation's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, which has  become a political reward in recent years, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor


The year-long birth centenary celebrations  of former Indian Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao (PVNR) was formally inaugurated in Hyderabad on Sunday (June 28). It marks the 99th birthday of  India’s most resolute reformer – the man who adroitly led the country towards cautious but radical economic liberalization.  It would not be an exaggeration to note that but for  the stoic resolve of PVNR  - ably complemented by his handpicked Finance Minister Manmohan Singh -  India would  have been in the economic doldrums for decades and even the little prosperity that has trickled down the socio-economic pyramid would have remained elusive.

There have been many criticisms levelled against Rao including his abject failure as the Home Minister when the 1984 anti-Sikh killings took place in Delhi and the 1992 Babri Masjid destruction when  he was the Prime Minister. But I have long maintained that his major contribution to steadying  the ship of state in a moment of great national peril in 1991 remains monumental and, alas, inadequately acknowledged.    The scale of his achievement is even more praiseworthy against the backdrop of the multiple challenges he was facing, including the fact that  he was heading a minority government and was often hobbled by members from both sides of the aisle in parliament.

Compounding his constraints,  Rao,  who was a compromise choice of the Congress party as the prime minister when he was sworn in on June 21, 1991 after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination on May 21, 1991, was treated in a step-motherly manner by the factions within the Congress party more loyal to the Rajiv Gandhi legacy and the 'first family'.  This was an internal challenge that was complex and bitter - till the end of his life. Thus it was sad that when Rao died on December 23, 2004 he was denied a funeral in the capital by the ‘powers that be’ at the time and his body was taken to Hyderabad the next day in a manner that can only be described as graceless.

There have been no significant events post Rao’s demise to recall and pay appropriate tribute to India’s most remarkable prime minister but for PM Manmohan Singh’s  remarks in March 2007 when he noted:  “As I saw him from close quarters, he (Rao) was truly a 'sanyasi' (reunciate) in politics. He was a modernizer who was steeped in our tradition and ethos. He was a rare scholar, statesman who gave a new sense of direction not only to our economic but also foreign policies.”

Much has been written about the PVNR-Manmohan Singh teamwork that was ably supported by a stable of the most eminent Indian economists and trade specialists. However, the manner in which Rao  managed the strategic re-orientation of India in the turbulence triggered by the formal end of the Cold War in December 1991  marked by the collapse of the former Soviet Union is political leadership of the highest order and this aspect of Rao merits brief recall.  In this domain, there was no Manmohan Singh equivalent to support him and he was grappling with macro issues with limited bench strength. 

PM at a vulnerable moment for India 

In the late 1980s  Indian politics was in considerable disarray and the post-Rajiv Gandhi period saw two prime ministers assume office for short periods of less than a year each  – Chandra Shekhar and V P Singh. The rupee was sinking , the national coffers were near empty and uncertainty was in the air.  By early 1991, at the global level the  Cold War was in its last phase but few could have anticipated the manner in which it would finally end in December of that year. The US had just emerged triumphant from its war for Kuwait and the moment of extended uni-polarity had commenced.

But India was at its most vulnerable in its 44-year-old history. The tragic assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in a Sri Lankan Tamil terror attack highlighted the internal security fragility and India's forex reserves were at an all-time low. The ignominy of having to physically lift bullion to obtain credit pushed India against the ropes and the national psyche was at its most vulnerable. One recalls former cabinet secretary Naresh Chandra dwelling on this phase of the Indian trajectory as the most critical national challenge in a (closed door) review of India’s strategic journey.   It was against this backdrop that Rao assumed office as prime minister and soon stabilized the Indian ship of state.

The major strategic/ security and foreign policy changes wrought by PVNR  may be disaggregated along three strands: India's post Cold war strategic orientation apropos the USA ; husbanding of the nuclear programme; and radical shifts to long-held foreign policies, particularly in relation to ASEAN and Israel.

Rao qualifies in more ways than one to be conferred with the nation's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, which has  become a political reward in recent years. Thus the reality is that Rao is the ‘ratna’ (gem)  that  India chose to ignore and forget.  

Rao's daughter Mrs. Jogulamba  noted on Sunday in a tweet with a rare and adorable picture: “Remembering #PVNarasimhaRao garu on his 100th birth anniversary & sharing a precious picture of him carrying me on my 3rd b’day. Freedom fighter, amazing PM, reformer, educationist, scholar, conversant in 15 lang & list is endless. Not just #Telangana bidda,  he is great son of India.”

There is no doubt Rao, India's tenth prime minister, will remain the great son of India -  and the country - and the world - will mark it in true celebratory fashion befitting his contribution to the country's advancement and growth as a recognised world power.

(The writer is Director, SPS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)