The PM who 'Empowered' his Colleagues to Dissent

Bharat Ratna to PV

A leader’s strength reflects
more in his ability to absorb the critics
and march forward
than in silencing them
under the threat of power.

A great leader … and one who showed the courage of conviction in leading the nation through the right path of reforms against the heaviest odds” is what Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao (PV) was in the words of the former President of India, Pranab Mukherjee.

Lee Hsien Loong, former Prime Minister of Singapore (2004-2020), described him as “A courageous and wise statesman who put India on the path of reform”. For Goh Chok Tong, former Prime Minister of Singapore (1990-2004), Rao was “an international statesman, a quiet but visionary leader of India” and “India is blooming today because of the foundation he laid”.

In the words of Rao himself, as stated in his book, The Insider, he “climbed ladders and more ladders… feeling all the while that he was on level ground… from patvari to Prime Minister: A long journey from a small Indian village to the capital with no celebration at any stage”. And thus remained PV as “a modest man”, maybe consciously believing that he “has much to be modest about.”

It is destiny that he, a semi-retired politician, was all of a sudden catapulted to the PM’s seat as well as made the president of the Congress Party by the power centers led by Sonia Gandhi, of course not without a reason: His sobriety and the perceived “no threat” from him to the people who were already in commanding positions.

Once in the saddle, he proved to be a great commander having a sound grip on the task of steering the country through turbulent times, despite inheriting a nation that was facing great threats from insurgents in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir and economically it was on the brink of bankruptcy — “large and persistent macroeconomic imbalances, low productivity of investment, unsustainable increase in government expenditure, budgetary subsidies grown to an alarming level, excessive and often indiscriminate protection provided to the industry that has weakened the incentive to develop a vibrant export sector, growing current account deficits in the balance of payments, depleted foreign currency reserves to around $1 bn that was barely sufficient to finance two weeks of imports”, etc.

Faced with a financial crisis of that magnitude, PV — “a courageous and wise statesman” but often dubbed as a consummate backroom politician — in an unprecedented and courageous move, appointed Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister with the responsibility of nursing and strengthening the ailing Indian economy. Through him, like Deng Xiaoping who steered China away from Maoist policies to the market economy during the early 1980s, Rao mustered the courage to gently push India away from Nehruvian economics to a path of liberalization that freed India from the shackles of socialist ideology-driven ‘inward-looking’ growth path.

The reform process that was launched under him made far-reaching changes: Foreign trade, foreign investment and exchange rate regimes were all redefined. The financial sector was totally overhauled. Of all these reforms, the devaluation of the rupee and the shift in the very exchange rate regime were the fundamental ones, which the RBI could not have achieved but for the wholehearted support from Rao.

In the words of C Rangarajan, the then Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Rao stood solidly behind the finance minister extending all political support needed to put India on the right economic course. As the ex-governor observed, he was not a reluctant reformer although he did not sound that enthusiastic while these path-breaking reforms were successfully executed.

He did just what he was supposed to do — watching their implementation from a distance without poking his nose, simply as an elderly statesman. Unlike the common ilk of politicians, he did not make too much noise in implementing these reforms attracting the otherwise avoidable resentment from the staunch followers of the erstwhile regime.

He had thrown open the door to foreign institutional investors to invest in Indian capital markets and foreign direct investments in many sectors despite strong opposition from powerful industrial houses to such initiatives. The Colas and the likes of IBM who had been banished from India earlier were welcomed back. Being fully convinced about the need for fundamental economic changes, he stood like a rock behind the various reforms that were launched and executed. However, being a wily politician, “He couched his views in such a way that it appealed to the old guard of his party.” To quote the former Governor of RBI, he “always talked of ‘continuation’ when there was really a ‘break’”.

Rao reformed the country in such a way that he could finally reconfigure the “Hindu growth rate” and, to the surprise of everybody, it leapfrogged to 8% plus. At the same time, he never lost his concern for the poor and the vulnerable as the following lines written by him in a document reveal: “There is, however, one danger which we must recognize and guard against in the ‘opening up’ process. This could lead to wider disparities within the society. To meet this situation, we have to enable the underprivileged sections also to derive the benefit of the new opportunities. This process would naturally need some time to fructify. Until that happens, there has to be a by-pass arrangement whereby benefits reach the lowest rungs of the social pyramid directly from the State. We are doing this”.

He accomplished all this in a pretty subdued way, and yet, lost his job. To quote him: “I lost one job trying to implement a socialistic program” (Chief Ministership of Andhra Pradesh while implementing land reforms in the early 1970s) and “as if to balance it, I have also lost another job trying to liberalize what had tended to become insensitive somehow after the socialist process, though not because of it,” and that was the irony which even statesmen of his calibre could not escape from.

This side of PV’s personality is of course, well-known to everyone for that was what often prized in public or private. But what our younger generation, which is attempting to whisk out of the colonial moorings, should know about PV is the “other side” of him which is unfortunately spoken of less, be it in public or private.

To appreciate it better, let us first take a look at what the Congress Party is known as, or for that matter, the predominant tilt we as Indians have towards “mai-baap” culture, where everyone is afraid to air his feelings freely. While intervening in the debate on the resolution moved by Morarji Desai on purity and strengthening the organization at the Congress Subjects Committee meeting at Satyamurty Nagar, Avadi on January 20, 1955, and the suggestion made by Algurai Shastri that the resolution should not publicize the malpractices that had crept into the Congress since self-criticism in public simply would put the noose round the necks of Congressmen which other people might use to drag them with, Jawaharlal Nehru said: “I have been president of the Congress and I know from personal experience that there is a lot of impurity in the Congress and even some of the biggest Congressmen are a party to it. Why should we hide these things? Are we to live behind purdah and wear a veil? Algurai Shastri has himself talked to me several times about these impure trends in the Congress and expressed his regret about them. If any member wants to suggest an amendment to the resolution, by all means he can do it, but we must face our weaknesses and drawbacks and the impure trends that have crept in, truthfully and honestly.”

No one would perhaps disagree if I said that Nehru’s lamentation remained all along a distant dream, till at least PV landed on the Prime Ministerial gaddi. It is not known if it was to compensate for his act of nudging India away from Nehruvian economic policies that Rao wanted to push the Congressmen gently towards what Nehru desired to happen: He did grant allowances to his detractors to air their feelings, views even contrary to the party’s stance and, for that matter, even criticize the leadership without fear and hang-ups. Else, the Tiwaris, Singhs, et al., would not have had the courage to openly question the wisdom of Rao or criticize his acts from public platforms.

PV’s grace simply radiates from the fact of his maintaining silence over such criticisms. We, however, do not know if this empowering of his colleagues to freely air their opinions which could be quite embarrassing to the power centers and maintaining stoic silence over them was by design, believing in Machiavelli’s principles:

“Scorn and abuse arouse hatred against those who indulge in them without bringing them any advantage” and “Prudent Princes and Republics should be content with victory, for, when they are not content with it, they usually lose”, or by default.

Nevertheless, he did reform the mindset of Indians. He simply emboldened the people to question the “authority” and seek answers. Whether this reform has taken roots as firmly as the economic reforms or not is a different question. What matters here is, a beginning had been made and Rao walked away with that credit. We must salute Rao for watering Nehru’s longings to germinate at least after 40 years. And that is what metamorphosed PV, a politician, into a “wise statesman”.

PV, the “true father” of India’s nuclear program, an extremely well-read man and a scholar and the reformer of the Indian economy richly deserves Bharat Ratna.


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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