Remembering Modern India's Forgotten Reformer
P.V. Narasimha Rao addresses a joint session of U.S. Congress in 1994.
Image Credit: CSPAN

Remembering Modern India's Forgotten Reformer


History has a way of doing justice that is often as unpredictable as it is illuminating. The Modi government is ready with a memorial for late Indian Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao at New Delhi’s Ekta Sthal Samadhi Complex, a common place for erecting memorials for former presidents, prime ministers and others, with the approval of the Union cabinet. Ten years after his demise, Rao has finally got a memorial in his name in the national capital. This move may be aimed at embarrassing the Congress party, but it does justice to the legacy of one of India’s finest prime ministers. A party that prays at the altar of the dynasty can never appreciate how far-reaching Rao’s accomplishments were.

Ironically, this news comes weeks after the charging of former prime minister Manmohan Singh with corruption and criminal conspiracy for his alleged role in the scandal over the sale of coal fields. Singh has been built up by the Congress party over the years as the real architect of economic reforms in an effort to marginalize Rao. In his last ten years as prime minister, Singh himself hardly found time to acknowledge Rao’s contributions to India. In fact, he hardly reacted when Rao’s body was not even allowed to be taken inside the All India Congress Committee building after his death in 2004 as the Congress party tried its best to deprive Rao of all the credit that should have been his due as the nation’s prime minister at one of the most difficult times in its contemporary history.

The early 1990s was a time when a succession of weak governments had left India rudderless—economically, politically and strategically. The world was changing rapidly and the Indian economy was collapsing. India was facing a million mutinies and there was no one of national stature to stem the tide. The Mandal-Mandir discourse—controversies surrounding caste reservations and Ayodhya—was threatening to unravel the country. It was at such a juncture that Rao assumed power. He had scant support from the senior party leadership of his own party, which was filled with those had their own aspirations to become prime minister.

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Despite the caricature of Rao being indecisive, he 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 it was Rao who fathered the process. Singh was an economic technocrat with little understanding of political constraints and hardly any ability to navigate them. 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 program.

Rao made economic reforms politically tenable at a time when his own party was out to scuttle his most ambitious undertaking. He effectively linked economic policy with foreign policy as he reached out to the United States, recognizing that India would need the support of the West if economic reforms were to succeed.

His imprimatur is everywhere in Indian foreign policy today: Delhi’s subtle balancing act in the Middle East; trying to establish a stable balance with China; the outreach to East and Southeast Asia as part of India’s “Look East” policy; and helping India achieve enough economic heft to withstand sanctions after the NDA conducted Pokharan-II. In the Middle East, Rao had courage no other Indian leader has displayed. He established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992 even as he reached out to Iran, paying a landmark visit to Tehran in 1993 — the first Indian prime minister to do so since the 1979 revolution. Rao was also the initiator of the “Look East” policy. He understood early on that the center of gravity of global economics was shifting to the East and that India’s economic future needed to be linked to the booming economies in East Asia. He expanded India’s engagements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations not only as a matter of India’s economic revival, but also as a counterweight to rising Chinese dominance.

On the internal security front under Rao, the Punjab situation improved markedly and the Indian security forces got a handle on the Kashmir insurgency — even as Rao revived that state’s political process. It was therefore distinctly odd the way Manmohan Singh acquiesced in his party’s decimation of Rao’s legacy. It was only in his last years when the Indian economy – Dr Singh’s claim to fame – seemed to be unraveling, he suddenly remembered the role that Rao had played in making the reforms happen when he acknowledged Rao in his last speech from the Red Fort. In his speech, Dr Singh said, “In the year 1991, under the leadership of Shri Narasimha Rao, we successfully negotiated a major economic crisis and embraced reforms for strengthening our economy. These reforms were opposed by many political parties at that time. But the reforms were in national interest and were therefore continued by all governments that came to power subsequently. Since then, the reform process has continually moved forward.”

It was Rao’s sagacious political leadership that sustained economic reforms in the early 1990s. Today, the Congress party’s leadership has little understanding of what’s at stake. Neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi has shown any leadership on the issue, leaving Singh adrift at a time of global and local economic turmoil. The Congress has, over the years, created this myth that Rao was a closet sympathizer of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. This allowed the party to absolve its rank and file of all the blame and make Rao a convenient scapegoat. It is neatly forgotten that it was Rajiv Gandhi’s government that opened the locks and performed shilanyas (ground-breaking ceremony) at the disputed site. The party may have given Rao a short shrift but there is a new awareness of Rao’s achievements in India today.

By honoring Rao after his death, the Modi government will be only giving Rao what should have been his due during his lifetime.

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