PV was India’s first “accidental” path-breaking Prime Minister

by February 12, 2019 0 comments

Most of us visualize P.V Narsimha Rao as a frail old man, but he was a fire brand activist in his youth engaging in guerilla type insurgency to topple the Nizam of Hyderabad. According to one source, while the rest of India was celebrating the Independence from British Rule on 15 th August 1947, PV was hiding in a forest to escape the Nizam’s soldiers. The angry young man subsequently rose to become Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy. P.V.Narasimha Rao caliber and competence can be equated with Jawaharlal Nehru’s gold standard in politics. The interesting tale of perhaps India’s two best Prime Ministers is contradictory yet fascinating. Jawaharlal Nehru and P.V. Narasimha Rao do not have much in common except that both were intellectuals. Nehru’s intellectualism was shaped by Harrow, Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn; by Bernard Shaw, Russell, the Fabians. He probably dreamt in English. The title of his book, The Discovery of India, is a disarming confession of his need for discovering the land of his birth.

P.V. Narasimha Rao

P.V. Narasimha Rao’s intellectual centre, on the other hand, was India. Unlike Nehru his knowledge of Sanskrit was profound. His speech on Mahatma Gandhi at UNESCO on May 11, 1995 was a masterpiece. One has only to read his address “India’s Cultural Influence on Western europe since the Age of Romanticism” given at Alpach, Austria on June 19, 1983 to realise that PV was a man of learning, a scholar, a linguist and a thinker of the first order. His roots were deep in the spiritual and religious soil of India. He did not need to Discover India.

P.V. was a man of the soil. From humble social origins, Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao rose to become the 9th Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996. As a teenager, he was part of Vande Matram movement in late 1930s in the Hyderabad state. Rao was a polyglot, aside from his mother tongue, Telugu, he had excellent command over several other languages – nine Indian languages (Marathi, Hindi, Oriya, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu) and six foreign (English, French, Arabic, Spanish, German and Persian).P.V.’s political career was shaped by his involvement in India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule. His early mentors included Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. In fact, it was his proximity to the Nehru-Gandhi family, in addition to his seniority, that first got him the nation’s top job after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991.

P.V. Narasimha Rao

P.V. Narsimha Rao was the most trusted advisor to Mrs. Indira Gandhi, having impressed her with his intellectual prowess. Former law minister of  India, HR Bharadwaj, acknowledges the fact that Indira Gandhi always depended on P.V.’s intellect to navigate her government policies and party machine. Recalls a former bureaucrat: “He would come up with pros and cons on every issue and this enabled Indira Gandhi to make decisions.” Adds former cabinet colleague Pranab Mukherjee: “Rao and Venkataraman were considered the two wise men of Indira Gandhi.” Rao, on his part, never challenged Indira Gandhi’s decisions, which led him to face some flak about his unflinching commitment to her leadership. In any case, Indira Gandhi valued his services enough to assign to him the drawing up of the party’s manifesto in 1979 – a task that he continued to do until 1996. She also appointed him foreign minister in 1980. This was the big break. With his penchant for picking up languages, Rao fitted snugly into the high-flying world of international diplomacy despite being a teetotaler and a vegetarian. A senior diplomat who worked with him considers Rao as the “real spirit of the Non Aligned Movement, ensuring peaceful co-existence despite differences”.

In 1986, Rao, as Human Resources Development minister, personally formulated the National Policy on education (NPE) 1986 on his newly-acquired word processor in just six months. However, he was unable to push for the required funds to implement the ambitious policy, which included the Navodaya schools.

Rao’s ‘tendency to procrastinate’ was often commented upon. Most bureaucrats who worked with Rao including Former cabinet secretary B.G Deshmukh, however, defends Rao. Says he: “Rao gives the impression of not being decisive because he looks at all aspects of a problem.” Other bureaucrats comment upon his skills of negotiation and persuasion. Says Anand Sarup, former education secretary: “His troubleshooting would be through a process of interaction, conciliation and persuasion.” This led to the impression that Rao was a dove.

P.V. Narasimha Rao

By the summer of 1990, P.V. was preparing to go into retirement from public life and had packed his bags to move home to Hyderabad when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by LTTE sympathizers against the Indian government decision to send troops to Sri Lanka and suddenly circumstances catapulted PV into the country’s top job. Rao was supposed to collapse soon — if not under his advancing age, then from pressure from multiple sources. Instead, he lasted the full five-year term; turned the economy around; brought normalcy to Punjab; and stamped his authority by virtually pushing detractors to the wall to be the real centre of power in the Congress. How did he manage this feat? What led to the transformation of a timid party worker more willing to follow than lead, into a decisive head of Government? How did the change of heart from a Left-leaning protectionist to a free market champion, happen? What techniques did he apply to have his way in a party that largely had little regard for him? This happened in a year of multiple changes and challenges for the country. India and the world were in turmoil and grappling with change, the historical significance of which was not immediately understood by many.

