Thursday, December 23, 2004

RIP Narasimha Rao

PV Narasimha Rao has died. He was Prime Minister of India between 1991 and 1996. He presided over the liberalization of the Indian economy, the razing of the Babri Masjid, terrible riots and bombings in Bombay, and a generally not-so-great time for India.

He was also the first Indian Prime Minister to be convicted of corruption, though the conviction was later overturned. In the messy, generally amoral world of Indian politics, it's not the worst of all possible crimes (indeed, I suspect Rajiv Gandhi was guilty of much worse). And the prosecution against him probably had more than a little to do with the fact that the Opposition, which came to power later, had a bit of a grudge against him.

See BBC obituary. Also see the Narasimha Rao page on Wikipedia (already updated!).

On the bright side, he held the country together. He was part of the freedom struggle in the 1940s. He translated novels from Telegu to Hindi. And he himself wrote a book called The Insider that I have long been curious to read.

History might forgive his failings, especially since he and then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh started a process of change that has made a big difference in Indian life. Here's a little bit from Salon:

The two men [Rao and Manmohan Singh] wrought a financial revolution in a nation where Soviet-style economic policies had long held sway: slashing subsidies, launching the partial privatization of state-run companies and inviting in foreign investors. They also dismantled what was known as the "license raj," the vast, complex system of regulations that forced businesses to get government approval for nearly any decision -- often at the cost of enormous bribes.

In a 2004 interview with NDTV television, Rao said he had no choice but to launch the reforms.

"There was nothing more to do. You had no money, you were going to become a defaulter within two weeks," he said. "Once you become a defaulter your entire economy, your honor, your place in the comity of nations, everything goes haywire."



Quizman said...

Rather interesting that you write:"On the bright side, he held the country together". This, for a man who was Home Minster - responsible for law and order, when his party led a pogram against 2000 odd Indians in 1984. How people forget.

Amardeep said...

Rao was PM during some pretty bad riots as well. The point I was trying to make is, he was someone who generally followed the due process of law, even when it worked against him (as in the Supreme Court's rulings in 1994).

I think you have to remember the good as well as the bad. The same would be true for Kofi Annan. He was terribly ineffective during the Rwanda genocide, but he has done the best anyone could do as the head of the UN in the era of George W Bush.

And the same would be true of Bill Clinton. He had huge failures, but some impressive successes in there too. I choose to keep track of both sides of things.

neha said...

How is it that someone who was involved with the freedom struggle was also capable of being instrumental in leading his own country to ruin? I wonder what we'll say when Vajpayee is no more.

Anand said...

History may forgive Narasimha Rao's failings, if history forgives everybody regardless of the crimes committed! Chances are that Rao's legacy will be remembered as one of ruthlessness (St Kitts & Jain Hawala, for instance) and indecisions (anti-Sikh pogrom & the 6th December). I fail to see why everybody assumes LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation, and Globalisation) is something that has benefitted India. I would think that an average Indian doesn't like the taste of reforms; all the pro-reform govts were always voted out in India. Rao's own state of Andhra Pradesh is one of the worst casualties of the economic reforms. It's funny that an Indian politician speaks about honor in the comity of nations. Less than 25 kms from Hyderabad - the hitec city, children still die of simple cases of diarrhea due to lack of primary health care! That doesn't bring any dishonor?

Of course he was erudite and all that, but I wonder whether it's erudition or people's support that's more important for a political leader. The erudite Rao clinged to prime minister's chair by bribing members of parliament. Sonia Gandhi, who gets ridiculed for her fake degrees, knew a better way to get into history books.

One positive thing that I can think of Rao's prime ministership is that he showed an enormous respect for parliamentary proceedings as PM. He was always present in the parliament, willing to participate in debates, sometimes even answering questions which otherwise a junior minister would have answered. Contrast that with Rajiv Gandhi's contempt for parliamentary affairs, and the mess that Vajpayee and Advani create in the parliament today.

pennathur said...

Rao and Singh brought about a much needed shakeup in the Indian economy. This after a PM - Rajiv Gandhi - who had a such a thumping majority that he could have even made the sun to rise in the West (Tavleen Singh) - dealt a death blow to India's finances after three decades of Congress profligacy. Rao and Singh birth dyed in the wool socialists finally found the courage to abandon the path of mediocrity India had become comfortable with. Given all the advantages India enjoys in terms of its people and institutions, we mess up the simplest things. There is no shortlist of things to do to set things right - Rao realised this and set into motion a series of changes that continue today, rather than announce grand plans and belt out slogans. It is certainly a matter of shame that 50 kms out of Hyderabad children starve for a square meal. What is unpardonable is that there is a vast government machinery, that for 50 years has legislated budgets, and sustained a huge bureacracy that has never been called to account for its failure to achieve the simplest goals. Thanks to LPG we have turned our back on the Nehruvian and (secular) rate of growth. The current darling of the Lutyens loving media has a long list of commissions and ommissions to explain. The person could begin with their role as MD in a company set up by a brother-in-law, the role in throwing out a sister-in-law from the household, the crores of taxpayers money that have been spent on self, children and grandchildren for the last 12 years on account security, boarding and lodging. Rao was just one of those old retainers who decided to run the house for a change knowing fully well that at his worst he would do far better than the silly family that had started to India as its jagir.

Amardeep I am sure you didn't know that Narasimha Rao was expelled from Osmania University in the 1940s for singing the "Vande Mataram". If Sameer, AR Rahman and Javed Akhtar with chorus can belt out the Vande Mataram in Dubai before 50,000 desis it can't be all that bad - can it?

Amardeep said...

Side note: Pennathur is referring to this post. I never cast aspersions on "Vande Mataram" -- I was mainly just suspicious of the campaign against "Jana Gana Mana."

And no, I didn't know the issue was "Vande Mataram." All I knew (from Wikipedia, I think) is that he was expelled for participating in the nationalist movement, and went on to complete a degree at Nagpur.

pennathur said...

Thank you Amardeep for that rebuke - well delivered as only an aesthete can. Well deserved - will make sure that I read before I write.

Rao himself has never confirmed or denied that he was expelled for singing the Vande Mataram. Now that he is gone - well