Robert Nickelsberg/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The man who reinvented India

On 99th anniversary of PV Narasimha Rao’s birth it is time to rehabilitate a traduced politician

In the summer of 1991, India wore the appearance of a country on the precipice of permanent collapse. Picture the magnitude of the pandemonium that swept through the country. No sooner has Punjab emerged from a decade of internecine secessionist war than Kashmir has gone up in separatist flames. Hindu nationalists, a peripheral force in Indian politics a decade before, now predominate the opposition benches, sniffing the air for an opening to pull apart the secular foundations of the republic. The general election unfolding in the 40-degree heat outside is the most murderous in living memory: 800 people have been slain in political violence when, on 21 May, Rajiv Gandhi is blown up by a Tamil suicide bomber from Sri Lanka. The ensuing bloodshed fills Ved Mehta, chronicling India for the New Yorker, with “a sense of dread about the economic, political, and religious direction of the country which I don’t remember encountering in any of my other visits over the past 25 years”.

Beyond its own imperilled frontiers, India’s patron and protector, the Soviet Union, is lurching towards disintegration. Within its borders is evidence everywhere of the ruinous toll of the state religion that goes by the name of “socialism”. There are five million telephone lines in a land of 800 million people. Entrepreneurs wishing to import a computer must make fifty trips to New Delhi. There is a three-year queue for a private telephone connection, a 22-month waiting period for a car, Coca-Cola is a contraband beverage, and you need a licence to manufacture vacuum cleaners. Two billion dollars separate the country from bankruptcy.

How, given the advanced state of its decay, did India retreat from the threshold of implosion to reform itself and resurface, by the beginning of the 21st century, as a richer and more powerful nation than at any point in its history?

It is now fashionable to proclaim Manmohan Singh, the bureaucrat appointed finance minister in 1991, as India’s saviour. But in a country where autarky had been elevated to a theological doctrine, moderating and putting Singh’s policies into practice was a distinctly political challenge. And the man who met the challenge was an unlikely figure. He was seventy and had undergone triple-bypass surgery when he became prime minister. A career politician, he had no political constituency of his own. There was hardly a voice at home or abroad that did not lament his rise to the top. And yet if Nehru “discovered” India, it can reasonably be said that PV Narasimha Rao reinvented it. Rao—who would have turned 99 today—is now reviled within his own party, neglected in India, and forgotten by the world. He remains the only departed prime minister of India to be denied a memorial in Delhi. But if India survives today, it is in large measure because of Rao.

Rao rose to national importance in the 1970s when Indira Gandhi appointed him to her cabinet. It was a form of demotion for a man who was growing too prominent in the politics of his natal state in peninsular India. Rao, the adopted son of an affluent Brahmin family, had an adaptable disposition. He thrived in Delhi by committing himself, as he admitted, to “masterly inactivity”. When Mrs Gandhi split the Congress Party to demolish the “old guard” that had sought to temper her tyrannical impulses, Rao backed her. And when she suspended the Indian constitution in 1975 and ruled as a dictator for the next 18 months, he stood by her. She rewarded his loyalty with safe seats and exalted jobs in her cabinet. She appreciated, of course, that Rao was the most erudite figure in the upper echelons of a government machinery that was being gansterised and corrupted beyond recognition by her own family. In 1980, when Rao was touring Havana as India’s foreign minister, she instructed him to convince the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement to move their upcoming summit from Iraq—then at war with Iran—to India. Rao proceeded to disarm the leaders of the NAM by arguing for India in Spanish to the Cubans, Persian to the Iranians, Arabic to the Iraqis and the Egyptians, French to an array of Africans, and Urdu to the Pakistanis.

Following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, Rao transferred his loyalties to her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, despite denigrating him privately as a pampered milksop unfit to lead a country as complex as India. Rajiv, for his part, did not long abide the holdovers from his mother’s era. In 1991, Rao was denied a party ticket and relegated to the duty of issuing the occasional comment to the press. He was now a party elder, a dog who had had his day. But then, just as he was reconciling himself with his sudden superannuation, everything changed. Late on the night of 21 May 1991, an aide arrived with news from Tamil Nadu: at 10.20 pm, Rajiv Gandhi was killed in an explosion while campaigning in the town of Sriperumbudur in southern India.

If Nehru “discovered” India, it can reasonably be said that PV Narasimha Rao reinvented it

Indira Gandhi had meticulously bleached the Congress Party—the engine of India’s freedom movement—of internal democracy and converted it into a private fief of her family. The control was absolute: you could go to the kaaba and doubt the omnipotence of Allah, but you could not be a Congressman and question the paramountcy of the Gandhis. But in that moment of crisis and tragedy, the dynasty did not have a suitable heir: Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, was a recently naturalised Roman Catholic of Italian origin who barely spoke a word of Hindi, and their two children, Rahul and Priyanka, were 21 and 19. Congress, abruptly orphaned, degenerated into a beehive of competing factions.

Every conceivable successor to Rajiv had an equally powerful adversary within the party. And the process of elimination culminated almost inconceivably with the selection of Rao as the consensus candidate to “carry forward” Rajiv’s legacy. Nobody had a clue that Rao had pseudonymously published an article castigating Rajiv as an arrogant, insecure agent of destruction. In the eyes of the men who voted for Rao fully intending to topple him immediately after the general election, he was an innocuous man. He evinced no ideological leanings, displayed no ambition, and had no friends or rivals. He seemed harmless. But the differences of the weighty men plotting to stab him only sharpened after Congress, crested by a wave of sympathy for Rajiv, was returned as the largest single party in parliament.

The placid, inscrutable man lost no time in revealing a streak of ruthlessness he had meticulously kept hidden for many decades. None of Rao’s backers received the ministerial department of his choice and their supporters were kept out of government altogether. And before the party could fathom what was happening, he unleashed the unthinkable upon them. He conscripted the Oxbridge-trained economist, Manmohan Singh, from the University Grants Commission to serve as his finance minister. Ten days later, acting on Singh’s advice, he devalued the rupee by 8.7 per cent against international currencies. In less than 48 hours, he devalued it again. He then appeared on national television and delivered what in retrospect seems like the most consequential speech since Nehru’s midnight address at modern India’s birth in 1947.

Rao did not aspire to grandiloquence, but the momentousness of the moment was not lost on those who witnessed it. “Desperate maladies call for drastic remedies,” Rao told his compatriots as he announced an austerity programme, much of it devised by the IMF and Singh. India, he explained, had just recovered from a debilitating balance of payments crisis which had left it without adequate “foreign exchange to import even such essential commodities as diesel, kerosene, edible oil, and fertiliser”. His solution was to cut the “fat in government expenditure”, deregulate industry, emancipate the private sector, pull down the barriers to foreign investment, provide tax concessions to private corporations, slash subsidies to farmers, and curb labour activism.

A minor mutiny erupted in the Congress Party. The National Herald, the party’s newspaper, complained that Rao and his finance minister wanted nothing more than to give “the middle-class Indian crispier cornflakes [and] fizzier aerated drinks”. That, the paper asserted, “could not have been the vision of the founding fathers of our nation”. Dozens of Congress grandees beseeched Sonia Gandhi to take over Congress and rescue the country.

Rao knew that the rebels were careerists. And he reined them in almost instantly by proposing to reintroduce internal elections to Congress. Asia’s oldest political party operated under a system of patronage introduced by Mrs Gandhi. Appointments to party posts were doled out in Delhi, and some of the most powerful politicians in India had no mandate at all. Rao, of course, was the most conspicuous beneficiary of this arrangement (though he bolstered his position by contesting a by-election in 1993, which he won by more than half a million votes). But his suggestion jolted his opponents who, after exhibiting some early signs of defiance, became submissive. Politicians who once dismissed him as a pushover began comparing him to Chanakya, the Mauryan Empire’s strategist who wrote a book on statecraft a millennium before Machiavelli.

Backbenchers and the cabinet dealt with, Rao took to cultivating the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Heading a minority government, he feared a floor-test in parliament. And L.K. Advani, the BJP’s president, became a frequent guest at his official residence. A Hindu refugee of India’s partition, Advani was the most poisonous figure in Indian politics at the time. In 1990, he had led a massive rally in a motorised chariot from Somnath, where a majestic Hindu temple had repeatedly been ransacked by Muslim invaders of medieval India, to the ancient town of Ayodhya, where the founder of the Mughal empire had erected a mosque by bringing down a Hindu temple. Hindu nationalists, buoyed by the squalid concessions made to them by Rajiv in the 1980s, recast the old building into an emblem of Muslim despotism and Hindu defeat.

Protecting the mosque from Hindu nationalists now became the measure of the non-confessional state’s commitment to secularism. Even though his decision to court the BJP was animated by pragmatic considerations, Rao extracted assurances from Advani that Babri would not be harmed. A year later, on 6 December 1992, Advani led another march to the mosque. This time, his supporters, using poleaxes and bare hands, tore it down. The police did not so much as attempt to stop them as they went about butchering Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, the site of the worst sectarian violence that coursed through India. This was the greatest affront to India’s secular core since the foundation of the republic.

Rao, incandescent with rage, dismissed all four BJP-run state governments in India, banned Hindu religious organisations, threw Advani in prison, and made a solemn pledge to rebuild Babri. Addressing the nation over the radio, he warned Indians of the “grave threat” now faced by the “institutions, principles, and ideals on which the constitutional structure of our republic has been built”. Indian cities were placed under curfew. Heavily armed paramilitary forces patrolled the streets. Rao’s response may have been proportionate to the moment of terror, but it could not wipe clean the stain left by the demolition of Babri.

Rao, however, succeeded in weathering the fallout from Babri’s destruction and continued to lead a minority government for five years. The opening up of the economy played its part in saving him from becoming an unwelcome figure overseas. After having berated Indians for “clinging to the past” by electing Rao, the Economist showered him with praise. In Berlin, industrialists acclaimed him as “a corporate chief executive”. The German Chancellor Helmut Kohl found him a refreshing departure from Rajiv. In America, the Christian Science Monitor congratulated him for “negating Nehru”. And in Britain, the Financial Times nominated him alongside China’s Deng Xiaoping as its Man of the Year. Rao himself grew increasingly impatient with the unchanging obsessions of fellow developing countries. When Zimbabwe and Malaysia delivered blistering attacks against the West at a summit, he pointedly asked the gathering: “Have you come across any conference where all the speeches are identical?”

Rao even agreed to meet the influential Jewish leader Isi Liebler, who went to India in 1991 to lobby for Israel. Such a meeting would have been unthinkable even for a Congress premier with an absolute majority. Rao took the meeting despite his shaky position. A historic vote to overturn the Zionism-equals-racism resolution, which India had voted for, was about to come up at the United Nations. Liebler appealed to Rao to vote for it. He argued passionately for full diplomatic relations between Delhi and West Jerusalem, and complained that India had treated Israel as a “pariah”. Rao assured his guest that India did not equate Zionism with racism. India’s longstanding Arab friends reacted furiously when details of the conversation were leaked to the press. Rao remained unperturbed. When the resolution to revoke 3379 was tabled at the UN, Rao instructed India’s representative to vote for revocation. And as talk of upgrading relations with Israel acquired momentum, he raced to mollify Arab sentiment by inviting Yasser Arafat on a state visit to India in 1992. The Palestinian leader was lavishly feted in Delhi for his “efforts to promote peace and international friendship” and entreated to bless Rao’s plans to befriend Israel. Arafat granted his assent.

Rao aggressively renewed India’s lapsed relations with East Asian states, particularly Singapore and Japan, with his “look east” policy. He travelled to Singapore and Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing, Malaysia and Thailand, and Tehran, Paris, Bonn and London. The only two major capitals he omitted from his hectic early itinerary were Moscow and Washington. He overlooked the former and, in 1994, made a groundbreaking visit to the latter—the first by an Indian head of government in a decade. Bill Clinton’s decision to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, coupled with his administration’s relentless rebukes of Delhi for the worsening state of affairs in Kashmir, provoked a furore in India. Rao was subjected to severe pressure to cancel the trip. There were serious demands, too, to assert India’s independence by staging a nuclear test. Rao ignored the noise and got on a plane.

The Americans received him as something of a revolutionary. The Wall Street Journal praised him effusively for repudiating Nehru’s “xenophobia” and embracing free markets. Morgan Stanley declared that Rao’s economic reforms were destined to lead to India’s “tigerisation”. A group of major American businesses—including AT&T, GE, Ford and Coca-Cola—formed an autonomous body to lobby for Delhi in Washington. Clinton, awakening belatedly to India’s potential, assured Rao that the US would no longer air its differences in public.

Within a year, India was attracting more foreign investment than it had managed in the previous four decades combined. Two-way trade with the US soared to $7.3 billion. There were 422 American companies with investments in India. CEOs of major corporations streamed in and out of the country. Coca-Cola was back after twenty years. “Foreign exchange coffers are filled as never before. Industry is booming as never before. Most of all, there is a palpable hope in the air,” one commentator noted.

It was as if India had had a rebirth. The middle class became more conspicuously consumerist than ever. They now drank 2,880 million bottles of fizzy drinks and flew ten million times each year. The credit card industry grew into a $64 million business by 1996. The Economic Times, an early supporter of Rao’s reforms, saw its circulation surpass 500,000 from less than a paltry 100,000 just four years prior, making it the second-largest financial newspaper in the world. “One of the psychological legacies of the Nehruvian socialistic era was that the more affluent sections of the society were branded as being rather vulgar and spending money to live well was considered an even greater sin,” Aroon Purie, the proprietor of India Today, the most influential magazine in the country, wrote. “Today, that stigma seems to have vanished for many.”

But even as this emerging “New India” erupted in self-congratulation, it had to contend with the odd spectacle of seeing its architect run from his accomplishments. As elections loomed, a different India clamoured for attention. The benefits that accrued to a small group of Indians did not percolate downwards. Ninety-seven per cent of Indians in the countryside lived without access to sanitation. The parvenus perusing India Today could now parade their riches without remorse. But most Indians felt crushed by rising food prices. A disproportionate burden of the deficit reduction programme was borne by the poor. Because the government’s tax concessions to the private sector made it impossible to increase revenues, it resorted to cutting public investment and social expenditure. At the same time, a dozen or more of the country’s top fifty private corporations succeeded in avoiding taxes altogether.

Within a year, India was attracting more foreign investment than it had managed in the previous four decades combined.

As the liberalisation of the economy intensified between 1993 and 1995, Rao’s party was defenestrated from power in traditional Congress strongholds across the country. In Rao’s home state, it was reduced to 26 seats in the 294-seat legislature. Campaigning for re-election in 1996, Rao omitted all references to economic reforms. He “feared provoking a backlash among poor Indians who have had to pay more for rice, sugar and fuel”, the New York Times wrote, by appearing in their midst. Colleagues pleaded with Rao to keep away from their constituencies. He cut a sad figure on the campaign trail, sitting alone in his aircraft and gazing out of the window. In the elections that followed, Congress suffered the worst defeat in its history. Five years after Babri, Hindu nationalists stitched together a governing coalition.

Nehru had erected the Indian republic on four pillars: democracy, secularism, socialism, and non-alignment in foreign affairs. Rao took a hammer to what remained of them four decades later. He implemented Manmohan Singh’s economic policies by subverting democracy: critical reforms were made as executive decisions, prices were hiked when parliament went into recess, and parliamentary opposition was overcome by exploiting legal technicalities and blackmailing recalcitrant MPs with the intelligence agencies’ files on them. The Indian state’s commitment to secularism also fell apart during Rao’s reign. It did not occur when Advani’s Hindu hordes tore down Babri. It happened when the government failed to honour its pledge to rebuild the mosque. Indian secularism thereafter resembled a promissory note—to be cherished but never cashed. This was the upshot of Rao’s reluctance to pulverise Hindu supremacists with the fullest might of the state when they declared war on India at Ayodhya.

Rao has been likened to Reagan and Thatcher (who admired him and visited him in retirement). He confronted infinitely more daunting crises. Being a pragmatist to his marrow, however, he had no difficulty believing that the lofty ideals of India’s founders had simply run their course. Rao led India out of one of the worst economic crises in its history, opened it up to the world, dismantled the licence-permit-quota raj, demolished old orthodoxies, oversaw Punjab’s return to normalcy, parleyed peace with China, and pursued unthinkable new friendships. In doing so, he injured India’s democracy and impaired its commitment to secularism. He left behind an India that was wealthier (but more unequal), self-confident (but less empathetic), and integrated into the world economy (but closed off to its poorer citizens). By the end, even he was dismayed by the avarice and apathy of his own creation. In one of his last public speeches, he bewailed his successors’ rush to auction away public assets and warned Indians that “trickle-down economics—the practice of cutting taxes for the rich, hoping it would benefit the poor—does not work”.

Sonia Gandhi finally retook the Congress Party in 1998, and Rao, deemed insufficiently deferential to the dynasty when he was in office, was swiftly ostracised. Credit for his achievements was given to Singh and to Rajiv, and Rao’s name was effaced from Congress’s history. He spent his final years fighting corruption cases dating back to his time in office and became the first former prime minister to be convicted in a criminal court on the charge of suborning MPs not to vote against his minority government. The decision was overturned on appeal, but it was an ignominious twilight.

“I am the only Congress prime minister not of the family to complete a full term,” he told a visiting friend months before his death in 2004, “and I am still paying for it.” When he died, erstwhile colleagues in Congress, indulging the Gandhi family’s implacable vindictiveness, refused to allow his wake to take place in Delhi. The bier bearing his body was not permitted to enter the party premises. Flown to Hyderabad, the city in southern India he had vacated 30 years before, his body lay in state in an empty hall. India’s most consequential prime minister was humiliated and reduced in death to a “regional” leader by the spiteful Gandhis and their lackeys. His funeral was thinly attended by the hierarchs and poorly guarded. Stray dogs, it is said, tore at the remains of his partially cremated body.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover