In his recently published book Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India (Penguin, Random House), writer and academic Vinay Sitapati talks about how the former prime minister was sidelined by the Congress Party and how his image and ideas are now being appropriated by the Right.
We caught up with him on Rao’s birth anniversary to discuss the book, the Babri Masjid demolition, the 1991 economic reforms and Sonia Gandhi’s distaste for Narasimha Rao. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Why did you choose to write about Narasimha Rao?
I’m in many ways the child of liberalisation. I was growing up in Bandra, Bombay in the 90s and all my friends knew of Mahesh Bhatt’s second wife. But no one knew of Narasimha Rao, but I remember the changes.
The first McDonald’s opened in India. I remember when my father left his Public Sector Unit (PSU) job for a private sector one, and I realised that at the time there was a Narasimha Rao moment in all our lives.
Two years ago, I read a book called Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China which is the story of both Xiaoping and the China of the 1980s which he transformed. It was then that I told myself that there’s a book waiting to be written about India.
You’ve mentioned the figures of several development indicators in 1991 and compared them to 2015 figures, crediting these to the reforms Rao undertook. Could you talk more about how Rao’s reforms helped bring about these changes?
I do have a lot of figures from 1996 in the book. So I compare ’91 and ’96 throughout the book. One is GDP growth, two is government revenues, expenditure on education, health, and infrastructure. So there’s a lot of direct change that you can see between 1991 and 1996.
I’ve also mentioned several changes which only manifested themselves much later. For example, the telecom revolution. As I point out in the book, Narasimha Rao is the father of India’s telecom revolution because he overrides his telecom minister (Sukhram), to allow both private as well as foreign investment. But this can’t be measured in 1996.
But the real influence of Narasimha Rao is that he moved us in a new direction. Many Prime Ministers after Rao improved upon what he did. For example both Deve Gowda and Vajpayee greatly expanded the telecom sector.
When and why did Sonia Gandhi’s relationship with Rao begin to sour?
In the first couple of years of Rao’s prime ministerial tenure, things weren’t easy between them. While Sonia grieved Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in private, Rao worked on his policies. Along with Dr Manmohan Singh, he carefully packaged the policies and his government. It was said that he did so, only to impress upon Sonia Gandhi that this was in compliance with Rajiv Gandhi’s vision. This, however, was completely untrue.
But things began to change after 1993 when Rao decided to become his own man, much to Sonia Gandhi’s dislike. For Sonia, Rao was just her appointee. Rao’s competitors inside the party also tried to influence her opinion about him.
In the book, I also talk about how both of them were spying on each other – Rao using the Intelligence Bureau (IB), and Gandhi with help from many ministers from Rao’s own cabinet.
Though both were equally responsible for the bitterness, Sonia shares the bigger part of the blame when it comes to Rao’s resignation in 1996. He was treated as an outcast by party members once he ceased to be prime minister.
What kind of response have you received for your book? Has the Congress party reacted, since you’ve not been flattering about Sonia Gandhi’s dislike for Rao?
I haven’t received any official response, but many Congress leaders have openly criticised the opinions expressed in the book. But what I find flattering is that nobody has questioned my evidence, the data and the figures I cite.
What do you think about the Right’s appropriation of Narasimha Rao?
I think Narasimha Rao would call himself a Nehruvian Congressman if asked. And since Rao is unavailable to respond, several parties have appropriated him. But the real question is why did Congress abandon someone’s legacy, who, in my opinion, was their best PM since Nehru.
Narasimha Rao’s intellectual trajectory is also intriguing. Initially a socialist, he ended up becoming a pragmatist. But I would not call him classically centre Right or Left. He was more complicated than that.
During the Babri Masjid demolition, Rao was unreachable. You say this is because he was speechless as the first dome came down. What’s your opinion about the multiple theories about how he was otherwise preoccupied, like the one that says he was in a prayer room for many hours?
I’ll put it bluntly. These are straightforward conspiracy theories, and a large number of them have been floated by the Congress. I say bluntly because I have enough evidence in the book to back this claim.
One thing is very clear, even if Rao was sleeping on 6 December, nothing could have been prevented. As the book points out, if the mosque had to be protected without killing people around it and damaging the structure, it had to be done before 24 November.
There is nothing Rao could have done on 6 December when 1,00,000 kar sevaks attacked the mosque while the police was reporting to Kalyan Singh. So how do you protect the mosque without killing people, or damaging the structure? I point out two home ministry reports that make this amply clear.
The story of Narasimha Rao doing puja is an outright lie. The origins of this is from the memoirs of a senior journalist. Was the journalist there? Did he see it? No! He himself claimed that he heard it from a politician, Madhu Limaye, known to be anti-Rao.
How did Rao’s relationship with Advani and others change after the demolition, especially since he trusted them when they said the mosque would be safe?
Rao was not a fool. He did not believe in the idealism of human nature. He was a very cynical man. The only reason he had to trust many of the sundry Hindu saints was because he did not have many formal options.
In the lead up to 6 December, the only thing Rao could have done was to impose President’s rule, and he could not do that because his party and the opposition were against it. Even the Supreme Court refused to give Rao a receivership and the Governor suggested that President’s rule should not be imposed.
If he had pushed for President’s rule in those circumstances, BJP would have pushed for a no-confidence motion, and the matter would have gone to the Supreme Court. It would well have been held illegal, and Rao running a minority Government could have lost his job.
On the other hand, if Narasimha Rao did not impose president’s rule there was a chance that Babri Masjid would fall and so would Rao’s government.
Instead, he chose a third option. Narasimha Rao, who had a very high opinion of himself as a Hindu leader, thought he could out-manoeuvre Hindu saints, VHP and RSS leaders and convince them to protect the mosque without having to impose President’s rule, which was a mistake.