Book Review

Narasimha Rao: one legacy, two verdicts

The book contains evocative details of Rao’s failures in preventing two of the ugliest incidents of social disharmony in independent India – the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition and the 1984 Sikh riots

Book Review

Praveen Chakravarty
July 14, 2016


How P V Narasimha Rao Transformed India

Vinay Sitapathi

Penguin 391 pages; Rs 699

“Do we live in an economy or a society?” My friend Manish Sabharwal, chairman of TeamLease Services, first asked me this question seven years ago. I was reminded of this conversation immediately after I finished reading the utterly delightful Half Lion, Vinay Sitapati’s 400-page biography of former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. Perhaps inadvertently, the book sets up themes and frameworks for the reader to judge Rao’s legacy: Economy versus Society; the Tolstoy school, where leaders are merely slaves of historical events, versus the Carlyle school, where leaders are the masters of their history; or the Deontological philosophy of ethics, where the means are more important than the ends, versus the Consequentialism philosophy, where the ends justify the means.

The book has two chapters that vividly capture the enormous challenges that Rao overcame as the leader of a minority government to usher in the most transformative economic reforms in 1991, which laid the bedrock for lifting hundreds of millions of Indians out of poverty in the years to come. The book also contains evocative details of Rao’s failures in preventing two of the ugliest incidents of social disharmony in independent India – the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition and the 1984 Sikh riots. Economic development or social harmony is presented as the central theme to judge Rao’s legacy. It is not hard to fathom how opinions can be acerbically divided on this one. But it is abundantly evident that if, following the Carlyle paradigm, the leader in Rao is credited for the success of the 1991 economic reforms, he deserves equal discredit for his failures to prevent the two communal disasters. Or, in line with the Tolstoy paradigm, the 1991 reforms and the communal incidents were mere historical events when Rao just happened to be at the centre of power. Mr Sitapati does not stop at articulating the details of these developments but also weighs in with his own generous judgment of Rao by mixing the Carlyle paradigm to hail Rao for the 1991 reforms and the Tolstoy paradigm to give Rao the benefit of doubt for the communal incidents. The book is simply beautifully written.

It is provocative – “stray dogs were pulling at the funeral pyre…. [the] half burnt body, skull still visible, lying abandoned’. It is dramatic – “the India Rao inherited was used to being second-rate. By 1994, the Rao government sparked off confidence to compete with the world… Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen won beauty contests, Sachin Tendulkar opened the batting for the first time and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge was released”. There are charming anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book – “Rao spoke to Subramanian Swamy and said I know about the reforms you were working on… send me the documents”. Also, some telling disclosures. For instance, he tells us that Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister approved the nuclear tests and Rao was one of two politicians who he informed. Rao as prime minister authorised the test but couldn’t complete it because he lost power.

By a quirk of fate, Rao’s good friend Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister and Rao was able to pass on the secret to him so that he ultimately performed the test. Perhaps the most stirring aspect of Rao’s governance style was his use of questionable means to achieve seemingly noble ends. He seemed to have used the Intelligence Bureau (IB) excessively to spy on everyone throughout his career to gain an information advantage over his peers and rivals. The details from Rao’s private diaries of IB reports on various ministers of his Cabinet, his rivals within the Congress party, opposition members and even Sonia Gandhi’s appointments are stunning revelations.

Rao’s ability to survive repeated no-confidence motions through suspect practices sparks a profound question: does the end justify the means? It is unquestionable that the 1991 reforms and a stable government that lasted its full term were of paramount importance for India to tide over the grave economic crisis then. But the means by which Prime Minister Rao achieved his government’s longevity and support for the economic reforms, as the book reveals, are certainly questionable. It’s a toss-up between Deontological ethics and Consequentialism. Unfettered access to the former prime minister’s private papers separates this book from most other biographies of contemporary political leaders. But the author has taken enormous care to avoid being salacious with such access to private information, which is commendable.

The book also stands out for its meticulous primary research through interviews with various people, documented in a detailed Notes section. The author’s versatility glows through the book as he mixes cricket metaphors, interpretations of Machiavelli and Chanakya, political science theories of social democrats and economic concepts of welfare state in detailing Rao’s career. In short, Half Lion is one of the most interesting new books this year and a must-read for all those interested in the political history of modern India. More importantly, it is a must-read for the country’s current leadership as it grapples with similar issues of economics versus society, reforms versus politics, and majoritarianism versus consensus-building.

How a prime minister managed to deftly strike a balance between unruly sections of his party and the opposition to build consensus for important legislation in a socially charged environment sounds like lessons Prime Minister Narendra Modi could do with. This book is a master class for that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *