On Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s 100th birth anniversary, a personal reminiscence

Mayank Chhaya-

I worked as a journalist in New Delhi between 1989 and 1998 which means a majority of my posting coincided with the tenure of the late Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. He took over on June 21, 1991, and left office on May 16, 1996.

On his 100th anniversary, June 28, it is as good a time as any to retrospect, particularly because one had had occasions to interact with him. I saw Narasimha Rao as a Yoda-like figure who despite his intellect tended to be inscrutable, mysterious and cryptic. To be accurate, this view of mine does not necessarily track with the reality of the man even though there were some of those features to him.

Rather than putting him in a broader political and economic context, something I have done before, I would like to make some personal observations; an impressionistic account of the man if you will. I have also attached a piece I wrote on this day last year.

I met Rao but a few times, a couple of those were with my colleague and dear friend Tarun Basu who was the editor-in-chief of the India Abroad News Service (IANS), of which I was the South Asia chief correspondent. Rao always seemed to be chewing something whether or not he actually was. I used to speculate between just a couple of cardamoms or a Maghai paan. Maghai pan, which a particularly valued betel leaf, is sought after because it practically melts in your mouth unlike the other varieties such as Kalkatti whose pulp is thicker. I know this because as a young man I used to relish a paan or a thousand.

Rao had the sort of face and mouth that gave you the impression that he was privy to mouth freshener flavors that were exclusively for him.

As someone who spoke 17 languages, you might be forgiven to think that he was not given to garrulity in any of those. He was, of course, an erudite man with extensive knowledge of Indian and world literature. A voracious reader in many languages, Rao was also extremely well-versed with the intricacies of Indian philosophy. In one of his interactions with Tarun and I he reiterated his characteristic approach to many a political crisis. He called it “enlightened inaction” where one chooses quite deliberately to do nothing. His antagonists, and they are a legion, might accuse him of doing precisely that when on December 6, 1991, when barely six months after his unexpected ascension the disputed Babri Mosque was brought down by Hindu zealots. He gave the impression that he took the path of least resistance although it may not be entirely accurate. The Bharatiya Janata Party grandee, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who succeeded Rao as prime minister, told Tarun and I that Rao had believed the assurances that Vajpayee and his fellow leader Lal Krishna Advani had given him about not demolishing the mosque.

“Enlightened inaction”, now that must be among the most remarkable Indian inventions.

Speaking of “enlightened inaction”, Narasimha Rao’s approach to India’s desperate economic situation when he took over was anything but that. In fact, it was dramatic and unprecedented action.

Right until May 20, 1991 Narasimha Rao was in a full retirement mode having led a rich and fulfilling public life since 1957 and about to be 70 he thought it was as good a time as any to retire from active politics. It was a measure of how serious he was that even his books, which he called “most prized possession” during one of his many interactions with me, were packed and ready to be sent to Hyderabad.

Then 24 hours later everything changed in such a violent and definitive way that fundamentally transformed a man in a retiring mode into a man of history literally overnight. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber. Rao, who was in Nagpur then, had to cut short his visit to return to Delhi.

It fell on Rajiv Gandhi’s wife Sonia to decide who might lead the Congress Party with her husband gone. The first name to be suggested was that of former Vice President Shankar Dayal Sharma, who demurred on the grounds of his age and health. The next name to be considered was that of Narasimha Rao.

Instead of retiring not only did Rao return to Delhi but went on to stay there for at least the next five years…as India’s 9th prime minister. “It was a case of life giving you what to you least expect,” Rao told me in one of his interviews.

Since the most defining legacy of Rao as the prime minister and Dr. Manmohan Singh as his handpicked finance minister is India’s economy it is important to point out the circumstances in which the former rose to the country’s top office. In the immediate aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination, India’s internal security was not the only question Rao confronted—and it was indeed an existential question—but even an equally important economic one.

In early 1991, I happened to have been told a very high finance ministry official, whose name I have chosen not to reveal after these many years, that India’s foreign exchange reserve was so bad at that point between January and June 1991 that it faced defaulting on its external balance of payment within weeks. With the country plunged in a deep crisis because of the Gandhi assassination anyone who came in as prime minister had a harrowing task laid out.

In January 1991, the foreign exchange reserves stood at $ 1.2 billion and by June when Rao took over as prime minister it was halved. In foreign exchange terms, India’s was pauperized. Just for your comparison, industrial tycoon Mukesh Ambani’s high-rise home alone reputedly cost a billion dollars. That kind of skewed wealth creation was also one of the consequences of the fundamental policy alteration that Rao had to make right off the bat. He took over on June 21, 1991, and the very next day among the top ministers to be sworn in was Dr. Singh as the finance minister.

India had to secure an emergency loan of $2.2 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) by pledging 67 tons of the country’s gold reserves as collateral. The Reserve Bank of India airlifted 47 tons of gold to the Bank of England and 20 tons of gold to the Union Bank of Switzerland to raise USD 600 million. It was that desperate. If the country were a 1950s Hindi movie, there would be a scene where a character actor such as Nana Palsikar or Nasir Hussain takes off his turban and puts it on the floor as an act of abject supplication and says, “मैं घर का सोना गिरवी रखता हूँ. मेरी पगड़ी मत उछालो. (I am pledging my family gold. Don’t humiliate me.)

Rao told Dr. Singh what he later told my colleague Tarun Basu, whom he knew well, and I. The message to Dr. Singh was, “Give me a bold budget and I will take care of the political backlash.” The most intense backlash, ironically, came from his own Congress Party plus some entrenched business interests such as individual businessmen such as Dhirubhai Ambani and others and chambers of commerce who had made a lot of money from India’s severely license-controlled economy.

Interestingly, years before, in 1984 to be precise, just as Rajiv Gandhi had risen to be India’s prime minister, Dhirubhai had answered that very question from me saying, “Mayankbhai, I work with the economic regime that is given to me by our politicians. Open up the economy and I will compete openly.”

The rest is history as Rao using Dr. Singh as his ramrod went on to dismantle the notorious regulations, a legacy of decades of the Soviet-style commanding heights of the economy. To be fair, those policies were essential at the beginning of India’s life as a new nation-state plundered for nearly two centuries by the English colonial predators.

For a long time, Prime Minister Rao did not get the credit for transforming India’s economy albeit necessitated by a set of dire circumstances. Nearly three decades later and on his 99th birth anniversary (he died on December 23, 2004) things have changed. He is now widely seen as the progenitor of the economic reform and liberalization in India.

Famously polyglot he reputedly spoke 17 languages which may be an overstatement but apart from his mother tongue Telugu he had varying command over Marathi, Hindi, Oriya, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, English, French, Arabic, Spanish, German and Persian. I am certain he was proficient in many of those, including Spanish.

He told Tarun and I that he insisted on reading the Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” in its original Spanish. “It reads way better in Spanish than it’s translation.” He told us. Rao wrote fiction in the Hindi, Marathi and Telugu languages.

He also wrote a novel in English called ‘The Insider’ whose synopsis reads: “The Insider is an account of the political scenario of India during the time of the former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who is the author of the book. The novel is based on a fictional state called Afrozabad, which is modeled on the actual state of Hyderabad.

In the story, the author talks about the shocking but true political happenings in the country that he witnessed during his tenure. The plot centers around a character called Anand, a young man who gives up a lucrative career in the hopes of bringing about political reformation. He begins his political career by contesting against the oppressive ruling party. Next, he reaches a spot where he has to choose between the current Chief Minister and his rival. His rival soon wins the post of CM, and he is made to serve under him. Anand then moves to Delhi, at a time when Indira Gandhi takes over the reins of power. Under her governance, the tables turn, for Anand now replaces his rival Chaudhary and becomes the Chief Minister of Afrozabad. He then has to run the political show under her regime.

The book discusses the state of events and the political scenario in India under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, delving into areas like her rise to power, second coming, assassination, followed by her son Rajiv Gandhi’s entry into the world of politics. The Insider reveals to the reader the state of affairs in a political scenario, narrated by a man who has had first-hand experience of it all.”