P.V. Narasimha Rao

Rao’s ascendancy to the Prime Minister ship was politically significant in that he was the first holder of this office from a non-Hindi-speaking region, the South of the country. The economic significance of his Prime Minister ship is well known. It was he who oversaw a major economic transformation of the country. Rao also was instrumental in setting up the ‘Look east’ policy and competently handled several matters affecting the national security of the coun-
try, including laying the foundation for the nuclear security programme.

India’s Economic Crisis and Transformation

Similarly, we hold PV in high regard for his right-wing, pro-capital reform measures for opening up the economy to liberalization, privatization and globalization. But P.V was a fierce advocate and practitioner of Socialism when he was the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. His land reforms for redistribution of land to the poor and downtrodden, and his strict enforcement of land ceiling act, created such a strong backlash from the established big land lords, that the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to take back P.V from the state politics as a Minister in the Union Cabinet, and declare President’s rule in Andhra Pradesh for some time. So it extremely wrong to paint PV to be a right wing politicians just because he was an architect of economic reforms in India.

The economic crisis of 1991—an external payments, or a balance of payments crisis, to be precise—was the consequence of a political impasse India found itself in. A series of political and economic events of the 1980s came to a head around 1990-91. India was on the verge of defaulting on its external payments obligations, with foreign exchange reserves dwindling rapidly as oil prices went up, exports went down, and non-resident Indians began withdrawing their deposits in foreign currency accounts in India.

While this situation can, in part, be attributed to unexpected and extraneous factors like the Gulf War of 1990-91, one important reason for the precipitous fall in foreign exchange reserves was a loss of confidence in the Indian government’s ability to deal with a difficult economic situation. That difficulty was almost entirely on account of the political brinkmanship and populism of a variety of political actors. The economic crisis of 1991 was as much a consequence of bad economic management of the preceding half decade during the tenures of Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1989) and V.P. Singh, as it was of the political choices they made. In the end, it was politics that trumped economics. The responsibility for the events that combined to push India to the brink of default must lie with Rajiv Gandhi and VP Singh. It was then for Chandra Shekhar and Narasimha Rao to arrest the slide and clean up the mess. And the credit for understanding the seriousness of the situation and acting in time goes to Rao.

Rao, who held the Industries portfolio, was personally responsible for the dismantling of the License Raj, as this came under the purview of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. For this, he is often called the ‘Father of Indian economic Reforms’, although his own party refuses to acknowledge it. Rao was in fact the author of the most radical shift in India’s economic policy since Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956. Nehru’s resolution had declared that India would strive to establish a “socialistic pattern of society”. In 1991, Rao moved away from that pattern to unleash private enterprise.

Adopted to avert impending 1991 economic crisis, the reforms progressed furthest in the areas of opening up to foreign investment, reforming capital markets, deregulating domestic business, and reforming the trade regime. Rao’s government’s goals were reducing the fiscal deficit, Privatization of the public sector and increasing investment in infrastructure. Trade reforms and changes in the regulation of foreign direct investment were introduced to open India to foreign trade while stabilising external loans. Rao wanted I.G. Patel as his Finance Minister. Patel was an official who helped prepare 14 budgets, an ex-governor of Reserve Bank of India and had headed The London School of economics. But Patel declined. Rao then chose Manmohan Singh for the job. Manmohan Singh, an acclaimed economist, played a central role in implementing these reforms. The impact of these reforms may be gauged from the fact that total foreign investment (including foreign direct investment, portfolio investment, and investment raised on international capital markets) in India grew from a minuscule US $132 million in 1991–92 to $5.3 billion in 1995–96. Rao began industrial policy reforms with the manufacturing sector. He slashed industrial licensing, leaving only 18 industries subject to licensing. Industrial regulation was rationalised.

Future Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh continued the economic reform policies pioneered by Rao’s government, setting the Indian economy firmly on the growth trajectory.

National Security

Rao increased military spending, and set the Indian Army on course to fight the emerging threat of terrorism and insurgencies, as well as Pakistan and China’s nuclear potentials. It was during his term that terrorism in the Indian state of Punjab was finally defeated. It is said that Rao was ‘solely responsible’ for the decision to hold elections in Punjab, no matter how narrow the electorate base would be.

