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Sanjaya Baru’s book on Narasimha Rao is a compulsive page-turner

Narasimha Rao’s is, by any standards, an extraordinary story.

A loyal, time-serving Congressman of no great distinction, he rose through the ranks in the Indira Gandhi-era, almost without a trace. He was at Mrs. Gandhi’s side when she returned to power in 1980 and though he occupied many important posts (including Home Minister) during her government, he was rarely regarded as  worthy of much media (or political, for that matter) attention.


Such was his aura of invisibility that when the Delhi Police failed to protect Sikhs during the pogrom of 1984, nobody blamed Rao who was Home Minister. Poor fellow, they all said, no one listens to him! It is people like Arun Nehru who really call the shots.


   Rao’s time in Rajiv Gandhi’s government was similarly low-profile. On all the issues that dominated that era -- Babri Masjid, Bofors, the battle with Zail Singh, the start of the reforms process, Operation Brasstacks, etc. -- Rao had a minimal involvement.


   Small wonder then that by the end of the Rajiv era, Rao was widely regarded as washed-up. He had health problems, was said to be out-of-sync with the leadership of the Congress and seemed unlikely to ever hold high office again. He withdrew from electoral politics and made plans to retire to his native Andhra Pradesh, just one more forgotten politician in an age when a new generation had come to the fore.


   Lives can change in a matter of minutes. Certainly, Rao’s did.


   When a suicide bomber killed Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 while he was campaigning in Tamil Nadu, a panic-stricken Congress Working Committee asked Sonia Gandhi --- who, at that stage, had no interest in politics --- to take his place. Sonia turned them down and the Congress grandees searched for an alternative. Narasimha Rao who seemed old and tired was the safest choice: he would be no threat to anyone. It was on this I-am-so-feeble-and-harmless platform that Rao was able to enlist the support of the party leadership to fight off a challenge from Sharad Pawar (who, Sonia Gandhi disliked anyway because she had been told he was a crook), and become Prime Minister.


   In 1991, his new book on the liberalisation process, Sanjaya Baru tells the story of what happened next. When Rao moved into 5, Race Course Road (he was soon to annex yet another bungalow at 3, Race Course Road for his personal use in addition to the existing PM House complex of 5 and 7 RCR), India was bankrupt. There was no money to pay for essential imports and things looked bleak.


   The IMF would bail India out. But it had its conditions. These included liberalisation of the license-permit-quote raj that, most people agreed, had done little to help the poor while actually enriching a cosy cartel of industrialists, oligarchs, politicians and bureaucrats.


   The problem was that while most politicians agreed, in private, that it was time to reform the system, none of them was willing to do much more than tinker with the permit raj. Rao, of all people, was the one politician who took the plunge. He dismantled the license-permit-quota system forever and had the courage to make the deep structural changes that the Indian economy needed.


   In 1991, Baru tells the tale of how Rao pulled it off. And it is a remarkable story: a seemingly feeble old man with no political base of his own, heading a minority government that depended on the Left for its survival, pulled off the most comprehensive reform of India’s economic system since Independence.


   And Baru tells the story well. At times the book feels like a thriller and it is a compulsive page-turner. Because Baru is also a serious economist, in addition to being a veteran journalist, he never over-simplifies the issues and his research is meticulous. It helps also that he is what some would now call a Lutyens insider, who had nearly unparalleled access to Rao’s PMO and family connections with some of the key players. Plus, Rao’s closest aide at the time, his Private Secretary Ramu Damodaran, seems to have collaborated closely with Baru, offering up a wealth of detail.


   Baru’s thesis is that the story does not end with the 1991 reforms; in fact, these were the beginning of far-reaching changes in Indian society.


"I asked Baru during our interview whether he thought the sleaziness of Rao’s last years would cloud his legacy." 

   He argues, convincingly, that without Rao’s 1991 liberalisation, India would never have become the potential economic superpower it is today. He points out that the reforms transformed Indian industry. From 1947 to 1991, the same bania names appeared again and again in any list of the top business houses. But 1991 changed all that. It ended the cosy cartel of India’s richest businessmen and it allowed new entrepreneurs to emerge and flourish.


   The South, he points out, was of little consequence industrially till 1991. But the reforms enabled the software boom and the growth of Bangalore and Hyderabad (and now Chennai) as centres of information technology. Without 1991, we would have no Nandan Nilekani or Naryan Murthy and no GVK or GMR.


   But would we have had no Narendra Modi?


   Baru’s book deals only with 1991, so he is able to side-step the hot potato of Rao’s social agenda but in an interview with me for Virtuosity, my show on CNN news 18 (soon to be telecast), Baru confronted that charge.


   Within the Congress, there is a widespread consensus that the party’s decline in North India began with the demolition of the Babri Masjid on Rao’s watch. (Baru dates the decline to 1989 when Rajiv Gandhi lost power.)


