India’s Thatcher: Hated Then, Now Resurrected, the Story of P.V. Narasimha Rao

India’s tenth prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao inherited a nation in total collapse. Little did anyone notice, but India’s embrace of a capitalist ethos would only come after she openly failed at socialism.  Identical to Mao’s reversal under Deng, Reagan’s reversal under Carter; India would have its share in turning around a political economy tethered to socialism.  That job fell to P.V. Narasimha Rao.  A story rarely acknowledged, until now.  Half Lion:  How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India by Princeton University scholar Vinay Sitapati.

Shortly before the 1991 election, India’s political economy resembled England immediately before Thatcher or better yet, India’s dire position resembled London immediately before Partition; riots across the country side, unmanageable inflation, dwindling foreign reserves.  With the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, India’s Congress Party installed what they believed was a caretaker, what they got was the most consequential Indian political leader since Jawaharlal Nehru.  Rao, with little open public support and virtually no institutional patronage, would openly confront and turn around India’s collectivist political economy.

Upon taking office,Rao devalued the Indian dollar, liberalize trade policies inviting foreign direct investment which helped relieve India’s Central Bank by financing fiscal reform with sound money.  He openly confronted indigenous unions that serviced barriers to foreign capital and competition.  Resistance was formidable and openly dangerous with multiple no-confidence motions in parliament.

Yet he succeeded.

Rao openly met resistance with deft tactical maneuvering, sending India’s intelligence agencies to monitor recalcitrant politico’s, he succeeded in parrying the dominance of India’s political class.

Mastering nearly a dozen languages, he addressed foreign leaders in the vernacular.  He openly courted Southeast Asian nation states to counteract Beijing’s growing dominance while moving India closer to American diplomatic orbit.  He openly serviced New Delhi’s bilateral relations with Israel over Kashmir while publicly having Yasser Arafat’s imprimatur, a deft maneuvering worthy of any study of statesmanship.

By the time he left office, India would be radically changed; Indian consciousness was no longer tied to the gordian knot of the collective.  The impact, however, was dire for India’s dominant political class and Rao’s personal image.  Witnessing the public destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 heralded a near fascist drive that has yet to subside.

Rao, a devout Brahmin, helped unleash a rapid rise of Hindu nationalism.  Despite his personal aversion to it, his legacy will forever be tied to a dominant muscular Hinduism at odds with India’s indigenous ecumenical outlook.  His deft handling of India’s rise openly promoted an oligarchic class that continues to dominate New Delhi’s upper chamber of parliament.

After being thrown out of office he openly repudiated the social consequences of India’s rise.

Why is he hated today in India?

Rao committed the sin of exposing the vacuity of socialism.  The Gandhi-Nehu dynasty of social democracy was permanently ingrained upon Indian political consciousness, even though he saved India, the consequence of growth was profound.

Rao spent his final days as a social pariah.  His name was scrubbed from the Congress Party, credit for his achievements were given over to Manmohan Singh.

When Rao died in 2004, Sonia Gandhi, refused to allow his body to be cremated in Delhi or displayed in party headquarters.  His funeral was humiliating.  Thinly guarded, his corpse was reportedly tore apart by dogs.

Princeton’s doctoral candidate Mr. Sitapati has written a lovely account of an Indian Thatcher, Reagan or Churchill.  Condemned by his party’s proprietors, he succeeded in managing India’s role reversal out of the abyss.

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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6 Responses to India’s Thatcher: Hated Then, Now Resurrected, the Story of P.V. Narasimha Rao

  1. Ram says:

    People who criticize PV for the aftermath of babri strangely ignore the fact that it was the previous regime which opened gates , a completely avoidable action and Rao inherited a problem which was not his creation. He had few options when he faced babri. No one knows the consequences if he has acted differently.He might have dubbed Dyer of modern times by the same singhs and tewaris. Remember he expressed his apprehension of army joining rioters which turned out to be true in jat agitation. Times have tested Reforms and hystory could not ignore his contribution. But babri handling can not have the same previlege.
    But saying Rao was the cause for communal history of India by ignoring the turning point of opening gates is a great misinformation. At some point i hope this hystorical blunder would be corrected.

  2. I’m afraid your analysis is correct, and I’ve tried to hint that the very best way to defend his achievements is to purchase the book I’ve reviewed in his honor. The policy blundering that became Babri is his to own even IF the source of the problem predates his tenure. We certainly agree that he deserves more praise for governing India wisely. Thanks for reading the blog. Best, William Holland

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  5. Zachariah Mathews says:

    The capitalism vs socialism debate is an irrelevant absurdity in the 21st Century.
    Capitalism does not exist anywhere, incl in the USA.
    Even in the 20th Century, as new Nations emerged as Free Nations, with the aftermath of the WWII and collapse of Colonialism, Capitalism was not an economic choice that any of these Nations could have adopted. It was the Socialistic model.

    India and China’s rise as economic power that one sees now, was both on the foundations built by “Command Economy” as well as the much faster economic growth rates of the post Liberalisation models of mixed economy under Deng and PM PVNR.

    I agree that that the Command Economy was kept going a decade or two longer than necessary by both countries and Liberalisation was forced by dire economic circumstances.
    India has come a full circle in this economic approach,that the socialistic model has become inevitable due its burgeoning populations.
    The present Right of Centre Govt in India , was in fact an ardent beliver in much more aggressive pro-market Right Wing economics, but had to swing itself to the “Left” after the first year in Govt itself.
    The realities of governance in India are quite different .

  6. Zachariah Mathews says:

    There is little doubt that PM Rao, was one of India’s most astute PMs.

    The INA under Sonia Gandhi treated him abysmally and a lack of basic courtesies to one of their
    great PMs.

    However there was an element of personal craftiness in PVNR.
    That sullied his personal image whilst he did yeoman service to the Nation.

    He certainly did not handle the Babri Crisis with the same statesmanship that he showed in rebuilding the Economy and the Foreign policy direction he gave.

    I do agree that once the charged up gangs of brain washed religious right wing demented storm troopers were allowed to gather around the site, using the Army and Paramilitary would have been entirely stupid.

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