Narasimha Rao Tenure: An Evaluation

Continued from “Scams and Scandals - Controversies that Marred Rao’s Political Legacy”

‘The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.’

... a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
         – Othello’s farewell speech, “Othello,” Act 5, Scene 2

It's indeed a regrettable bane of Indian history after Independence that it is replete with unconscionable distortions injected into it by the writings of historians owing allegiance to the so-called Marxist dialectics and , and more particularly, the school of thought owing blind allegiance to the Nehuvian political legacy. Their stranglehold lasting decades resulted in the spinning of many untruths, which have masqueraded as the as the official gospel. Its causalities were numerous whose contribution to the country has, over the years, been deliberately underrated, if not ignored altogether.

One of the most important victims of the upholders of the Nehruvian raj and its glorified legacy was Narasimha Rao. Aware of what was going on to malign him and his tenure as Prime Minister, lying on his deathbed in an AIMS ward on December 23, 2004, must have wondered what will posterity associate his name with: the results he achieved or some of the murky deals associated with his tenure. His assiduously cultivated literary tastes – after all he was a profoundly read man – must have made him hark back to the above-cited last soliloquy of the Moor.

And then soon thereafter his breath was air. The indignities that his political foes heaped even on his dead body being moved from place to place before it was consigned to flames in Hyderabad, exemplify the far-from-civic political culture spun by the self-deluded First Family, whose victim he was because he stubbornly resisted to kowtow.

Yes, he had ‘done the state some service’. Indeed, he had. And memorably significant. He had refused to take the beaten track of his predecessors. He had dared to blaze new trails. Indeed mistakes had been made. There had been lapses – errors of omission and commission. But he had tried to give a new direction to the future of his country. He, like Deng Xiaoping in China, changed the course of his country’s history by daring to introduce and implement far-reaching market-economy reforms. And the India of today owes a great deal to him.


Narasimha Rao’s ascendancy to the prime ministership was politically significant in more respects than one. He was the first holder of this office from non-Hindi-speaking south India. I don’t think someone across the Vindhyas is likely to hold this office in the foreseeable future. More importantly, he led a crucially important administration, overseeing major transformations in India.

Economic Reforms

Narasimha Rao undertook to restructure India in three fundamental ways. The first was economically, which indeed was the most significant. During the five years of his mandate, he deregulated the economy, loosened state control and its autarkic system, opened the Indian economy to the world and encouraged the private sector to play its role. And if India’s gross domestic product is poised to reach unimagined heights – see the chart – a great of the credit goes to Rao who unshackled it in the first instance.

To set the record straight, let me refer once again to the most unenviable economic mess that Narasimha Rao inherited. Let us not forget the real villains and real heroes of the 1991 crisis. TCA Srinivasa Raghavan put it brilliantly in a recent article in the Business Standard1991: The Real Villain Was Rajiv Gandhi, The Real Hero Was Not Manmohan”. He dares to ask the question: should the Bharat Ratna have gone to Rajiv, who wrecked the economy, or to Chandrashekhar, Yashwant Sinha and S. Venkitaramanan, who saved it?

1991 Liberalization

When Rao took over, India was still persisting with a Fixed Exchange rate and massive investor confidence decline caused India to be on the verge of economic bankruptcy.

Victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan, says an oft-quoted aphorism. Rao took the risky thrust to dismantle the economic edifice built by the previous Congress regimes. And since it miraculously survived to be become a living reality many a public figure has thrown his hat in the ring to claim credit for the gambit. For example, Yashwant Sinha, the now-estranged veteran bureaucrat-turned-politician wrote on July 29, 2016 in the Hindu “1991:The Untold Story”, recounting how he was the real savior in those crucial months preceding Rao’s bold economic package. He goes to the extent of maintaining: “Fate had intervened and taken away the opportunity from me to present the same Budget that the Congress later presented and won kudos for. I was surprised at Dr. Singh’s appointment as my successor because he wasn’t into politics then.”

And then there are seasoned time-servers who deify Manmohan Singh as the father of the 1991 reforms. As mentioned in an earlier article in the present series, Manmohn Singh’s role was only that of an executor of Rao’s unprecedentedly bold initiative. In fact there’s an interesting nugget on Manmohan Singh in Vinay Sitapati’s study Half Lion: “when he took a somewhat cautious draft of his 1991 budget to Rao, the latter dismissed it with a crisp, ‘If this is what I wanted, why would I have selected you?’”

The real credit for marking a paradigm shift from the industrializing mixed economic model of Jawaharlal Nehru, to a market driven one, goes to Rao alone on whose head incidentally the entire blame would have been heaped if the venture had misfired. What adds luster to his venture was that he headed a minority government when he managed to obtain parliamentary approval of his plans.

Paradigm Shift

The second re-structuring concerned our relations with the major external powers: Russia, China, USA and the European Union. The European countries, other than the UK had never figured in an important way in India’s foreign policy considerations. However, with the new open economic policy, issues of trade, technology and investments with Europe became, during Rao’s tenure, important concerns of foreign policy.

