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Controversy dogs Narasimha Rao even in death

July 03, 2010 10:02 IST

Though he called his autobiographical novel Insider, P V Narasimha Rao was forever the Outsider. In death even more than in life, writes Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Few politicians provoked such contrary views as P V Narasimha Rao whose largely ignored 90th birth anniversary last Monday showed that controversy dogs him even in death.

I can still hear Lee Kuan Yew comparing him with China's great moderniser, Deng Xiaoping. On that famous occasion, Lee even derided The Economist for writing of Narasimha Rao that "no one believes that his political future will extend very far". But I knew the honeymoon wouldn't last when I saw Lee's face as Narasimha Rao declared in answer to a question that "the remedy for the ills of democracy is more democracy, not less". Two years later, I was at a dinner at which Lee gloated on Narasimha Rao's defeat and disgrace. Scathingly recalling the democracy comment, he added, "Well, he's got it now!

But that was a genuine change of opinion because Lee felt Narasimha Rao had reneged on economic reform. I cannot make that allowance for South Block mandarins who mocked Narasimha Rao with unprintable jibes before he became prime minister, praised him to high heaven while he was in office, and returned to derision as soon as they realised he was a spent force. That is what makes so many of our highest bureaucrats so despicable.

Though everything that enables India to aspire to global status -- high growth, the rapprochement with the US, returning to her historic role in South-east Asia -- began with Narasimha Rao, it would be idle to pretend he took these steps out of conviction. He had to, because of IMF and World Bank pressure and the advice of wise aides like A N Verma. My sense was that he was too much of an old-style political huckster to be really comfortable with the glitzy new globalised world. He was not enamoured of FDI; it was needed to develop the infrastructure and free India's own resources for social welfare. "There will be blood on the streets otherwise!" he warned.

India's history may have been different if his first choice as finance minister, I G Patel, the former London School of Economics director, had accepted the job. Nor might the government have been able to justify liberalisation if it hadn't been for the 1991 Congress election manifesto that Rajiv Gandhi had compiled but, tragically, not lived to push through. Astute strategist that he was, Narasimha Rao had the wisdom to make the most of this blueprint for the future.

Nuggets dug out from that document promised to end wasteful spending, encourage banks to raise offshore funds, expand service industries, invite foreign investment and technology, construct toll highways and bridges and replace a "lethargic, inefficient and expensive" public sector with one that was "leaner, more dynamic and profit-oriented". In another smart move, he and Manmohan Singh shared their programme with L K Advani before breaking it to an astounded world, thereby ensuring Opposition support in Parliament.

South-east Asia didn't inspire Narasimha Rao to start with. He told Y M Tiwari, a career diplomat who wanted to be high commissioner in Singapore, he would be wasting his time there. But he was not his own master then; he was Rajiv's external affairs minister. The South Indian in him soon responded to the romance of Suvarnabhumi (prompting comparisons with the "simha" in his name and Singapore's "singa") while the strategist grasped the region's importance as the gateway to America.

His "Look East" policy did not stand alone. It was part of a package to bridge the gulf between India and the US, which is why I called my book on India's rediscovery of South-east Asia Looking East to Look West. The seeming contrariness was typical of the sophistication of a man who told Nepal's King Birendra, "I will treat your Majesty as a sovereign if you don't treat me as a subject!"

The sentiment that inspired the Andhra Pradesh government advertisement announcing "heartfelt homage" to a "humanitarian beyond compare" was undoubtedly commendable. But it was not quite the description I would have chosen for a politician with a keen sense of timing who described his silences (which lesser folk misinterpreted as confusion) as also replies and defended his claim to follow the "Nehru line" by arguing, "Manu the lawgiver gave the law. It was up to each Brahmin to interpret it."

He was also conscious of being the only Congress prime minister not of "the family" to complete a full term. Perhaps the complex made for a certain insecurity. Though he called his autobiographical novel Insider, he was forever the Outsider. In death even more than in life.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray