- Hardcover: 392 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books Limited; Latest edition (27 June 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0670088226
- ISBN-13: 978-0670088225
- Package Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.2 x 4.2 cm
- Average Customer Review: 182 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #3,394 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Half - Lion: How P.V Narasimha Rao Transformed India Hardcover – 27 Jun 2016
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About the Author
Vinay Sitapati is a political scientist, journalist and lawyer. He teaches at Ashoka University and writes for the Indian Express. He has studied at National Law School, Bangalore and Harvard University and is finishing his Ph.D. in politics from Princeton.
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This book brings not only Narasimha Rao, but also the principal actors of those crucial years, the reformers – PVN, Manmohan Singh, Montek Alhuwalia, and the IAS officers – to life, in flesh and blood. For the first time, it tells in riveting detail, how Indira Gandhi swung the economy far to the left, starving the exchequer of the funds desperately needed for welfare programmes, all the while ostensibly rooting for the poor. It explains the essential nature of the private sector, to feed tax revenues for funding welfare, the so called “social democratic” compact. And it explains how Rajiv Gandhi, realising the mistake tried in vain to reverse course, unable or unwilling to disturb the entrenched vested interests the policy had given sustenance despite the brute majority he had in parliament. It paints a picture of PV Narasimha Rao, committed socialist, accidental Prime Minister, foisted in place to keep a seat warm, coming to grips with the stark reality of an economy in a downward spiral, and taking charge, and more fascinating, teaching himself the nuts and bolts of the economy. He was of course a scholar and fast learner, but what stuns is how this man could change long held socialist convictions and morph almost overnight into dismantling the license-permit-quota raj in the fateful year of 1991. If only, if only previous PrimeMinisters had done so!
I didnt understand the title of Half Lion till well into the book, but the first quote of Machiavelli is revealing. PVN needed to be fox as well as lion, the fox to avoid traps set by his adversary and a lion to go where no PM had dared go before, to do what was necessary, what had to be done, with his congress rivals waiting for him to make his first mistake, with no majority in parliament, and a population and polity steeped in a failed socialism. In short he had to be cunning and stealthy as the fox, using Chanakya's tactics of Dana, Bheda, Maya, Upeksha, Danda, to pick his battles, to retreat when necessary, use delay and illusion, give credit to others, give the impression of continuity while ushering in great change. And strong and bold as the lion, to take great risks for success. His was the attitude of the ends justifying the means, of Krishna obliterating the Sun, so Arjuna could slay Jayadhradha.
The relationship between Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao portrayed here is fascinating. An incident related before the first budget, where PVN tells MMS after reading his first draft budget “ If this was what I had wanted, why did I have to hire you?” makes it quite clear who had the heart of a lion. There's an anecdote every page and for this alone, its worth a read. Some left me in splits. No holds are barred. And at the same time, every paragraph almost, has references, and is backed up. Amar Nath Singh, Naresh Chandra, and the other beaureaucrats who had prepared the policies and executed them are fleshed out. The opposition, in the form of Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar, the communists, BJP and the vested interests and how they responded and plotted is well explained. Sonia Gandhi merits a chapter, aptly named Managing Sonia! At one instance, when she rings him and he is made to wait till she comes on line, he complains to his secretary “ I dont mind waiting, but the Prime Minister of India does!!”. He upheld the dignity of his office and for that, he paid the price. Others havent displayed the spine of this old man.
This book reveals that Narasimha Rao was no capitalist. He viewed liberalisation as a means to an end – a means to generate revenue to fund the massive welfare schemes which he started, including, yes, an employment guarantee scheme of 100 days, which we now know as the rebranded MGNREGA. He was India's first social democrat, our Willy Brandt as he himself would have preferred to be known.
The “Going Nuclear” chapter is amazing. The best part for me was the close, even chummy, relationship between Rao and Vajpayee. And it debunks the charge that PVN backed down on american pressure in december 1995. It states it was likely the fission device was ready but not the thermonuclear one at that time, and it was highly likely that PVN did not mind the americans knowing about the preparation, since it lifted the pressure off indian negotiators at the CTBT negotiations. It could have been a feint to decieve them and buy time for the scientists. And by the time he was ready, he was voted out. No wonder that Vajpayee called him the “father” of the programme, and the soft corner he had for Rao. Rao had, after all let him take the credit for the ducking and weaving he had done.
The best part of the book is the last chapter, where the author analyses PVN's character and why he was what he was. He says “ in contrast to Indira Gandhi who encouraged sycophants, and Rajiv who appointed childhood chums, Rao tolerated and even encouraged a team of rivals. Flattery or convivality, Rao believed, was not the same as effectiveness. And one of the reasons he patronized talented people was that he was secure in his own abilities.” Also the fact that PVN had served as state minister and well as cabinet minister, congress secretary and everything in between gave him a unique perspective on how to navigate the congress maze and execute change, which Rajiv Gandhi or Indira Gandhi did not have, from the rarefied heights they always occupied. Is that why Rahul Gandhi is no ineffective? One wonders.
PV Narasimha Rao was a mortal. He was no God, and his mistakes are covered too, without any coverup. But it is put in perspective, in terms of his circumstances and options. Often he was between a rock and a hard place, damned if he did, damned if he didnt. He was human, and it is human to err. But at the end, he died a lonely man, fighting court cases alone, deserted by his party, relying on his book royalties to pay his lawyers.
His redeeming features were that he was not corrupt personally, and payments made to the party were not touched by him. He never used his power to favour his children or relatives. And while he could have backtracked on reforms after the 1991 crisis, he never did, once he was convinced of the necessity of the reforms.
Finally, to paraphrase PVN himself, as he tells Shekhar Gupta as he asks him “ How do you make a U turn without making a U turn? That's a special Narasimha Rao art.” he replies “ Its not like that, If you understand that where you were standing is itself in motion, then turning becomes easier.”
I thank this book and its author, for making people of my generation, who have lived through the days before, during and after those years ( 1991-6), realise the debt of gratitude we owe this man.
And yes, Rao's role in the reforms. The only major ones the country has undergone since Nehru & Ambedkar. The book clearly lays out the risk for the reforms had Rao even tried to take credit. Then of course, there is his role in the nuclear testing & the actual reason for not allying with the DMK during the 96 election.
Reading the book, you come out with a well informed view and a positive opinion on Rao. It's a pity that his life had to end the way it did.
It was a delight to read Vinay Sitapati's excellent biography and rediscover PV Narasimha Rao. His attempt rescues PV from obscurity and gives readers a measure of the man and his contribution. A lesser man could not have risen to the challenge.
Sitapati heightens the drama and is as compelling a story teller as his subject.
I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in contemporary indian history, politics and economics.
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