Rao also handled the Indian response to the occupation of the Hazratbal holy shrine in Jammu and Kashmir by terrorists in October 1993. In dealing with Kashmir, Rao’s government was highly restrained by US government and its president Mr. Clinton, but he brought the occupation to an end without damage to the shrine. Similarly, he dealt with the kidnapping of some foreign tourists by a terrorist group called Al Faran in Kashmir in 1995 effectively. Although he could not secure the release of the hostages, his policies ensured that the terrorist’s demands were not conceded to, and that the action of the terrorists was condemned internationally, including Pakistan.

Rao’s government introduced the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), India’s first anti-terrorism legislation. Scenarios of aircraft hijackings, which occurred during Rao’s time ended without the government conceding the terrorists’ demands. He also directed negotiations to secure the release of Doraiswamy, an Indian Oil executive, from Kashmiri terrorists who kidnapped him, and Liviu Radu, a Romanian diplomat posted in New Delhi in October 1991, who was kidnapped by Sikh terrorists.

Father of the Nuclear Programme

Rao was the “true father” of India’s nuclear programme. While a secret decision to go nuclear had been taken in 1988, after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, it was unclear how to proceed. After he became PM in 1991, Rao took the nuclear programme in hand. The end of the Cold War and the international concerns on non-proliferation resulted in relentless pressures from the US to cap India’s nuclear programme, but Rao and Dixit, former national security adviser, devised a variety of diplomatic strategy to resist international pressures without confronting the US head-on and thus gained valuable time for Indian scientists to come up with a credible programme of nuclear tests, including the Hydrogen bomb.

The appointed day arrived in mid December 1995. The nuclear devices were already put into the L-shaped hole dug for the purpose in Pokhran desert. The Ministries of external Affairs and Finance had estimated of the costs of US sanctions that would have followed. The officer in the MEA specialising in the nuclear issue had a prepared statement in his drawer justifying India’s decision. As US satellite pictures began to show Indian preparations for the test, the New York Times broke the story about India’s plans to test on December 15. After two days, India finally declared it had no intention to test. Had Rao tested in 1995, India’s political history might have been different. With elections due in mid-1996, the nuclear card could have possibly returned Rao to power. yet, inexplicably Rao chose not to. Some say he succumbed to US pressure. Others say he was concerned about Pakistan reaction and the economic consequence.

Rao told “Kalam, be ready with the Department of Atomic energy and your team for the N-test and I am going to Tirupati. you wait for my authorisation to go ahead with the test. DRDO-DAE teams must be ready for action.”

Three years later, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee fulfilled his party’s campaign promise by ordering five nuclear tests below the shimmering sands of Rajasthan. But, as former prime minister Vajpayee revealed, Rao’s national security legacy was no less important. Participating at a Writers’ conference meet in Gwalior, a somewhat emotional Vajpayee said Vajpayee said that, in May 1996, a few days after he had succeeded Rao as prime minister, he received a note from Rao. “Saamagritayyarhai,” the note had said. (“The ingredients are ready.”) “you can go ahead.” Vajpayee said: “Rao told me that the bomb was ready. I only exploded it. Rao had asked me not to make it public, but today when he is dead and gone, I wish to place the record straight”.


Rao also made diplomatic overtures to Western Europe, the United States, and China. He decided in 1992 to bring into the open India’s relations with Israel, which had been kept covertly active for a few years during his tenure as a Foreign Minister, and permitted Israel to open an embassy in New Delhi. He ordered the intelligence community in 1992 to start a systematic drive to draw the international community’s attention to alleged Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism against India and not to be discouraged by US efforts to undermine the exercise. Rao launched the Look east foreign policy, which brought India closer to ASEAN. According to Rejaul Karim Laskar, a scholar of India’s foreign policy and ideologue of Rao’s Congress Party, Rao initiated the Look east policy with three objectives in mind, namely, to renew political contacts with the ASEAN member nation; to increase economic interaction with South east Asia in trade, investment, science and technology, tourism, etc.; and to forge strategic and defence links with several countries of South east Asia. He decided to maintain a distance from the Dalai Lama in order to avoid aggravating Beijing’s suspicions and concerns, and made successful overtures to Tehran. The ‘cultivate Iran’ policy was pushed through vigorously by him. These policies paid rich dividends for India in March 1994, when Benazir Bhutto’s efforts to have a resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva on the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir failed, with opposition by China and Iran.


