Free Press Journal

Narasimha Rao, a forced reformer

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Shrouded in controversy in life, P V Narasimha Rao, prime minister of India from 1991 to 1996, again provoked controversy 14 years after his death when Narendra Modi upstaged Rahul Gandhi by honouring his memory on 28 June, the 97th anniversary of his birth.

Mr Gandhi’s tardiness in acknowledging the occasion was not surprising. Narasimha Rao, who had never been a favourite of the ruling Congress clique, once told me, “I am the only prime minister not of the Family to complete the full term, and I shall never be forgiven for that!” But Mr Modi’s tribute is not without calculation either in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha elections. Narasimha Rao is remembered mainly as the leader who allowed the 16th century Babri Masjid to be destroyed, leading to Congress being marginalised in the key state of Uttar Pradesh.

Mr Modi claims all the credit now for opening up India’s economy to the world. If there is any credit to spare, it goes to Manmohan Singh who was prime minister for 10 years (2004-2014) but who began liberalisation in 1991 under Narasimha Rao’s instructions as his finance minister. Without quite acknowledging Narasimha Rao’s service to the economy — which might have stolen some of his own thunder — Mr Modi tweeted last week that he was “widely respected as a statesman who provided valuable leadership during a critical period of India’s history.” Also, that “Blessed with immense wisdom, he made a mark as a distinguished scholar as well.” The vice president, M Venkaiah Naidu, was a little more specific. His tweet called Narasimha Rao a “scholar who played (a) key role in reforming (the) Indian economy” and (b) is “remembered for his knowledge and wisdom”.


The reference to “a critical period of India’s history” demands explanation. Actually, the role of reformer was forced on Narasimha Rao. Having been brought up on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian socialism and then on Indira Gandhi’s state capitalism, he was not an instinctive free market man. He had no genuine faith in private enterprise to start with. In fact, he wasn’t an economics planner at all but an astute political tactician who used the economics card for political purposes. When the old guard in what was still the Soviet Union rebelled against Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost and tried to stage a coup against him, Narasimha Rao at once seized on the event to warn against hasty change. But the revolt petered out, Mr Gorbachev went ahead with dissolving the rigorous Soviet dictatorship, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew hailed Narasimha Rao as India’s Deng Xiaoping, the man who made China rich.

His motivators were the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Left bankrupt by Rajiv Gandhi’s extravagance and the misrule of short-lived minority governments, deprived of the remittances of Indian workers in the Persian Gulf states, India desperately needed loans to bring back its mortgaged gold and pay for essential imports. The United States saved the day with its nod of approval to the global financial institutions. Once he had accepted the new regimen, Narasimha Rao moved fast and quietly. After an attempt to induct I G Patel, the economist and former director of the London School of Economics, failed, he sent P C Alexander, the veteran bureaucrat, who had no party affiliations and could be relied on not to talk, to invite 61-year-old Dr Singh to take over the key finance portfolio.

Dr Singh was not in politics. But he had worked closely with almost every Indian prime minister and he was familiar with the American establishment. He knew the medicine India needed. What he did not know was whether the government would have the political courage to administer it. He asked Alexander if the prime minister would support unpalatable measures that might be unpopular with voters. Narasimha Rao unhesitatingly gave him that assurance in writing. A grateful Narasimha Rao also developed ties with Singapore and Israel which had neither of them been prominent destinations for Indian diplomacy.

If all that has worked out well, not so the problem of the Babri Majid. No government has yet been able to decide whether the empty site should be occupied by a mosque or a temple and a mosque, and if the latter, where each should be located. Narasimha Rao claims in his posthumously published memoirs that he was on the point of solving the thorny issue when the Bharatiya Janata Party spoilt everything. He claims he was negotiating with some apolitical sadhus on identifying a site where a temple to celebrate Ram’s birthplace could be built without breaking the law or fanning communal tensions. But in August 1992, the sadhus abruptly withdrew from the talks without warning.

The stalemate was broken in the worst possible way on 6 December 1992 when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates organised a rally involving 150,000 Viswa Hindu Parishad and BJP kar sevaks at the site of the mosque. The ceremonies included speeches by BJP leaders such as Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti. Suddenly, a young man slipped through the police cordon and climbed the mosque roof with a saffron flag. This was taken as a signal for attack by thousands of men who had obviously come prepared for destruction, and the massive medieval structure was soon reduced to a heap of rubble. A 2009 report by Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan blamed 68 people for the demolition, most of them prominent BJP leaders. Apart from Mr Advani, Mr Joshi and Ms Bharti, the report named Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rajmata Vijay Raje Scindia of Gwalior. Kalyan Singh, who was then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, was also blamed.

In the closing years of his life, Narasimha Rao often wondered why the sadhus broke off the negotiations. Eventually, he hit upon an explanation. “It was clear that there was a change of mind on their part or, what is more likely, on the part of the political forces that controlled them” he wrote. “These forces deliberately wanted to get out of [a] friendly situation which the sanyasis were getting into with me and which, if left to itself, would have made the mandir issue wholly apolitical,” Narasimha Rao wrote. Mr Modi cannot be unaware that Narasimha Rao indirectly blamed the BJP but that is unlikely to worry him. The retreat of the sadhus from the dialogue would be seen in saffron circles as proof of their Hindutva commitment. By breaking off negotiations, they were warning India that they would not be fobbed off with a compromise. They insisted on the mosque’s demolition and the surrender of the entire site to the greater glory of the mythic Lord Rama.

Invoking that episode is one more feather in the Hindutva cap, and something for Mr Modi to boast of as the BJP seeks votes for 2019.

Sunanda L Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist