Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Remembering an Unsung Hero

{This is a long article copied from my old blog. Almost 3 years old}

I would like to start a series of articles on the personalities/people whose achievements went unnoticed or they were, as they say, Unsung.

I would like to start with the man who according to me was singularly responsible for affecting the lives of the entire Indian middle class, a class which i proudly belong to.

No its not (the oft repeated) Manmohan Singh, but the real force behind him and the political will behind all his measures - Mr. Narismha Rao.

While reading through the tribute by rediff's Amberish Diwanji on Narshimha Rao, i realised what this man had achieved with such paper thin majority behind him. Agreed that he used all the means (good or bad) to achieve what he finally achieved. But look at the results.

I will always prefer a leader who is corrupt but gets results for the people rather than a non-corrupt 'progressive' socialist who only speaks and plans and does nothing concrete. Ideally i would like a leader who's non-corrupt and result oriented. But leaving idealism aside i wouldn't mind, lets say, a leader who builds roads, hospitals, schools and infrastructure and also warms his pockets on this path.

Narsimha Rao may have been corrupt and there's been lot of mud on his dhoti right from Jharkhand MPs to Harshad Mehta, but what he did for India during those turbulent times has been un-matched in Indian political history.

Before we judge Mr. Rao from these isolated events, lets take in context what was the state of the country when he became PM. Lets get some facts.

He was the PM of India from 1991 till 1996. Just preceding his rule, there had been two failed governments. One of VP Singh and the other of Chandrashekhar. Owing to VP Singh's Mandal the nation's social fabric was in a state of disarray. The so called OBC's were the new Czars. To counter the potential divide within the larger Hindu family L.K Advani had to embark upon his rath yatra to Ayodhya which in turn polarized the Hindus and Muslims further. A divided Hindu family was what VP Singh was looking at as he wanted to become the messiah of the Muslim-OBC vote bank. Advani was able to consolidate atleast a chunk of Hindus behind him, specially the Hindu middle class. That probably saved a much larger divide along the caste lines, which was VP Singh's real intent.

Lets say finally neither Advani nor VP Singh succeeded completely in their missions. VP Singh in fact became a spent force almost immediately.But these two also left the country in a state of uneasy disturbance by their actions.

But the real issue facing the nation was the economic crisis. The Gulf war had just ended and the oil prices were at all time high. The previous government had already taken loan from IMF keeping Gold as mortgage. Something that was unprecedented in the history of Nehru's socialist India. Thanks to Nehru and Gandhi family whose "socialism" had the tacit support of the communists in all those years, the country was on a brink of economic and social disaster. All those years the Indians had been fed with stories of how self sufficient India was and how good was Nehru's socialist policies and how PSUs would be enough to make India productive. It was only a matter of time before the socialism's bomb exploded in the face of Indian policy makers, who all those years, were just avoiding to confront this issue.

In this context i would like to quote Dr. Ramesh Thakur of the United Nation's University..
"Fascination by Jawaharlal Nehru [...] with the state's occupying the commanding heights of the economy and with planning as the instrument of choice for economic growth -- at the cost of a free-market price mechanism -- grew from an admiration of what at the time seemed to be impressive achievements by the Soviet Union, one of the two superpowers. This produced compromises with liberal democracy. The result was the greatest pogram of poverty multiplication and persistence in human history."

And the bomb did explode, the day the news came of India surrendering gold to World Bank in return to a loan.

So basically Rao came in at an unenviable time. Also since he was not a Gandhi family member it was not going to be easy for him to have the backing of the Congress MPs who are eternally intoxicated in sycophancy of Gandhi-Nehru clan. He was always going to walk a very tight rope.

But he had one big advantage. BJP after loosing the 1991 elections was not at its combative best. It was always going to be a weak opposition. Also it was pro-liberalization. But its biggest handicap came when Babri was destroyed. In one stroke that event galvanized the entire non-BJP force of the country. In one way it might also have been Rao's master stroke.
By being soft on BJP and in some ways allowing Babri to get demolished, Rao gave the entire "secular" polity a permanent handle to beat BJP with.

Babri demolition sent shock waves across the country. More importantly it tamed BJP and its off shoots. A weak opposition was Rao's best bet during those days. And he got that in exactly one year of his rule.

With oppositon on the back foot, Rao now had to rein in the even more vocal opponents of practically everything - the Left. One must credit Rao of handling them well by playing them against BJP. He was able to divert all the left's negative energies towards BJP while silently under taking the reforms. He gave Manmohan and his team a free hand to handle economics. A free hand without political pressure is probably every Finance minister's dream. And Singh made full use of it.

It must not be forgotten by all who are always jumping in giving Manmohan Singh all the due for liberating the economy that as a part of the deal with IMF in 1992, India HAD to liberalize its economy. There was no going back on that. Manmohan Singh JUST HAPPENED to be the Finance Minister at that time. I doubt any other finance minister (whether Jaswant Singh,Yashwant Singh,P.Chidambara or any other) would have done anything different.

Lot of people today give all the credit for economic reforms to Manmohan Singh. But that at best is only partially true. Today Manmohan Singh is just the face but power lies somewhere else. 13 years ago the story was not different. He was playing his innings when the real game was played else where. Rao had the political will and the guts to carry on with what he thought was right for the nation. Without much fuss and hype he brought some sweeping changes in India's economic thoughts and ideas. Behind the scenes he manufactured deals and applied his political skills to keep the communists and socialists from making too much noise. While Manmohan Singh got all the praise showered upon him , specially by media and the middle class, Rao silently worked to see that all the bills are passed smoothly.

In his essay "The political economy of reform", management guru Gurcharan Das wrote,
"Narasimha Rao deserves credit for his deft handling of the reform process, especially in sequencing the acts in a politically shrewd manner. Hence, India has avoided the political damage – or even collapse, as in Russia’s case – that many countries have suffered after the economic reforms"

Rao's tenure was qualitatively different than that of Rajiv Gandhi's. One must not forget that Rajiv Gandhi, the poster boy of Indian politics, had things on platter. He had more than three fourths of Parliament members solidly behind him. He had the world at his feet. He could have done anything with a snap of his finger.The media was behind him and there were no private channels to probe his dealings and breath down Rajiv's neck for every decision he makes.
(Its a different thing that he wasted all those years in playing a celebrity rather than a serious leader and frittered away all the good will and advantage he started with).

Rao's style, as Shekhar Gupta of IE puts it, "was so hopelessly understated as to amount to self-denial". As he gave free hand to Manmohan Singh for handling nation's economy he was also equally benevolent towards the home affairs ministry. The Punjab problem, one of the worst faced by India, post-independence, came to an end during his tenure.

And most likely it ended because even though Rao was fully aware of KPS Gill's strong arm tactics he did not interfere; on the other hand he created an intellectual base in the media to justify Gill's actions.

"The end of terrorism in Punjab without conceding any of the demands of the terrorists and the successful termination of many hijackings without conceding the demands of the terrorists, were some his achievements on home front" - writes B.Raman (Author of many articles on International Terrorism)

His foreign affairs acumen was never a question. Hence his bold decision in 1992 to bring into the open India's relations with Israel, which had been kept secret since they were first established under Indira Gandhi's orders in 1969 and to permit Israel to open an Embassy in New Delhi, was nothing short of a master stroke.

Israel which had been a victim of terrorism for long was a perfect partner for our counter-terrorist program. Rao saw that India could learn a lot from Isreal in many areas of tackling terrorism.

In a country where the Nehrus and Gandhis are worshipped, there was this political pygmy who by his actions brought more positive changes within the country than those brought in by the entire rule of the Nehru Gandhi family.

Right from handling Foreign affairs to internal matters to economics to politics, Rao showed that you can drive the nation out of problems rather than take it towards it.

His own party, the Congress (shamelessly) never really acknowledged his contributions and achievements.Congress men feared a backlash from their goddess Sonia, if they ever uttered anything positive about Rao.

Unfortunately Rao's political career ended in humiliation. He was being dragged from court to court in various cases even as his own party men were looking the other way or looking to hold the fingers of Madam Gandhi.

I guess we are too close to Rao's history to really fathom his greatness. It is really sad that we have made heroes out of unqualified and ill deserved people today and we have consistently forgotten the contributions of the real heroes.

Rao, knew more than 18 languages, he was a qualified lawyer and had great knowledge of world history. He used all his knowledge and experience to drive India out of those tough times. Frankly today's new generation leaders are not a patch on this man.

For me he was probably the only Congress Prime Minister , who i will ever see in positive light.

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