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Book Review: Half Lion - How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India

At a time Bharatavarsha was largely fragmented with Greek invaders still lurking around, a brahmin scholar masterminded their expulsion and reinstated a powerful Indian empire using the military strength of Chandragupta Maurya. Mired in myths, the name Chanakya, invokes to this day, the image of a scheming strategist who used realpolitik as a necessary means to common good.

Two millenniums later, the modern nation-state of India found itself in more dire conditions. Four decades of socialist governance brought the nation to the cusp of economic collapse, separatist movements in Punjab, Kashmir, North-East and even Tamil Nadu threatened the democracy, India’s supporter in the world-stage (USSR) was at the brink of breakdown, and the nation just lost its charismatic leader in suicide bomb. Just when it appeared all hope was lost, destiny intervened and brought a scholar-politician on the verge of retirement back to the corridors of power – to the country’s top job.

Vinay Sitapati’s “Half Lion – How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India” (aptly titled, as book-readers would understand) chronicles the life of the modern-day Chanakya, PV Narasimha Rao. It aims to answer the central puzzle of how Rao managed to achieve so much despite having so little power.

The making of the master

When PV Narasimha Rao became the ninth Prime Minister of India, he inherited not just an entire system on the path to ruin, but also one of the weakest political mandate till then. While he was tasked with unprecedented challenges, he didn’t have the required floor strength to push through the reforms that were considered politically risky. So how did Rao walk on the razor’s edge, simultaneously managing opposition and pacifying rivals within the party to transform India and put it on the highway to rapid growth?

As with Winston Churchill, Rao’s “past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial”. Vinay traces the beginnings of Rao in present-day Telangana, and how his early tribulations shaped his future persona. By his tenth year, he experienced adoption, separation and marriage, and the ensuing loneliness later became the defining theme of his entire life. Contrary to his image, Vinay informs us that Rao was thorough socialist through much of his younger life and adored Nehru(vism) and Swami Ramananda Tirtha.

In his brief stint as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, he pushed land reforms with vigor, earning the ire of partymen  who found their entrenched interests affected (interestingly, the reforms affected Rao too who lost much land). A na├»ve plain-speak about his resolve to follow Supreme Court order to restore Mulki rules provided the excuse to bring him down. (Mulki rules allowed for preferential treatment to Telangana people for government jobs in their region, which was subverted by following governments). Thus, his brief experience as CM gave him the much-needed bitter dose of pragmatism.

Rao, the Prime Minister, would later deftly outmaneuver reform-opponents by disguising change as continuity and bewilder them through calculated silence. Remember, this is a man who once 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.” And that “Inaction is also action”.

In the interim, Rao would also work as Foreign Minister in the Indira Gandhi cabinet. This would shape his tremendous success in this arena as PM. He also served as the Home Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government, which saw what Vinay describes to be his "vilest hour”. While many Congressmen turned a deaf ear in 1984 anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s death, only one of them was also the Home Minister. A call from PMO reportedly inactivated him and he chose party over duty.

The time of reckoning

The untimely death of Rajiv Gandhi forced warring groups within Congress to zero in upon Rao as the  compromise candidate. Rao, halfway in his journey to head a Hindu monastary, was asked to return. In a series of swift moves, Rao cornered other political heavyweights, and secured his position. An eight-page note prepared by the bureacracy on the economic collapse staring India on its face changed Rao from protectionist to a reformer.

Vinay insists that Rao already understood what had to be done, and wanted a credible face as the Finance Minister to send positive signal to the West. Had IG Patel, Rao’s first choice for the post of FM, assumed office, the reforms would have been more or less similar (he declined the post). But without Rao’s political backing, the liberalization process simply stood no chance, with or without Dr. Manmohan Singh. In passing, it may be recalled that Dr. Singh ceased to be the same reformer in his ten-year long stint as the PM, clearly establishing Rao’s hand in the 1991 reforms.

India hit its lowest ebb soon, when it became clear that its foreign exchange reserves would barely last two weeks and government was close to default. Shamefacedly, Rao government had to mortage national gold reserves to Bank of England to buy time. Things turned, and thankfully, this time for better.

Was Rao complicit in Babri demolition?

In a bid to demonize Rao, many dynasty-loyalists accuse Rao of sleeping through Babri Masjid demolition, though in their selective amnesia they forget that it was Rajiv Gandhi who opened the Babri gates, thus opening the Pandora box. Vinay’s account is, by far, the most extensive and indicative. Far from being indifferent, he claims that Rao was in talks with many Hindu activists, and often quoted Hindu scriptures to dissuade them from demolition.