Narasimha Rao came to center stage as the Cold War bi-polar world ended with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the consequent end of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe and the end of the once-irresistible appeal of the Marxist-Communist ideology. Rao come to power after the short-lived governments of V.P. Singh and Chandrashekhar, neither of whom prepared India for a post Cold War world, although V P Singh had the advantage of having I.K. Gujral as his Foreign Minister. Gujral had earlier been Ambassador to Moscow and understood the impact of the changes taking place.

It fell, therefore, to Narasimha Rao to deal with the new world structure at the same time as he faced a difficult domestic socio-economic situation and did not have the domestic political support that Nehru had enjoyed. In the new world structure, India faced very real difficulties. India’s non-alignment had become dependent on the Soviet Union, and the new Russian leadership, especially Boris Yeltsin was much more concerned with relations toward Western Europe and the USA. India’s relations on other fronts too were on the decline: the interaction with the non-aligned world had become disarranged and the north-south negotiations had virtually stopped.

Rao also made diplomatic overtures to Western Europe, the United States, and China. He decided in 1992 to bring into the open India’s relations with Israel, which had been kept covertly active. Israel was permitted to open an embassy in New Delhi. Rao launched the Look East foreign policy, which brought India closer to ASEAN.

Nuclear Programme

The third re-structuring - as crucial as the economic transformation - was in the area of the nuclear programming which had - it must be recorded - been kept alive by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi by secret funding. Rao, however, was faced with a difficult and troublesome international environment when he became Prime Minister. The de facto strategic alliance with Moscow, that had hitherto guaranteed India’s security, was in a shambles. The Indo-Soviet link, for long perceived as central to Indian diplomacy, was, all said, history. China had gained nuclear superpower status, with implicit US acceptance and had assumed a status that the USA had to reckon with. Worse were Pakistan’s pretensions, which had been claiming – unofficially since 1987 and officially since 1992 – that it possessed all the components of a nuclear bomb, and the knowhow to assemble one.

A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the 11th President of the Republic from 2002 to 2007 who played all through a vital behind-the-scene role in nurturing India’s nuclear programme, emphatically corroborated that even though Rao never conducted the nuclear test, it was he who had really operationalized the nuclear programme. This was unreservedly endorsed by Vajpayee, who later carried out the nuclear test, and who declared after Rao’s death, that “it was Rao, and not me, who really initiated the country’s nuclear programme.”

National security:

The Rao administration also introduced India’s first anti-terrorist legislation in the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). In Punjab, reeling under a separatist movement which had already claimed 50,000 lives, Rao held elections even against popular misgivings. The State elections of February 2002 were followed by a collapse of militancy in Punjab. He followed a similar strategy in J&K, but with partial success. Kashmiri insurgency was controlled, but the State continued to be a security nightmare. The administration’s reaction to the 1993 Bombay blasts was lauded for its efficiency and immediacy. The Rao Government also set a trend for increased military spending to combat terrorism and militancy.

Corruption Charges and Acquittal

Whatever the achievements of Rao’s government it would always be associated with the charge of corruption when his government was facing a no-confidence motion in July 1993 that the combined opposition brought against him. It was widely alleged that Rao, through a representative, offered huge bribe to members of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), and possibly also a breakaway faction of the Janata Dal, to vote for him during the confidence motion. Shailendra Mahato, one of those members who had accepted the bribe, later turned an approver. In 1996, after Rao’s term in office had expired, investigations began in earnest in the case. In 2000, after years of legal proceedings, a special court convicted Rao and his colleague, Buta Singh (who is alleged to have escorted the MPs to the Prime Minister). Rao was sentenced to three years in prison for corruption. Rao appealed to the Delhi High Court and remained free on bail. In 2002, the Delhi High Court overturned the lower court’s decision mainly due to the doubt in credibility of Mahato’s statements (which were extremely inconsistent) and both Rao and Buta Singh were cleared of the charges.

Two Blemishes

No record of public service is sans blemish – major or minor. If we draw the balance sheet of the performance of each of our Prime Ministers – or for that matter any other public functionary – there would, inevitably, be some entry/ies in the red. Everything considered there are, in case of Narasimha Rao’s Prime Ministership, at least two blemishes, namely, the massacre of some 3000 Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984 when law and order in Delhi was under Rao’s charge as Home Minister of India and, secondly, the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 when he was Prime Minister.

Anti-Sikh Pogrom

The butchery of the innocent Sikh men women and children is an indelible blot that cannot be wished away. Lately, it has been recorded elaborately in a doctoral study, 1984: In Memory and Imagination - Personal Essays and Stories on the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots, edited by Vikram Kapur. It examines the human narrative of 1984 with stories, both real and imagined, of men and women whose lives were tragically changed by that gruesome chain of events and who continue to live with them to this day.

Vinay Sitapati in his evaluation does not spare Rao’s far-from-glorious role in the anti-Sikh riots of the first week of November 1984 which he calls, in an oblique reference to the oft-quoted adjective of Churchillian vintage, his “vilest hour”. He is on record to say how senior lawyers Ram Jethmalani and Shanti Bhushan met Narasimha Rao after the widespread murders of Sikhs began and pleaded for his intervention. Rao, then Home Minister under whose charge was law and order of Delhi State, did practically nothing.

