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"Rao was the kind of Hindu who was publicly secular"


In his rigorous scholarship Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India, academician and writer Vinay Sitapati gives a vivid picture of Rao and the careful path that he had to tread in order to survive. Released timely at the 25th anniversary of the liberalisation and reforms ushered by the late prime minister, the book offers a window into the life of a much slighted and almost forgotten stalwart. In this interview with The Sunday Indian, Vinay Sitapati answers some of the questions that have hitherto remained unanswered...
VINAY SITAPATI | Issue Dated: August 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : P V Narasimha Rao | Deng Xiaoping |

Why did you choose Narasimha Rao as your focus? Is it because he was undermined by the Congress Party?

The only reason I focussed on Narasimha Rao was for scholarly reasons. I am a child of liberalisation and remember the changes in the 1990s. Two years ago, I read a book on Deng Xiaoping and the changes that happened under his watch in China in the 1980s. I knew then that I wanted to write a similar book about India in the 1990s and the prime minister of the time.

You describe PVN as 'a half lion' and the other as ‘half-man’. Which role did he play better?

I use the metaphor of ‘half-lion’ at many levels. Rao could play lion, fox, and mouse – as the situation demanded. He knew how to be aggressive and win, how to lose gracefully, and how to deceive. The secret to his success was that he could play all these roles if he wanted – so in that sense there is no one role he could play better. The problems of India in 1991 were such that it required a contradictory, ambiguous leader. Narasimha Rao was exactly that kind of person.

As in life, Rao was humiliated in death too. Unlike so many other leaders who got a memorial in Delhi, Rao, who left a bigger legacy of transforming India after Nehru and Mrs Indira Gandhi, got none. Was the denial of a memorial purely due to politics and personal vendetta of 10 Janpath?

The facts speak for themselves. After 1998, Rao was virtually ostracised from the Congress. When he died in 2004, Congress leaders close to Sonia Gandhi insisted that the body be cremated in Hyderabad, not Delhi. Rao’s son told me that this was because Sonia Gandhi did not want Rao to be seen as an all-India Congress leader; she wanted him to be known as a provincial Andhra leader alone. Rao’s body was made to wait on the pavement outside the Congress headquarters in Delhi; it was not brought inside as is customary for past Congress presidents. And between 2004 and 2014 – when the Congress was in power in Delhi and Andhra – no memorial was built for Rao in either place. I don’t need to say more; the facts speak for themselves.

Rao was brought up in religious upbringing. Yet, it is said that he was secular in temperament and radical in thinking. How did he use these traits to advance his political career?

Rao was the most devout Hindu to ever become prime minister of India, and I include Modi in this comparison. Two months before he became PM, he had accepted the post of a head monk, a sadhu, in a peetham in Tamil Nadu. But it is very important to remember that he was the kind of Hindu who was publicly secular. Apart from Sanskrit, Rao knew Urdu and Persian and could recite from the Quran. His was a very Indian kind of tolerance, though it is distinct from Nehruvian secularism. He was initially a socialist and then became a pragmatist, but he was always a reformer, a change-maker by temperament, and my book gives many, many examples of this from his early life. Rao’s early mentor was Ramananda Tirtha, the one time head of the Hyderabad State Congress. Tirtha was a Hindu guru, secular Congressman, and staunch socialist – all rolled into one. Rao adopted all these traits. But I don’t think his Hindu-ness played much of a role in his political career. It was a private belief system, not a political identity.

Why did a polyglot and otherwise very amiable Rao fail to communicate with Mrs Sonia Gandhi?

That is a good question. Fundamentally, there was a clash of interests that no amount of communication could have totally solved in reality. Rao had genuinely become his own man as prime minister by the year 1993, and didn’t feel the need to report to Sonia Gandhi any more. He was also toying with the idea of unmooring the Nehru-Gandhi family from its central position in the Congress party. Sonia naturally resented that. However, Rao could have definitely managed this clash better. He stopped visiting Sonia in 10 Janpath after 1993 because he overestimated his hold over the party. It was a mistake. It gave space for Rao’s critics within the party, men like Arjun Singh, to constantly go to 10 Janpath to complain. Rao lacked a forum to give his side of the story to Mrs. Gandhi.

The family always used, and abused, leaders with lesser pedigree. Was Rao so naive to be used like that? Or was he a willing player?

Rao benefitted hugely from the Nehru-Gandhis. It was Indira Gandhi who made Rao chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1991 – even though he was not a popular or strong leader in the state. It was Sonia Gandhi who gave the final consent to making Rao prime minister of India in 1991 – even though he had no mass base within the party. If she had opposed him, he would never have become PM. So Rao used the Nehru-Gandhis as well as was used by them.

On page 64, you write about Rao's reaction following Mrs Gandhi's assassination.  Was he being a hypocrite who was carefully curating his future by being the master's voice?

During the anti-Sikh riots, home minister Rao was more interested in making sure that he was on the right side of the new leadership, i.e. Rajiv Gandhi. He knew that Sikhs were being killed. But he had received a direct order from a Congressman very close to Rajiv that Rao should stand down. Control of the police was taken over by Rajiv’s PMO. Rao saw what was happening, and he said nothing. He preferred to listen to his party and career rather than his conscience.


Rao cleverly crafted the politics of economic reforms. Do you think any other prime minister would have successfully done so?

Who were the alternatives to Rao as prime minister at the time? Sonia Gandhi and Shankar Dayal Sharma were effectively offered prime ministership. They said no. Rao’s rivals for PM were Arjun Singh, ND Tiwari, and Sharad Pawar. None of these politicians (bar Sharad Pawar) were pro-liberalisation, and none of them had Rao’s political skills. Had Sharad Pawar become PM, he might have been pro-reform, but given his closeness to Bombay industrialists, he may have preferred oligarchic capitalism to genuinely free-market liberalisation. So no, I do not think any other politician who could have become PM instead of Rao would have been able to manage the politics of liberalisation.

Did Rao make a blunder by offering an honest advice to Sonia Gandhi on staying away from politics?

I don’t think that was a blunder at that point. The trouble between the two began only in 1993, some years after Rao gave Sonia Gandhi that advice. Of course communication gaps played a role in making their relationship worse. But the core reason was that Rao had become his own man as prime minister by 1993, and Sonia really resented that.

Did she see his action as malafide or was she influenced by the coterie in general and Arjun Singh in particular?

While Rao was prime minister, I would blame both Sonia and Rao for the deterioration in the relationship. But yes, she did give a lot of credence to what the anti-Rao coterie was saying, and Arjun Singh deserves much blame for spoiling the relationship between the two. Arjun Singh had a very simple agenda: he wanted to become PM instead of Rao, and he went to great lengths to weaken Rao. Where I would solely blame Sonia Gandhi was after Rao’s resignation as PM. Rao was vulnerable and retired, while Sonia was the head of the Congress. Rao was treated pathetically at that time.

Comparing Babri Masjid Demolition and Gujarat riots, you point out how PM Rao was blamed while PM AB Vajpayee is rarely blamed. Does that make Vajpayee a better politician than Rao?

The reason why Rao is blamed for Babri and Vajpayee is not for the Gujarat riots has nothing to do with their personalities and actions. It has to do with the way their respective parties have treated them. Vajpayee is celebrated in the BJP; he is their icon. In contrast, Narasimha Rao has been abandoned by the Congress; he is anathema to them. The Congress has repeatedly used Babri to discredit Rao. I do hope that changes. The real blame, as the Supreme Court and Liberhan Commission have found, lies with Kalyan Singh and the Sangh Parivar.

Given the briefings by Intelligence Bureau, and his own political acumen, why did he repose faith in Sangh Parivar’s promise on the run up to Babri demolition?

Rao did not repose blind faith in the Sangh Parivar. He realised by mid-November 1992 that the only way in which he could protect the Babri masjid – by dismissing the Kalyan Singh state government and taking over the state – was politically and legally difficult. I deal with this extensively in my book. I also saw the two IB reports that were sent on this – they are hedging their bets, without giving a clear direction to dismiss Kalyan Singh. It is only in this circumstance – when all formal options were difficult – that Rao decided to have informal talks with the Sangh Parivar. Rao thought he could use his powers as a religious Hindu to convince these leaders. He overestimated his ability, and made an error. But it was a genuine mistake, made in very difficult conditions.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017