Narasimha Rao’s legacy

| Updated on June 29, 2020

He piloted a paradigm shift in both economic and foreign policy in a time of crisis

At a time when rhetoric and hyperbole have replaced reasoned political discourse, PV Narasimha Rao’s birth anniversary comes as an opportune reminder of what stoicism and scholarly understatement can achieve. The legacy of a taciturn Prime Minister who could speak 13 languages has enduring lessons at a time when India is simultaneously battling a raging pandemic and Chinese aggression. The beginning of the 1990s was no less turbulent with the Mandal agitation and Ramjanmabhoomi movement on one hand and a severe foreign exchange crisis that left the country struggling even to finance its essential imports on the other. This was the period when Rao oversaw a paradigm shift in economic thinking from Nehruvian socialism, licence-permit raj and protectionism to liberalisation of controls on output, trade and capital flows, giving a free hand to Manmohan Singh. He left an equally indelible imprint on foreign policy, easing diplomatic relations with Israel without disturbing balance with the Palestinians and making overtures to US as well as China. Today, we seem to be at another defining moment in these respects.

Rao’s unobtrusive oversight of the most fundamental institutional reforms is a lesson for those in government today. The new industrial policy that paved the way for future FDI inflows was opposed not just by the Left and the BJP but also Rao’s own colleagues in the Cabinet. Rao got his junior minister in the Industry Ministry to lay it on the floor of the Lok Sabha on July 24, 1991. It did not prevent the Left Unions as also the Swadeshi Jagran Manch from holding prolonged agitations, but it did provide a soft landing to this transformational policy initiative. The same strategic approach is visible in his stint as chief minister in the early 1970s of the then undivided Andhra Pradesh when he started the process of land ceiling, first through an ordinance to prevent big landlords from transferring large agricultural holdings in different names to escape the proposed Andhra Pradesh land reforms (ceiling on agriculture holdings) Act. Later, Rao clarified the urgency behind bringing the ordinance, “The land reforms Act...needs a State-wide dialogue. At the same time, consuming time on unnecessary discussions will also help the landlord to circumvent the Act. Otherwise, dogs and cats will also get a share in the landlord’s property.”

The Congress would have fared better if it had paid attention to Rao’s scathing dissection of the party’s organisational collapse under Rajiv Gandhi. Rao’s anonymously written piece “The Great Suicide” for Mainstream magazine’s Republic Day special issue sharply outlined the elitism in Rajiv Gandhi and his coterie and hollowing out of the Congress’s organisational structure. But even Rao would not have predicted the shabby treatment meted out to him on his death, when his body was not allowed into the AICC headquarters. Today, the Congress can hardly blame the BJP or the TRS for appropriating his legacy.

Published on June 29, 2020

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