Book Review: Half – Lion: How P.V Narasimha Rao Transformed India by Vinay Sitapati

He was not just denied a cremation place in the national capital, Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao was also denied his rightful place in the history of India. While a vilification campaign with the approval of the top echelons of the Congress Party ensured that Rao’s contributions remain neglected, Vinay Sitapati, a political scientist and journalist, takes help of Rao’s personal papers made available exclusively to him to reconstruct Rao’s public life and restore his position in India’s history. In this excellently written book, Sitapati places Rao in the league of revolutionary world leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Franklin D Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This book is not only about the 1991 economic reforms of India or only about his time as the Prime Minister of India (as it may seem from the title of the book), this meticulously researched book (the voluminous citations are proof of the diligent research) is also an account of how Narasimha Rao’s early personal, social and political career led to the rule of perhaps India’s most impactful Prime Minister.

Apart from the extensive research, Vinay Sitapati’s lucid writing style using several anecdotes keeps the readers engaged. Sitapati is careful not to paint Rao as a saint in the book but does a critical analysis of his actions. While he credits Rao as the principal architect of the economic liberalization of 1991 and explains how he outwitted his rivals with his tactics (also comparing him to Chanakya and Machiavelli), he also criticizes him for several of his other decisions. His mistakes as the Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh are well documented in the book but his vigor for land reforms have been equally praised. Even though the balance is slightly tilted in favor Rao in the book, the biography also honestly captures his failures as a human and a politician.

Even after 25 years of the reforms, Rao’s contributions to India’s liberalization have been largely ignored with most of the credit given to then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. But Sitapati has no doubt in his mind that Narasimha Rao was the main driver of the reforms. He writes, “Though Manmohan was critical to Rao’s team, he was not indispensable. Had I.G. Patel become finance minister in 1991, liberalization would have likely persisted. But had Narasimha Rao not become prime minister, India would have been a different country.” Despite his socialist past, Rao was quick to understand the need of opening up Indian economy thanks to the economy he inherited from his predecessors. It is amazing how he achieved so much in spite of leading a minority government. Keeping economist Manmohan Singh on the forefront of reforms was strategic to keep his government insulated from political attacks and thereby alive which could facilitate the reforms. The best example of this strategy can be the abolishing of industrial licensing (by the industry ministry held none other than Rao) on the morning of Manmohan Singh’s historic budget so that next day’s papers would focus on the budget and not the politically contentious but very important reform of delicensing. Promoting the change of liberalization as continuity of Neheruvian economics and Rajiv Gandhi’s dream to keep socialist Congressmen in check is another example of his political acumen.

Vinay Sitapati also makes an effort to explain other major events and Rao’s role in them. He lauds Rao’s efforts in reshaping Indian foreign policy of ‘Look East, Look West’. He also defends Rao’s actions before and on the day of Babri demolition. Contrary to the popular view, as the Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao made a number of efforts to save the Babri mosque and not let Ayodhya movement go out of hand, if the book is to be believed. Sitapati also explains the behind the scene events of India’s second nuclear test which was initiated by Narsimha Rao. Sitapati carefully analyses his abilities to deal with state leaders, adapt according to situations and take rapid decisions when required. Also, his misjudgments on Babri, overestimation of his hold over Congress, complicity in JMM bribery case to save own government and raking up Hawala case against opposition leaders in order to score political points are described in detail in the book.

Often it is mentioned that by Narasimha Rao was at the right time and right place to usher the liberalizations thanks to the Balance of Payment crisis India was leading to when Rao was sworn in. However, it is important to point out that not only Rao launched reforms despite having a minority mandate which none of his predecessor could do with bigger mandate and similar conditions, he didn’t stop even after Indian economy survived the crisis and kept up opening different sectors of Indian economy which later PMs continued to pursue. If Indians have enjoyed the benefits of liberalization for a quarter of century now, they have mostly Narasimha Rao to thank for. And Vinay Sitapati has done an admirable job in restoring Rao’s position in Indian economic history through the book based on brilliant research.

You can buy the book here