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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.
What was the crisis all about? India’s foreign exchange reserves at that point of time could sustain only two weeks of import. The safe level is six times that amount. This had hamstrung Indian economy. India had plunged into external debt, lacking dollars to repay. Foreign lenders including IMF were withholding loans. Finally to overcome the current situation, gold had to be mortgaged.
How was it created? Remittance from Indians working in Gulf region had dwindled due to Gulf war crisis, upshot of which was price of oil getting trebled. Due to political uncertainty in Delhi, there were some panic withdrawn of money , somewhere amounting to 900 million dollars. There were some reckless borrowing during Rajiv Gandhi years. These short term loans were due in early 1991. Moreover, the foundation of Indian economy was so weak that it was susceptible and vulnerable to such uncalled changes.
What were the logjam that was making the economy sluggish? First , the economy was dominated by public sector enterprise and private entrepreneurs could operate in few restricted areas. Secondly, business house size was limited so that none can challenge the hegemony of Central government that is ruled by Congress. This was done by implementing various laws, which were made much more stringent during Indira Gandhi times. These were licenses, anti monopoly law, labour laws and nationalization of banks. As mentioned private sector was permitted to operate in few areas only and that too requires licenses issued by bureaucrats, who also determine how much these private enterprise can make and at what price. Labour law was meant to protect labours but on the contrary, companies began to hire few workers. Nationalization was done to improve rural credit which however starved industrial houses of capital. Anti monopoly law further curtailed the growth of the economy. Third, was isolating India from global market. To become self-reliant, protection from foreign competition became an integral part of government policies. This however reduced both flow of money and consumer goods. Furthermore, there were restrictions on the import of raw materials and technology , which Indian factories desperately needed. Exports were not profitable because the currency was artificially valued.
The book is on P.V.Narshima Rao and yet in the last three paragraphs, he was not even mentioned once. You cannot appreciate and hold the man in high reverence, unless you know about the crisis and four decade policies that made Indian economy chronic and inimical.
It was Jawahar Lal Nehru , who believed in socialism. Policies and decisions were highly influenced by his thinking. It was a nascent economy and his decisions still can be justified to some extent. However, in next decade, the world economic order was changing , more prominently in underrated East Asian nations. On her first stint as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi who shared her father’s ideology failed to capitalize in favour of the nation. In contrast, her policies made Indian economy even more rigid. The socialist ideology that was being followed was not aligned with the reality and the harsh truth was that it had become quixotic and worthless. The ills of the economy were identified in early 1980’s. Rajiv Gandhi too was in favour of dismantling state control over the Indian economy but his reforms were just baby steps. Even he could not do it despite the fact that he had the highest mandate ever in Indian history.
Now entered the scene was P.V. Narshima Rao. After taking over stock of the situation, he began to create a team that consists of his opponents within the party, who were appointed out of political compulsion. But his team in majority consists of aficionados, who had similar thoughts, belief , vision and disposition and one of them was Manmohan Singh, an apolitical person who re-wrote his name in the history as the best Finance Minister of India. Economists and experts have been pitching in for reforms in the last decade. The implementation however requires political backing. This was easier said than done. The duo had to overcome rigid Congress party, panicked industrialists , divided parliament and critics. To add to their woes, there were class of people who benefited from the existing economy and were very powerful like business houses, trade unions, rich farmers and in some cases politicians and bureaucrats too. Each policies were picked up , some changes were made in it , then made it look as if they have been piggybacking on Nehru’s Industrial policy. The fact was however just opposite. These were done without any fanfare. This ploy of using Nehru’s name as an exemplar ensured that at least his party was behind the revolutionary changes.
What were the revolutionary changes? Industrial licensing except for industries was abolished. Public sector monopoly was limited to few sectors only. Anti-monopoly restrictions were eased and permitted level of foreign investments was increased.
Babri Masjid demolition is one of the blots in his impressive career. This is one fiasco , where his party men were too eager to put the blame on him. The gathering of Kar-sevaks in large numbers was an insinuation of coming troubles. He was assured by UP government of adequate security measures. Then President rule cannot be applied on a State because of law and order had not failed prior to demolition. Moreover, all decisions were based on consonance. Demolition however, could not be prevented. When Sonia Gandhi became president of the party, the seed of hatred by his own party men was already planted in her mind. On the Babri Masjid issue, Mr. Narshima Rao was a subject of odium. Party disowned him and even after death, his funeral was denied in New Delhi.
Prior to becoming the Prime Minister , he had bought with him wealth of political experience as Union Minister holding key portfolios like Home, Defence and Foreign, as well as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Let’s face it that he was not a rectitude and did display Machiavellian characteristics at times. Though allegation of JMM MP bribery , Enron and Harshad Mehta scam tarnished his image somewhat but he had to his credit , myriad number of achievements, the most revolutionary and sweeping being economic reforms. Apart from this, employment guarantee and food security social schemes were initiated during his reign. As we found out from the book ,his transformation of India was also extended to foreign policy and national security as well. Though he was mortified, and subjected to the jibes of his own party men but the fact is that it was nation’s destiny that he was there at the right time and at right position. It would not be right to say that History has judged him incorrectly. Had it been the case , we would not have read books on him and writing such reviews. Though disowned by his own party , BJP government built a memorial ghat for him in 2015. We knew about the economic challenges and decisions that facilitated quantum jumps. What difference author has bought here are hitherto unreported backroom discussions and scuffle. Narshima Rao and Manmohan Singh may be the face of the economic reforms but the author has also given due space to his other team members like not forgotten Naresh Chandra and Amar Nath Verma, who have made innumerable contribution . Also bought to the reading space is dirty , nasty, and murkier world of politics. The author has covered every key events right from pre-independence days. These events are put in chronological order too. It’s informative and extensive. Every aspect is covered. The subject matter deserves a reading and the author has done full justice to it.
Overall, the book is a very enjoyable read and does justice to the man. I would've hoped his relationship with Sonia Gandhi was elaborated in greater detail (maybe an opportunity for revised edition), as that may have shed light on why no one attributes him as real architect of 91 reforms and steering country to where it is today, but that's not that important as what's been covered here.
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