But Rao faced a predicament: he wasn’t authorized to impose Presidential Rule in Uttar Pradesh based on assumption that the situation would deteriorate, there had to be an actual law and order problem to justify that. Kalyan Singh, as CM of UP, assured Supreme Court that he will ensure no untoward accident occurs and didn’t make one false move throughout November 1992. If Rao acted pre-emptively, it would have been termed illegal by the Supreme Court and the united opposition would have come down heavily on the minority government. Rao tried his best to deflect the decision-making to others, empowering two cabinet ministers to take a decision during his foreign tour and waiting for Supreme Court's comments. But all refused to confer any judgment, and the buck stopped at Rao’s door again; he was being checkmated. This was when he realized that two demolitions were being planned: one of Babri masjid and another of his government. He then chose to hold talks with Hindu leaders, and convinced them to not demolish the mosque. In retrospect, he clearly made a judgment of error, but all this springs from hindsight. Knowing what Rao did and looking at the options he then had, it is difficult to place the blame of Babri solely at Rao’s door, many others were as responsible.

[ Note: Koenraad Elst notes here that LK Advani reportedly broke down in tears when the activists started demolition despite his protests. My reading is that Advani wanted to reap the political capital out of the mandir issue, but was unwilling to instigate the masjid demolition as he must have known that such move would eventually backfire on him and party. Unfortunately, mass movements aren’t guided missiles that can be controlled with precision.  Once unleashed, they can’t be tamed, as Advani realized on that grim day.]

Rao, however, would exploit this black day to divide the opposition and pass the litmus test of BJP-initiated no-confidence motion. With BJP’s star on the ascendant, the left parties felt that fresh elections would benefit BJP and thus derailed the motion.

Vinay goes into many details of how Rao successfully pulled India back from the brink. These are the juiciest parts of the book. It is also noted that Rao spoke like a businessman in foreign countries and sought to attract investments, in sharp departure from previous PMs.

Humiliated in death, resurrected by posterity

The contempt that dynasty-loyalists reserved for Rao is best represented by his humiliation in death. His body wasn’t given a funeral in Delhi, which was instead shifted to Hyderabad for the purpose. When the dignitaries left the cremation ground, stray dogs were pulling at his funeral pyre. Though many claim that the body was only half-burnt, Vinay quotes Rao’s long-time aide as saying that this wasn’t the case. In the words of the aide, “The story was [only] an expression of public anger at Rao’s humiliation.”

From the pro-Telangana movement forums back in 2010, I foresaw the possible elevation of Rao as a Telangana Bidda (son of soil). Sure enough, Telangana State Government has chosen to officially celebrate Rao’s birth anniversary every year. BJP, probably seeking to discomfort Congress, has built a memorial ghat for Rao in Delhi.

But ideological leanings aside, what Rao achieved is staggering, considering his weak political mandate and constant intra-party quibbles. Strong diplomatic relations with Israel, telecom revolution, exponential growth of satellite TV channels, nuclear policy, political stability, consistent foreign policy among many others. This is a transformational change on the scale achieved by the likes of Deng Xiaoping of China, Ronald Reagon of United States and Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain.

How did Rao, with a barely successful prior record, manage to outfox opponents and bring such transformation across the nation? Rao, the CM was lion enough to scare wolves, but how did Rao, the PM evolve into a fox that escapes traps? The clue, in my opinion, lies in his repeated trysts with exile. He understood the transient nature of power and developed the necessary detachment to look into the situations in a supremely objective manner. Remember, he was already contemplating monkhood when he was pulled back into the centre-stage by a peculiar chain of events.

For all the allegations of corruption against him, Vinay quotes Rao’s aide as saying that Rao was considering to sell his house to pay for the legal fees (Vinay however doesn’t absolve him of political corruption). This reminds me of what Indradutt, the Prime Minister of King Parvateshwar says of Chanakya: “He wears clothes that were given to him in charity and eats food by begging. What kind of selfish motive does such a person have?” Therein probably lies the secret.

A word about the author Vinay Sitapati: he does a commendable job of painstakingly collecting various records, including Rao's private papers, and weaves together the bare facts into a compelling story. In an interview, he asserted that he sent communication to everybody quoted in the book, and so far hasn't heard any claims of misquotation from anybody. Overall, a brilliant job; I look forward to reading more books from him. 

Vinay acknowledges my tweet about this review:


  1. Job well done Madhav. The flow is so smooth, found it difficult to understand where your contribution (revies)ceases and the original narrative starts.
    Best of your works so far. Chaitanya.V


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