As we approach the birth centenary of PV Narasimha Rao, it becomes important to know more about the former PM about whom the new generation is largely oblivious.
Talk to any millennial about India's most consequential Prime Ministers and most likely, they will not name him. Even the party he belonged to does not remember him; when it does, it is with a sense of hesitation. Those who do recall him refer to his decisions on the economic and foreign affairs; Congress supporters largely recall him for his inactivity on many big issues. Both sets have their right to an opinion but it would be unfair to the history of India in general and the Telugu-speaking community in particular to be ignorant of Rao.
Prime Minister Modi in his Mann Ki Baat in June this year remembered him as a young freedom fighter and urged people to read more about him. This is very needed because there have been concerted efforts to erase public acknowledgement of his achievements. And he is too transformational a Prime Minister to be written off so easily.
Surprising parallels can be drawn between the crisis of today and that which existed in Rao's era. A health crisis has affected our economy to the extent that even the RBI Governor has said that for the year 2021 as a whole, real GDP growth is estimated to be negative. Rao in 1991 inherited an India in crisis due to lack of growth and bad economic policies. It led to a situation when we did not have Foreign Exchange reserves for three weeks of imports and the government came close to defaulting on its financial obligations and India had to mortgage its gold to avoid defaulting on payments. Rao saw the opportunity in the crisis, seized it and backed his Finance Minister into taking the hard decision of liberalising India.
Over the years, the Indian National Congress has only acknowledged the role of Dr. Manmohan Singh in liberalisation. But it was Rao's political will that allowed such huge reforms. Before him, nobody had the courage to implement a reformist, liberal agenda and face the wrath of businesses, the Left wing and bureaucracy who had grown fat under the licence raj.
He told people to attack him instead of the Finance Minister saying Manmohan Singh was not a politician. The impact of his decision is so long-term that even now, almost 30 years, we are reaping its benefits. From about $1 billion of foreign exchange reserves in 1991, to over $530 billion today, we have come a long way.
A lot can be learnt from the life and times of Rao in how he turned a crisis into an opportunity. When he took over as PM in 1991, India's GDP growth was just 1% and by the time he demitted office in 1996, it had grown to a healthy 7.5%. It is also very interesting to note how India's economic reforms were carried out by a minority government - very different from other countries such as China, Singapore, USA under Reagan, or UK under Thatcher, who had clear majorities or were dictatorships. Rao on the other hand in India had several players acting against him.
Rao, being a non-Nehru family leader, had more adversaries within his party than outside it. He earned the ire of the Gandhi-Nehru family for he committed what was then and even now considered the greatest sin in the Congress - to act for the benefit of India without giving credit to the Gandhi family for it. He dared to do what no other Congressman can think of: to believe that policy decisions are beyond the Gandhi-Nehru family and that he was entitled, as Prime Minister, to have independent views which may not be in-line with the family's.
Vinay Sitapati in his book, 'Half Lion', writes, after interviewing many witnesses who were present at Rao's house after his death in 2004, that Congress leaders did not want to cremate him in Delhi despite that being the preference of his family. He writes about the call made by Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy, the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, who though no personal friend of Rao's, committed to a grand funeral. The Chief Minister oversaw the preparations of the funeral on a 4-acre plot on the banks of Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. The entire Andhra state cabinet and bureaucracy led by the Chief Minister and the Governor were at the Hyderabad airport to receive the body.
For the people of Telugu states, Rao shall always be one of our biggest icons.
In 2015, a plaque installed in Delhi states "(PV Narasimha Rao was) a reformer, educationist, scholar, conversant in 15 languages and known for his intellectual contribution, he was called the 'Brihaspati' (wiseman) of the Andhra Pradesh Cabinet between 1962 and 1971." It goes on, "PV Narasimha Rao died on 23rd December 2004, leaving behind a lasting legacy. He is fondly remembered as the architect of vibrant India".
(Vijayasai Reddy is Parliamentary Party Leader and National General Secretary of YSRCP.)
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