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An Enigma Revealed


Half Lion
S SATHYA | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : P V Narasimha Rao | Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru |


Half Lion

Vinay Sitapati

Penguin Random House India

Edition: Hardcover

ISBN:  9780670088225

Pages: 391

price: Rs 699

Who was Narasimha Rao? For party grown sycophants, or for those belonging to the Congress or subscribing to its ideology, the question is quite blasphemous as one never wishes to annoy the powers that be. Still, the question is an important one. If Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister, laid the foundations of a modern, democratic, and secular India, it was P V Narasimha Rao who scripted the economic reforms era, carefully wading through turbulent political waters of his time. There is not a single comprehensive book since his death in 2004 that captures Rao’s legacy. But that nugget changed recently.

Half-Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India, by Vinay Sitapati is by far the best book in this genre till date, specially because of its critical assessment of the former prime minister. Although the book is sympathetic towards him and ranks him amongst global leaders and revolutionaries, yet, it is not a hagiography. The author, a political scientist who teaches at Ashok University, at the outset places the hypothesis that Narasimha Rao was in reality India’s true transformational leader since Nehru. In the penultimate pages of the book, he answers the validity of this hypothesis on the basis of Rao’s lasting legacy.

“Narasimha Rao’s legacy also manifests in the everyday lives of the most Indians,” is one line of the author that gives insights into the author's bent.

Yet, he builds and equally demolishes Rao's personality and how Rao did what he did. This the author achieves by interviewing more than a 100 people who knew, who worked or who loved or loved to hate Rao and by exclusive access to Rao’s never-before-seen personal papers.

Rao was denied a funeral in Delhi and did not have a memorial in the National Capital Region, for reasons that are not necessarily formally documented. Comparatively, memorials of the Nehru-Gandhi clan dot the banks of Yamuna quite expansively. It was only after the Modi government came to power that a memorial to Rao was commemorated at Ekta Sthal, worthy of his post.

Apparently, the Congress Party, which was in rule for a decade in Andhra Pradesh (where Rao was eventually cremated) did not build a memorial despite a promise to his family. With this incident in the first chapter, Sitapati sets the tone and tenor of his treatise in political gamesmanship.

Having perfected the nuances of describing issues at Indian Express, the author uses his well honed skills quite competently over the next 14 chapters, moving from one narrative to the other seamlessly and immersing the reader into the life of Rao.

Born into a Brahmin family in 1921, in Vangara, situated in the Karimnagar district of Telengana, Rao took part in the freedom struggle. A disciple of Ramananda Tirtha – who mentored many of the post-independence politicians – Rao’s participation in the anti-Nizam struggle also shaped his political philosophy for the rest of his life, ensuring that Rao became secular, religious and paradoxically radical, all at the same time.

After losing the 1952 general elections, Rao became a member of the state assembly five years later and was selected as a minister. As Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, began to look for ‘yes men’ as chief ministers of states, Rao was the perfect choice as he was from the Brahmin community, with no factional backing and was an ardent advocate of land reforms and socialism. Quite on cue, two years later, when Rao was asked to resign, he did not rebel. After a brief exile, Rao was appointed as Congress general secretary in 1974; yet, he was pulled apart at the imposition of Emergency but remained mum on Indira Gandhi's actions and the high-handedness of Sanjay Gandhi.

Over the next few years, after holding key positions both in the party and government, Rao mastered the grammar of politics and steered away from controversies. For example, more than a dozen Congress ministers and leaders were indicted for their overt and covert role in the anti-Sikh riots in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination. But it goes to the credit of Rao that he was cleared in each sitting commission investigating the riots, and this despite being the Union Home Minister in charge of law and order in the national capital territory at that time.

Extremely dejected over not being allowed to contest in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections by Rajiv Gandhi, Rao began planning his life outside politics and Delhi. But both India and Rao’s destiny took a turn and he was instituted as India’s prime minister by a quirk of fate. The rest of the book delves deep into how Rao thereon shaped the course of politics, economy, society and foreign policy and survived his term.

Besides managing the party and liberalising the Indian economy, Rao’s tenure is also significant for the Babri Masjid demolition. His error, the author notes,  was in reposing faith in VHP, BJP, RSS and sundry Hindu gurus.”  There are a significant many, as per the author, within the 131-year old Congress party who feel that Rao was solely responsible for decimating the support of the Muslim electorate.

However, despite being a polyglot, Rao failed to communicate successfully with Sonia Gandhi. A great blunder was the advice he apparently gave to Ms Gandhi to stay away from politics. Consequently, he was humiliated till his death and was erased from the Congress party's narrative.

Yet, despite all efforts of the Congress, Rao, constrained by contradictions and all his failings, takes credit for setting India off on a new direction.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017