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.