Eleven years ago, a former Prime Minister breathed his last in New Delhi. He was 83. The veteran politician had been an integral part of the Indian National Congress since independence. A former Chief Minister and holder of several Cabinet portfolios, he served as India’s 9th Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996, overseeing a crucial period of economic transformation and social upheaval. But Congress leaders directed the family to cremate him in Hyderabad – not in Delhi where most Prime Ministers and public servants had been cremated. His body was not even allowed inside the AICC building in the capital.
It was the final humiliation of Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao.
PV Narasimha Rao was about to retire from national politics in 1991 when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. Following Mr Gandhi’s death, Rao led a minority Government at the Centre as Prime Minister of one of the most crucial administrations in Indian history.
Rao’s tenure as Prime Minister would witness several historic events including the 1991 economic reforms, insurgency in Kashmir, the demolition of the Babri mosque and the 1993 Latur earthquake. Being the first Prime Minister from non-Hindi-speaking South India, historians have noted the uniqueness of Rao’s Prime Ministership. He managed to contain opposition from both within his party and outside even as he led a minority Government which struggled to administer an India reeling under economic and social crises.
Rao’s administration was also mired in several controversies. Besides the failure to prevent the Babri demolition and the riots that followed, the Rao administration was tainted by the cash-for-votes scam of 1993, the stock market scam involving Harshad Mehta, and the Hawala scam involving the “Jain brothers”.
The significance of his tenure can be broadly classified into four categories:
1991 economic reforms: the most important event in modern India’s economic history. With the help of Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, PM Rao dismantled India’s License Raj, transitioning India from a socialist-inspired economy to a market-oriented economy. He reduced import tariffs and taxes, expanded private enterprise and attracted foreign investment. By doing so, Rao managed to save an almost-bankrupt India from economic collapse. The reforms that began in 1991 are still ongoing, as Indian enterprises continue to expand and GDP per capita continues to increase. Critics have blamed India’s rising inequality on the reforms, but it is established that the advent of an entrepreneurial India touted as a future superpower would not have been possible without the 1991 economic reforms.
Babri Masjid demolition: The Ram Janmabhoomi debate climaxed on 6 December 1992 when religious extremists tore down the disputed 16th-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya, claiming it to be the birthplace of Lord Rama. The following months saw the most brutal Hindu-Muslim riots of post-Partition India, killing at least 2000 and displacing many more. Many criticized the Rao administration for failing to quell the riots.
Foreign policy: Rao launched the Look East policy which was subsequently championed by future Governments including the current Modi administration. He revitalized India’s diplomatic relations with Europe, China and the US. He advocated Indian intelligence to bring Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism to the attention of the international community. His diplomatic coups with Israel and Iran are epitomes of his foreign policy credentials.
National security: The Rao administration introduced India’s first anti-terrorist legislation in the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). In a 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 to 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.
In spite of Rao’s eventful administration, he has largely been ignored by his party. A victim of intra-party politics, Rao, political columnists argue, was always an ‘outsider’ for the Gandhi family-obsessed Congress. A prime example of this would be 28 December 2009 when Sonia Gandhi delivered a speech in Delhi commemorating 125 years since the party’s formation. Mrs Gandhi praised the contributions of all Congress Prime Ministers except for Rao. She painted Rajiv Gandhi as the actual architect of the economic reforms, publicly undermining Rao’s legacy.
“Despite his caricature as being indecisive, [Narasimha Rao] was one of the most decisive leaders this nation has seen. On all crucial issues, he took decisions that have continued to shape India’s rise over the last two decades. Manmohan Singh may be touted as the father of Indian economic reforms; but as Singh has himself acknowledged, it was Rao who fathered the process. Singh was an economic technocrat with little understanding of political constraints. It was Rao who shielded Singh from the left wing of his own party, a flank that had left no stone unturned in opposing the economic liberalization programme. Rao made economic reforms politically tenable at a time when his own party was out to scuttle his most ambitious undertaking. How ironical, then, that today the same Congress-wallahs try to take credit for India’s economic success without acknowledging Rao’s role.” – Harsh V Pant
To supporters, Rao was the engineer of the economic reforms which transformed India from an almost-bankrupt State to one of the world’s largest economies. To critics, he was the leader who failed to provide social security during the Ayodhya riots. To historians, he was a man whose tenure as Prime Minister was highly eventful and important for modern India – one that should not be overlooked. It is, therefore, a sad thing that his name has been more or less disregarded in India’s history books, and his stature ignored in the annals of Indian politics.