   LK Advani had gone on his first rath yatra in the last 1980s and pushed the divisive, hate-driven agenda that saw the BJP’s support swell in the Hindi belt.


   By the time Rao took office, the BJP was officially the party of the Ram Temple and India’s Muslims who had traditionally counted on the Congress to protect them, were insecure. Rao shunned the aggressive secularism of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi (perhaps out of fear of alienating moderate Hindus) but he did little to re-assure Muslims. When kar sevaks demolished the Babri Masjid, Muslims treated this as the ultimate betrayal and deserted the Congress in droves. By the time the party tried to win them back a few years later, the Muslims had found more assertive champions in the shape of Mulayam, Laloo and others.


   Rao’s critics argue that his abandonment of old-style Congress secularism created a climate where  it was okay to diss Muslims (“all fanatics” etc.) and to say, in polite company, the sort of communal things that would once have been regarded as completely unacceptable.


   It is significant that for all his economic achievements, Rao's Congress lost votes from both Hindus and Muslims. The Hindus were increasingly drawn to the BJP, which emerged as the single largest party in the 1996 election while the Congress slumped to defeat.


   Could one argue that Rao’s children --- Indians who grew up in the post-reforms era --- came of age in a country that had a liberal economy but an illiberal mind-set? That Narendra Modi was the logical consequence of the death of the liberal-secular Congress tradition that had dominated discourse till then?


   It is an old argument. And in his interview to me, Baru sidestepped it by arguing that a) there is no such thing as a Muslim block vote and b) that on Ayodhya, Narasimha Rao's own book in the subject explains the Prime Minister's role clearly enough to exonerate him.


   More difficult to contest is that an air of sleaze surrounded Rao in his later years at RCR. Chandraswami would fix appointments for businessmen who wanted to meet the PM and perform havans at 5 RCR. An astrologer called NK Sharma became so close to Rao that ministers would sit at his feet. Harshad Mehta claimed that he had personally handed over a suitcase containing a crore in cash to Rao at 7 RCR. Rao’s aides went out and bought MPs to win a no confidence motion.


   The hawala case was seen by LK Advani and many of the others chargesheeted in the matter (which was later thrown out by the courts) as Rao’s attempt to fix his rivals and opponents. The Tamil Nadu Congress unit walked out and created the Tamil Maanila Congress after Rao went behind its back to ally with Jayalalitha. (Predictably, Jayalalitha told me, a few months later, that Rao had reached out to her though his astrologer.)


   By the end, Rao cut a sorry figure. No party would have anything to do with him. The Congress shunned him. He fought a jail sentence in a corruption case. And his pal Chandraswami did actually go to jail.


   I asked Baru during our interview whether he thought the sleaziness of Rao’s last years would cloud his legacy. He got a little agitated arguing that there was no evidence that Rao profited personally from corruption (Harshad Mehta’s money; the buying of MP’s etc. were all party activities) and that there was a deliberate campaign to besmirch Rao’s reputation to dig up stories about sleaze.


   Perhaps he is right, though I’m not sure I agree. But he is correct on the larger issue. No Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru has had such a profound and lasting impact on India. Baru says that 1991 deserves to be remembered alongside 1947 as the most significant year in our recent political history.


   Whether you agree with him or not, his book is worth reading. It is the story of an extraordinary time and of an ordinary man who, when he was caught up in those times, showed us how extraordinary he really was.





  • Ra 24 Dec 2016

    Was it not a smear campaign against a madarasi who survived for five years in spite of best efforts and to shift the blame from congress, its leader's foolish decisions, machinations of his colleagues and failure of the entire system? Did this narrative really help congress? BJP is on its way to make Modi the father of modern India which rightfully belongs to congress p.m. Rao. Is it not foolish to build narrative of a giant like Rao being corrupt, communal for AS,SG,RG?

  • Ra 24 Dec 2016

    Did LKA not target appeasement politics of congress in Rath Yatra? Was Rajiv's on Shabano not a precursor? Was opening gates not the cause of babri? Why you never discuss that PV was caught in a tricky situation in imposing president rule on a democratically elected government in anticipation of disturbance? Why was it hidden that neither cabinet nor CCPA nor NIA asked for President rule as per MOM? Why was it not highlighted that UP governor did not recommend president rule?

  • Ramesh 14 Nov 2016

    Origins of babri date back to appeasment politics, overturning Shah Bano, opening gates for votes. But congress and Sanghvis tilted the hystory and made Rao fall guy . Did you ever discuss the constraints Rao faced, the machinations of congress leaders like Arjun, Indira's vote banks, Rajiv's foolishness? Demonising Rao didn't help dynasty look good, but robbed congress of moments of changing hystory.

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