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Erasing Narasimha Rao

Omkar Goswami


I am programmed to sleep on the back seat of cars. So I was surprised to be awake at Mehdipatnam while being driven to Hyderabad airport. As the car was about to get on to the new 11.6 km elevated expressway that has eliminated the commuting pain to the new airport, I noticed a sign. In white on blue, it said ‘P.V. Narasimha Rao Elevated Expressway’.

I felt happy. At last I saw a project of significance being named after a person of consequence. The fact that it is in a state ruled by the Congress is entirely due to the late Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy, then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who knew the importance of this son of the soil.

The Congress has done what it can to belittle Narasimha Rao as the tenth Prime Minister of India and erase his positive achievements from the party’s collective memory. When Rao died in Delhi on December 2004, it refused to let his body lie in the AICC headquarters; moreover, the Congress-led government denied the family’s request to have a burial plot (samadhi) on the banks of the Yamuna — thus showing that Charan Singh, Devi Lal and Zail Singh deserved more important cenotaphs in independent India than Rao. It was Rajashekhar Reddy who insisted that Rao’s body be cremated with full state honours in Hyderabad.

For the Congress, Narasimha Rao is like Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter series: ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ except to apportion blame. Therefore, in Congress-speak, Rao had nothing to do with launching of India’s economic reforms that dismantled much of the dysfunctional licence-control-permit raj and planted the seeds of 9 per cent growth; and everything to do with the Shibu Soren-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha bribery scandal and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Given the short memories of India’s increasingly young populace, the assumption is that Rao’s positives will be soon forgotten; while his failures will be raked up whenever convenient.

Step back a bit and think of what Rao did in his first two years as the head of a minority government. And in doing so, remember that he was not a natural dyed-in-wool economic reformer. First, he appointed Manmohan Singh, then a pure technocrat, as his Finance Minister; gave him the rope; and politically covered his flanks. Few remember to two sharp devaluations within a month of Rao coming to office. Fewer still remember the visceral dislike that India had for devaluation since the failure of Indira Gandhi’s 1966 experiment. Yet, Manmohan Singh was allowed to do it. Who gave him cover? Narasimha Rao.

Think of the things that Singh did under the patronage of Rao. Slashing tariff rates from an average of 85 per cent to 25 per cent in three years; knocking off most quantitative controls on imports; ridding India of the Controller of Capital Issues; creating Sebi; opening up India’s market to foreign institutional investors; encouraging foreign direct investments in ways that were unimaginable a few years earlier; putting an end to the Industrial Development (Regulation) Act; dramatically reducing the span of industries under licensing; creating much greater competition than ever before; and most of all, creating the space for Indian entrepreneurs to unleash their long dormant animal spirits and rediscover their faith in doing business in India.

I can go on and on. It isn’t necessary. Narasimha Rao was not goodness personified. But he was a great prime minister of the time. What Manmohan Singh is today has much to do with the support that he got from old pouty lips. If you don’t believe me, go back to the days of Harshad Mehta when the JPC was screaming for Singh’s blood and Rao stood rock steady behind his finance minister.

Let me end with a longish quote.

“From the point of view of the Congress leadership, Rao’s problem was not just that he was not a Nehru-Gandhi, it was also that as prime minister he did not genuflect enough to the Nehru-Gandhis... Now that the Nehru-Gandhis once more control both party and government, Narasimha Rao has become the great unmentionable within Congress circles. I should modify that statement — Rao can be mentioned only if it is possible to disparage him. Thus his contributions to economic growth and to a more enlightened foreign policy are ignored, while his admittedly pusillanimous attitude towards the kar sevaks in Ayodhya is foregrounded... To forget his achievements, but to remember his mistakes, is a product of cold and deliberate calculation.” I didn’t write this. Ramachandra Guha did.

Hark to Act 3, scene 2 of Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”. So it is with Narasimha Rao. Which is why the expressway made me happy. Thank God, at least someone in India didn’t slavishly forget.


Published: Business World, August 2010


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