The man, who lacked the charisma and oomph appeal of Rajiv Gandhi, scripted the most remarkable turnaround in history. Half Lion puts the life and times of India’s Chanakya in perspective.
PERSPECTIVE 1: A clean man
Rao was personally incorruptible, though he understood that a political party needed money to survive. As Andhra’s chief minister, he had given his secretary, PVRK Prasad, a bundle of cash to be paid to party men. When Prasad balked, Rao told, him: “such work is equally unpalatable to me. But these days, you can’t be in politics without doing such things.”
Years ago, Rao contested to become a MLA. Those days, candidates would order Mahindra jeeps, never to return them. The company wouldn’t dare to complain. Before one of his campaigns, Rao took 200 vehicles and returned them after the election flummoxing the company.
He spent his post prime minister days fighting court cases. Steeped in various charges by inte-
rested parties, in his dying years, Rao considered selling his house to pay his legal fees. Such was the inherent nicety of the man. No case stuck.
PERSPECTIVE 2: Sheer simplicity
There is this interesting story about how Rao gate-crashed into a private function of his two illustrious officials, Venugopal and Yugandhar. In 1992, Prime Minister Rao gate-crashed into the engagement ceremony of Venugopal’s daughter and Yugandhar’s son. The groom’s name was Satya Nadella.
The function was in Venugopal’s official bungalow in Lutyens Delhi. It was a simple affair, and none had invited the prime minister. Rao, however, decided to turn up. He got into an Ambassador with blackened windows and drove with just one escort car. Since the streets had not been cordoned off, Rao was stuck in traffic-an unusual experience for a prime minister.
PERSPECTIVE 3: Sikh riots and camelot days
Rao was the home minister when Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated. The story goes that a young Congressman close to Rajiv Gandhi told Rao on the telephone about the attacks against Sikhs living in Delhi, and spoke of the need to ‘coordinate a single response to the violence.’ Henceforth, ‘all information on the violence should be sent to the PMO.’ The reason was one of efficiency, but the result was that Home Minister Rao was bypassed. So much for his complicity in the riots.
In 1985, Narasimha Rao was in the room where Rajiv told a friend that he intended to open up computer imports. “But the old guard in my party will not understand,” Rajiv complained within the earshot of Rao. That evening, the grand old man of Indian politics called up his son and asked him to send a computer and a tutor. Within 15-days India’s Defence Minister told the specialist teacher he was redundant. Over the years, Rao would master two computer languages, COBOL and BASIC, and would also write code to the mainframe operating system UNIX.
PERSPECTIVE 4: The reformer
Rao had never handled finance and was, therefore, a greenhorn in finance. It changed on 20 June, 1991, when he read an eight-page document, prepared by senior bureaucrats of the previous government, outlining the shocking state of the economy. The moment he finished reading it Rao’s first order was to choose a finance minister acceptable to the West. The mantle fell on Dr. Manmohan Singh.
In his foreign visits, Rao played the role of a traveling salesman. In Japan, instead of speaking to a roomful of industrialists, he met each businessman one-on-one. When Akio Morita, the head of Sony, entered the room, Rao put his hand over Morita and said: “every Indian wants a Sony TV, and you are not making it.” Sony was willing only if they could own 100 per cent of the local company, which Indian rules forbade. “You apply,” Rao told him.
The prime minister knew when to delegate responsibility. The stock market bang, as well as boom in the number of airlines and TV channels, owe to Rao’s wisdom in letting technocrats take the calls. Rao’s ‘realism’ also explains his limitations. After 1995, with one eye on the national elections, he ignored Dr. Singh’s pleas and slowed down reforms. His inability to ‘Make in India’ ranks as his single biggest economic failure. India ruined the opportunity to leverage cheap labour and become a manufacturing hub, creating millions of factory jobs.
PERSPECTIVE 5: The toughie
P. Chidambaram’s wife had bought shares in a company named in the Harshad Mehta scam. The amount was trivial, paid by cheque, and there was no evidence of favours exchanged. When the Opposition bayed for his blood, Chidambaram held a presser and sent in his resignation to the prime minister suggesting if he wished he could accept it. Miffed at having held a presser without informing him, Rao accepted the resignation. PC’s gamble had backfired.
Satish Sharma, a former pilot, wanted the aviation ministry. Rao said, nothing doing. “This is the first time you are holding a ministry. Half the time, the air hostesses you knew will waste your time. Another half your pilot friends. So what work will you do?”
Narasimha Rao turned crisis into opportunities. He told Defence Minister Sharad Pawar, to relocate to Bombay as chief minister in the wake of the 1993 Bombay blasts. When someone asked Rao, ‘why don’t you give up the Congress Presidency?’ he replied: ‘do you want the prime minister to take a file and go to the Congress President?’
PERSPECTIVE 6: Babri Masjid
On the morning of 6 December, 1992, Kar Sevaks left behind the pickaxed ruins of Indian secularism. Many that evening worried that the sun was setting on the India they knew.
A lot of people hold Prime Minister Rao responsible, thinking he slept over the crisis. Few know that he had kept with him a note, written in his handwriting, titled: “reasons for and against trusting the government of Uttar Pradesh.” Few realise that constitutionally he couldn’t have done much differently. He had trusted the ruling chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and paid the price for it.
PERSPECTIVE 7: THE STATESMAN
Rao was the ‘true father’ of India’s nuclear programme. In May 1996, a few days after he had succeeded Rao as prime minister, Vajpayee said: “Rao told me that the bomb was ready. I only exploded it.” On Rao’s magnanimity in letting Vajpayee revel in the glory of nuclear testing, Dr. Kalam said: it reveals the maturity and professional excellence of a patriotic statesman who believed than the nation is bigger than the political system.’ He allowed Dr. Singh to take the credit for economic reforms.
PERSPECTIVE 8: History will be kinder to him
In the end, Rao was a miserable man. Almost no one accompanied him on his many court appearances. Very few visited him during his dying days. Dr. Singh was the exception. Upon his death, he was denied a Delhi funeral; his body was refused entry into the party headquarters. Delhites, save Dr. Singh, didn’t turn up for the funeral in Hyderabad.
But history will be kind to him. The transformation of India happened by the weight of Rao’s personality. Remember he headed a minority government. It meant that he faced the kind of challenges from the Opposition that no other democratic reformer had ever faced. Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher and Nehru were all voted with substantial majorities. And so was a later day Narendra Modi. But Rao successfully managed to complete a full term of five years with the ruling party not enjoying a majority.
Very few in history have achieved so much with so little.
This book is a must read.