Was Rao sitting on his haunches or was he under instructions from Rajiv Gandhi who was hurriedly sworn in as Prime Minister on October 31, 1984 itself? There is no official record to rely on. Sitapati who had access to Rao’s personal and private papers mentions about reports of an interview with an unnamed bureaucrat who recalls a phone call the Home Minister received from an unnamed personality in the Prime Minister’s Office. The instruction obviously was: the Home Minister should do nothing. And that’s what he did.

Does this version of facts which is very likely indeed, absolve Narasimha Rao of the moral responsibility of failing to do what was expected of the office he was holding? Certainly not. If he was under directions to let the riots continue to vent public anger and teach the Sikhs a lesson – as the grapevine had it – then Rao could have resigned. He failed to do that because he wasn’t prepared to go into political wilderness by disobeying the so-called High Command. All said and done, Rao failed the mirror test which is the final test to measure whether we spent our life only to self-preserve and self- promote or we achieved something beyond that.

A word or two about the test. Peter Drucker in his Management Challenges of the Twenty-first Century tells us about the person to whom the test is attributed. He was a great German diplomat, who, in the first decade of the now-forgotten twentieth century, was accredited to St. James’ Court in London. The ruling sovereign of the United Kingdom (now planning to self-implode) was King Edward VII who followed Queen Victoria on the throne.

One occupation that most rulers of the House of Windsor excelled in was the satisfaction of their insatiable sexual appetite. Prince Charles certainly isn’t the pioneer thereof. In a way, Mrs. Brown (as Her Majesty Queen Victoria was referred to) herself had bequeathed the legacy of the gene responsible for sexual peccadilloes of the royal family.

Victoria’s heir, Edward VII was a notorious womanizer. When he completed five years on the throne, the corps diplomatique was asked to arrange a banquet in his honor. That was in 1906. The distinguished German Ambassador who was widely expected to be his country’s next Foreign Minister, as the senior most diplomat, was supposed to preside over the banquet. The British monarch had made his preference well-known in advance. The banquet with all its royal regalia must end, after the dessert, with a giant-sized cake materializing in the center of the hall, out of which were supposed to emerge a dozen naked shapely women, one of which His Majesty will condescend to take to bed that night.

To the utter shock and dismay of the entire diplomatic world, the German ambassador tendered his resignation rather than be called upon to preside over the banquet that the British sovereign had suggested. His startling decision was in response to the query to his self the previous night: “Are you, old chap, prepared to see a bloody pimp in the mirror next morning when you shave?”

When making really crucial decisions in life, we’re expected to take the mirror test by looking straight into our own eyes in the mirror and ask: What values do you uphold?”

Had Rao been ordered by 10 Janpath to turn a blind eye to the gruesome happenings on and after the afternoon of October 31, 1985 and he acquiesced into it, he doesn’t emerge as a great human being but just a self-serving politician who was only too ready to pay the price to retain his berth in the establishment of the day.

Babri Masjid

Secondly, the demolition of Babri Masjid will always haunt the Rao narrative.

Was he alone responsible for it? He had asked Madhav Godbole, his home secretary, to draw up a contingency plan to take over the mosque. This secret contingency plan contained the modalities for Central forces to take over Babri Masjid. It specified that Article 356 had to be invoked. Why was the Godbole Plan not implemented?

Or, was the whole episode, in legal jargon, a case of apportioning damages among multiple tortfeasors? I discussed this in detail in a previous installment in this series – “Dark Side of the Moon: Who demolished Babri Masjid?”

Personally, I deem the case Who Demolished the Babri Masjid?, is a political equivalent of the famous Who Killed John Doe? case which is discussed and debated in most management programs in a bid to apportion responsibility as per differing perspectives that we bring to bear upon the study of what happened, and why did it happen, and who really can be held responsible for what? So the jury is still out. Meanwhile, those piqued by the fact that a politician not on the approved list of the First Family could last a full term and bring into being momentous changes that shaped the future of the polity continue unjustifiably to heap the blame on Rao’s shoulders. That’s how the Lutyens’ City operates.

Is it fair that we who have the advantage of hindsight should evaluate Rao’s tenure by these two blemishes alone? The significance of the three paradigm shifts – that he painstakingly brought into being – have shaped our polity and deeply influenced our history. Isn’t it a pity that in spite of Rao’s eventful administration, he has largely been ignored by his party? A victim of intra-party politics, Rao, perhaps was always an ‘outsider’ for the Gandhi family-obsessed Congress. For example when Sonia Gandhi, in her 28 December 2009 address commemorating 125 years of the party’s formation praised the contributions of all Congress Prime Ministers she altogether omitted the name of Rao. She painted Rajiv Gandhi as the actual architect of the economic reforms, publicly undermining Rao’s legacy. The man who almost single-handedly did so much to transform India from a Nehruvian socialist straitjacket to an open economy poised to take off to a higher plateau of growth would be assured of a honorable place in the pantheon of national heroes. That, alas, is not the case. The Bard was not cynical when he said:

‘The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.’

However it is incumbent on historians to exhume the interred good. And there’s plenty of it.



More by :  H.N. Bali

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