In the late 1980s, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) brought the Ram Janmabhoomi issue to the centre stage of national politics, and the BJP and VHP began organising larger protests in Ayodhya and around the country. Members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) demolished the Babri Mosque. The site is the birthplace of the Hindu God Rama . The destruction of the disputed structure, which was widely reported in the international media, unleashed large scale communal violence, the most extensive since the Partition of India. Later Liberhan Commission, after extensive hearing and investigation, exonerated PV Narasimha Rao. It pointed out that Rao was heading a minority government, the Commission accepted the centre’s submission that central forces could neither be deployed by the Union in the totality of facts and circumstances then prevailing, nor could President’s Rule be imposed “on the basis of rumours or media reports”.  Taking such a step would have created “bad precedent” damaging the federal structure and would have “amounted to interference” in the state administration, it said. The state “deliberately and consciously understated” the risk to the disputed structure and general law and order. It also said that the Governor’s assessment of the situation was either badly flawed or overly optimistic and was thus a major impediment for the central government. The Commission further said, “… knowing fully well that its facetious undertakings before the Supreme Court had bought it sufficient breathing space, it (state government) proceeded with the planning for the destruction of the disputed structure. The Supreme Court’s own observer failed to alert it to the sinister undercurrents. The Governor and its intelligence agencies, charged with acting as the eyes and ears of the central government also failed in their task. Without substantive procedural prerequisites, neither the Supreme Court, nor the Union of India was able to take any meaningful steps.

Rao was referred to as Chanakya for his ability to steer tough economic and political legislation through the parliament at a time when he headed a minority government. PV not only ruled a full term but his policies ushered in a new era and gave a new direction to national politics. He was an unlikely prime minister but a seminal one. Unlike the many short-lived prime ministers before him—Gulzarilal Nanda (May-June 1964, 11-24 January 1966), Morarji Desai (March 1977-July 1979), Charan Singh (July 1979-January 1980), Vishwanath Pratap Singh (December 1989November 1990), and Chandra Shekhar (November 1990-June 1991)—PV was not even a Member of Parliament on the day he was named India’s twelfth prime minister.

He led an important administration, overseeing a major economic transformation and several home incidents affecting national security of India. It is significant, and relevant to our argument about PV’s centrality to the reform process, that as prime minister he not only retained the industries portfolio but also kept the Ministry of Civil Supplies and Public Distribution under his charge. The now famous national rural employment guarantee programme (NREGA) had its initial launch during PV’s tenure as prime minister.

Persona non grata for INC?

In spite of significant achievements in a difficult situation, in the 1996 general elections the Indian electorate voted out Rao’s Congress Party. Soon, Sonia Gandhi’s coterie forced Mr. Rao to step down as Party President. He was replaced by Sitaram Kesri. Rao rarely spoke of his personal views and opinions during his 5-year tenure. After his retirement from national politics, he published a novel called The Insider. The book, which follows a man’s rise through the ranks of Indian politics, resembled events from Rao’s own life.

Rao suffered a heart attack on 9 December 2004, and was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where he died 14 days later at the age of 83. His family wanted the body cremated in Delhi.”This is his karmabhoomi”, Rao’s son Prabhakara told Manmohan Singh. But it is alleged that Sonia Gandhi’s closest aides ensured that the body was moved to Hyderabad. In Delhi, his body was not allowed inside AICC building. His body was kept in state at the Jubilee Hall in Hyderabad. A reformer, educationist, scholar conversant in 15 languages, intellectual, a man called the ‘Brihaspati’ (wise man) of Andhra Pradesh” was insulted by Congress leadership.

On multiple occasions, Sonia Gandhi praised contributions of all Congress prime ministers except P V Narasimha Rao in her various speeches. Making no mention of Rao, she claimed that Rajiv Gandhi scripted the course of economic policies that were followed by the government (headed by Rao) for the following five years. even today, the Congress leadership shows extreme reluctance to acknowledge the role PV Narasimha Rao played in appointing Manmohan Singh as his finance minister and giving him the freedom to unveil the economic reforms package to bail the Indian economy out of an unprecedented crisis.

