Sunday, September 25, 2016


 Half Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India  by Vinay Sitapati; Published by  Penguin ; Pages 391 ;Price  Rs. 699/-

The author of the book under review Vinay Sitapati is presently completing his Ph.D  in politics in Princeton. He  was a student of National Law School in Bengaluru and the University of Harvard.  He  teaches in Ashoka University and contributes to Indian Express.

He has attempted to resurrect a calculatedly decimated and purposely belittled Prime Minister of India, Shri.Narasimha Rao. The Congress Party denied him a funeral in Delhi and cast him as a usurper to the Nehru-Gandhi throne, as Sonia Gandhi ‘ did not want him to be seen as an all-India leader’. Sitapati has admirably summarized the catalogue of complaints against Rao—“ He has been removed from the Pantheon of Congress leaders, criticized for the anti- Sikh riots, accused of letting the guilty escape after the Bhopal gas leak, and above all, blamed for complicity in the demolition of Babri Masjid.”

However , Sitapati avers that ‘Few world leaders have achieved so much with so little power.’  The author ranks him  with  Jawaharlal Nehru, Deng Xiaoping, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle. Despite the solid negatives against him---  he was not a popular mass leader; he presided over a minority government; his party colleagues did not trust him; 10 Janpath kept an eagle eye on him  Rao  did  achieve much. He  was the first person outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to have completed five years as Prime Minister  and he  provided transformational leadership to India at a time of deep financial crisis.
 The book under review is a resuscitation of  Rao and an attempt to restore him to  his rightful place in the history of India  as the chief  architect of economic reforms.  The Congress Party transfers all  the credit for the 1991 reforms to Manmohan Singh, Rao’s finance minister and to Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister from the Nehru-Gandhi family.  The media etched a larger-than-life narrative of Manmohan Singh as the Numero Uno reformer, ignoring Rao’s role.  Sitapati establishes that it was Rao who was the principal driver who  kept a low profile . We are treated to  behind-the-scenes details of how he evolved a team and took the assistance of different  people irrespective of  their political inclinations.

 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.  Rao  skillfully plotted to get ahead of other aspirants.

The biography  takes the reader through Rao’s life, from his early years in a village in Telangana through his time in power to his humiliation in retirement. The book  explores the deftness with which he negotiated the Byzantine corridors of the Congress, while using his friendships across the aisle to advantage. Rao failed to check the Punjab insurgency during his tenure as home minister, and worse,  injudiciously ceded authority to the prime minister's office under Rajiv Gandhi after Indira Gandhi's assassination which led to the Sikh massacres. "It was his vilest hour," according to Sitapati .

The book covers all aspects of Rao’s  life, including his links with perhaps his only confidantes—his women friends. Sitapati dovetails the  political life of Rao with his personal one, beginning with his problematic  childhood days  and  Satyamma, whom he married at the age of ten and who bore him eight children and whom he neglected and  his phenomenal  loneliness.

Sitapati deftly shifts the balance of credit,  with the help of data that Rao's family made available to him for the first time and conversations with Rao's friends and associates – to establish that it was Rao who provided agency, general direction and managed hostile reactions from the opposition and within the Congress.

Sitapati is more forgiving of Rao's role in the Babri Masjid demolition, which many consider to be the darkest hour of his tenure. Sitapati believes  ‘history has judged Narasimha Rao harshly’. He writes that, in the lead up to 6 December, the only option Rao had was to impose President’s rule, but he could not even do this because members of both his own party and the opposition were against it. The Supreme Court refused to give Rao a receivership and the Governor suggested that President’s rule should not be imposed :If he had still pushed for president’s rule under those circumstances, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party would have pushed for a no-confidence motion in the Parliament and the matter would have gone to the Supreme Court. It would well have been held illegal, and Rao running a minority government could have lost his job.

 Sitapati is able to bolster anecdotal evidence because of the exclusive access he was given by Rao’s family to a treasure trove of personal papers. By quoting from his diary, the author recounts events as they unfolded with Rao’s thoughts at the time. The 100-plus interviews with principal players also helps flesh out the historic five years. Rao had his share of human frailties but his record as a reformer, transforming both the economy and foreign policy, will definitely  place this scholar  in the Congress pantheon of heroes.

 Dexterously combining documentary research with focused interviews Sitapati brings Rao vividly alive in his many roles.

This  biography  is extremely well written and is a product of sustained hard research. It lucidly explains the Enigma that Narasimha Rao was.

Tit  Bits

1. Rao spoke ten languages and was a skilled translator.

2. The "IFS" of History are intriguing !. Narasimha Rao was offered the headship in 1990 of the  Siddheswari Peetam with Headquarters in Courtallam. If he had accepted India's economic liberalisation would have been delayed.

3. The " Other Woman " in Rao's life was Smt.Lakshmi Kantamma----an M.P.  
Rao's wife Satyamma had uncomplainingly taken care of the family land and 8 children while her husband pursued his own ambitions. He was filled with guilt and swore to the end his relationship with Lakshmi.

25 / 09 / 2106

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