Sunday, January 1, 2017

                                                                         Inline image 2
1991   How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History by Sanjay Baru ; Published by Aleph ; Pages 216 ; Price Rs 599/-


                   Sanjaya Baru is Consulting Fellow for India International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. He was Media Adviser to Manmohan Singh. He has been connected with several dailies. He is the  celebrated author of “ An Accidental Prime Minister” about Manmohan Singh .

                     In the book under review he makes an earnest attempt  to alter the existing belief  that makes  Manmohan Singh as the prime mover of the 1991 economic reforms and place the credit at the doors of  P.V. Narasimha Rao. 

                     The book is an account of the politics, the economics and the geopolitics that combined to make 1991 an important year in India’s recent history. The central character was Narasimha Rao.  It was the year that made Narasimha Rao and the year Narasimha Rao made history.

                    Rao was India’s first accidental Prime Minister, and a path-breaking one. He took charge of the national government and restored political stability ; assumed leadership of the Congress , proving that there was hope beyond the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty ; pushed through significant economic reforms and steered India through the uncharted waters of the post-Cold War period.

                          The brinkmanship, the one-upmanship, the short-termism of the 1989-91 period, driven by the petty ambitions of myopic and inexperienced leaders, was replaced by a long-term vision of the long-distance number. Narasimha Rao was India’s Man of Destiny. 

                          Baru’s long association with  principal players of the time and his access to several others by virtue of being a journalist enables him  capture history as it was made. Baru's account of the year in the life of Narasimha Rao, based as it is on his personal rapport with him, is absolutely unputdownable.

                               Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister at a time when the country was faced with deep economic and political crises. On the economic front there was a severe balance of payments crisis, with a potential debt default staring at the country. On the political front, two coalition governments fell between late 1989 and mid 1991. Besides, the BJP’s Ratha Yatra, led by L.K. Advani, left a trail of destruction and communal violence behind it, especially in northern and western India. V.P. Singh in his short stint as Prime Minister had also decided to implement the Mandal Commission report on reservation for backward classes in government jobs, leading to protests. In this environment, Rao  provided the crucial economic and political stability which was so desperately needed.

                                    1991 was the year when circumstances were at play for P.V. Narasimha Rao and Rao was in equal measure active to define a year that has for many observers of business and politics become as noteworthy as the collapse of the Soviet Union or the awakening of the Chinese economy pursuant to Mao Zedong’s departure. The book is a compendium of what went wrong over the decades and why. In particular, Indira Gandhi's alignment with the Soviet Union in 1970 made India dependent on it for oil and military equipment. The Soviet Union's collapse in 1990 deprived Narasimha Rao of this prop, and he had to reconstruct India's external relations.  The Indian economy was in a bad shape and the then Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar had given a go ahead for gold mortgage. Twenty metric tonnes of confiscated gold worth U S $ 200 million was made available by RBI.

                                 Baru’s narrative also has a villain – the Nehru-Gandhi family and their coterie. He is scathing in his indictment, especially of Rajiv Gandhi for his short-sighted move to withdraw support to the Chandra Shekhar government in 1991 before it could pass the general budget and plunge India into a financial crisis. Rao became the first non-Nehru-Gandhi to complete his five-year term despite lacking  a numerical majority in Parliament. 

                                   Baru declares “I have nothing against Rahul or Sonia Gandhi. This is not a personal vendetta. I come from a Congress family. My great grand uncle worked with Jawaharlal Nehru. My father was a Youth Congress leader who hoisted the first national flag on the Madras Christian College campus. The Congress is the party of the national movement, built by thousands and thousands of Indians across the country, over generations. And it has been reduced to a party of one family. To me, that is unacceptable.”

                                     Narasimha Rao precipitately demolished licence permit raj. He had shown no earlier signs of such impetuosity. But then, he was thrust into a role he could have never imagined stepping into and was faced with the worst economic crisis in independent India's history. Soon after he stepped down as prime minister, he was erased from India's history by the return of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

                                   The book is divided into chapters named after months. They  cover the events as they unfolded, but the events had a complex background, which too Baru skillfully covers. The book is a compendium of what went wrong over the decades and why. Narasimha Rao  had to reconstruct India's external relations. He re-calibrated India’s commitment to non-alignment and established diplomatic relations with Israel.

                                    Baru has an interesting story when behind-scenes activities were on to elect a new leader after the election. He happened to meet Rao and asked him about reports in the Times of India that Sharad Pawar was tipped to be the Prime Minister. Rao, who had by then set in motion his own game plan, remarked, “It is a Bombay newspaper. The editor is a Maharashtrian, the bureau chief is a Maharashtrian. All the reports are coming from Bombay. What else will they say?” This was a lot of stuff for a person of few words. As the author says,” For a man who knew a dozen languages (he could fluently read, write and speak over half a dozen) and was known to have a series of romantic entanglements, he was surprisingly uncommunicative in person.”

                               There is not much in the book that talks of the razing of the mosque at Ayodhya. This too happened during Rao’s tenure, and his critics hold to this day that he could have prevented it but did not. The jury is still out. Baru concludes aptly, “Two decades after he demited office and a decade after his passing away, India is finally coming around to remembering him by the highs of his first year in office.”


 27 / 11 / 2016

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