Down Memory lane

PV was India’s first “accidental” prime minister, and a path-breaking one. He took charge of the national government and restored political stability; assumed leadership of the Congress, proving that there was hope beyond the Nehru Gandhi dynasty; pushed through significant economic reforms; and steered India through the uncharted waters of the post-Cold War world. While the Congress party has distanced itself from him,the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi has acknowledged PV contribution in building the nation. While this could be a political strategy to get benefit in southern India based middle class who were greatly benefited by PV governance, the fact remains that Rao was as former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam said, a “patriotic statesman who believed that the nation is bigger than the political system”. According to Sanjay Baru, PM Manmohan Singh wanted to give Bharat Ratna to Rao during his tenure but the compulsion of politics had other road map for the legend. While long due, it is only a fitting tribute for Rao to be honoured with the Bharat Ratna, a demand that has been supported by people across the party line, including Telangana CM K. Chandrashekhar Rao and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy.

In his book, “How P V Narasimha Rao made History”, Sanjaya Baru, a former newspaper editor and media advisor to prime minister Singh, analyses Rao’s role during that landmark year in an interview to Indian press.

How crucial was P V Narasimha Rao’s leadership in 1991?

It is the political leadership, first with Chandra Shekhar (Prime Minister before Rao) and then with Rao, who were able to create a political environment in which the economic crisis was dealt with.The economists in government, be it Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Rakesh Mohan or many others, were only facilitating policy making. But the political leadership in a democracy is provided by the prime minister. The tragedy of the last 25 years is that the Congress party buried Rao’s legacy. Professional economists have written of it as though the reforms were all thought of by economists and conducted by economists. But why is it that Rajiv Gandhi, who was prime minister for five years with 400 members of parliaments, failed to undertake these reforms? Because he never had the political skills or the requisite experience to run the country.

P.V. Narasimha Rao

But did Rao not want to take credit for what he did?

He allowed Dr Manmohan Singh to get all the credit for the economic policy. But in the realm of foreign policy, he was quite happy to take credit. The Look east policy, the recognition of Israel, beginning the talks with China, he deserves credit for all that. He did not shy away from taking credit on the foreign policy front.But the problem is not that he did not want to take credit. The problem is that, once he was out of office, the Congress party simply buried him and his legacy.

How do you rate his foreign policy initiatives?

I would rate him next to Jawaharlal Nehru in that area. Nehru gave Indian foreign policy a direction after independence. He was the architect of foreign policy. In 1991, Rao redefined India’s foreign policy by reaching out to our neighbours. He was the first prime minister to reach out to Nawaz (Sharif). He also reached out to the leadership in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In fact, he is the original architect of Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood policy.

Second, he reached out to east Asian nations, particularly Japan, South Korea, and Singapore and defined what is now called as the Look east policy.

Third, he recognised Israel and redefined India’s relations with West Asia, particularly with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Fourth, he began border talks with China, and laid the framework for the negotiations over the next 30 years. Fifth, he managed the transition of the Soviet Union, especially with the rise of Russia. Finally, he began a new phase with India’s engagement with the US.

As India’s best prime ministers, how do you rate Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao?

There is no doubt in my mind. Next to Nehru, the greatest prime minister has been Rao. I would not have written this book if I weren’t convinced. every prime minister makes mistakes. Nehru made big mistakes in handling Kashmir, China, and the 1962 war. Indira made mistakes, so did Rajiv. Rao also made mistakes. On an average I would rate Rao’s tenure as the most significant as it put India on a new trajectory.

Finally, history will be remember PV as the leader who transformed the modern India in an economic global power house. He never took credit of any work and modestly said, When I don’t make a decision, it’s not that I don’t think about it. I think about it and make a decision not to make a decision. Such was the grace of the person that he always conducted with supreme grace and delivered maximum government to people of India.

Rao deployed similar Chanakya-like tactics and strategies in dealing with the minority status of his Government, winning over support at times through questionable means. PV mind was deeply influenced by Indian philosophical thought and yet alert to the practicalities of governance (where Chanakya’s saam, daam, dand, bhed come into play).Rao was a man of simple tastes but with a complex mind. Vinay Satpati, biographer has done an admirable job of putting up the thought-process of the original ‘accidental Prime Minister’, and the good and bad which came from that accident. In the end, though, the good is so overwhelming that the bad must take a back seat. To quote Sitapati, “His legacy lives on…his half-burnt body continues to glow.”

The tragic end of the greatest intellectual Prime Minister can never erase the contribution he made to redefine the journey of modern powerful India. To sum up PV in a line, “he had Pandit Nehru intellectual scientific vision, Shayama Prasad Mookerjee love for education and Sardar Patel trait of understanding of India”.

( Prashant Tewari # prashanttewari@opinionexpress.in : Writer worked closely with late Prime Minister of India, he is Editor-in-Chief of Opinion Express, columnist with The Pioneer # )


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