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On the 21st death anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi, the Emirates National remembers the prime minister who succeeded him:

Consider the view from New Delhi at the beginning of the previous century’s final decade. In 1991 India was a nation of 843 million people and five million telephone lines. A billion dollars separated it from bankruptcy. The Indian map had rarely looked so vulnerable to another cartographic revision. If the flames of separatism in Punjab seemed to be simmering, the secessionist strife in Kashmir was just peaking. Hindu nationalists, a fringe force in Indian politics a mere decade ago, now occupied the bulk of opposition seats in parliament, poised to banish the secularism that had been the foundational basis of Indian nationalism.

It is now de rigueur to credit prime minister Manmohan Singh, who was then finance minister, with India’s phenomenal transformation. But in a country where economic isolation was an inviolable ideological axiom, reorienting India to flourish in the new world was a distinctly political challenge. Singh was then, and is now, a competent but essentially voiceless bureaucrat, not a politician. He merits as much credit for rehabilitating India in the 1990s as he deserves blame for its failures today.

The man who led India’s transformation was an unlikely pragmatist. He was 70 and had undergone triple-bypass surgery when he assumed office. A career politician, he had no political constituency of his own. There was hardly a voice that did not lament his elevation to the premiership. And yet if Jawaharlal Nehru “discovered” India, it can reasonably be said that PV Narasimha Rao reinvented it.

After Hyderabad was incorporated into the newly independent India and then into the newly created state of Andhra Pradesh, Rao was elected to the provincial legislature. He stumbled through a number of ministries before Indira Gandhi appointed him the state’s chief minister. Rao forced through an ambitious land reform act, compelling feudal landlords, many of them his colleagues in the legislature, to distribute their holdings to landless peasants. In turn, he gave up most of his own inherited estate.

[On the night of May 21, 1991] Rajiv Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party, was killed in an explosion while campaigning in the southern town of Sriperumbudur. With the unifying figurehead dead, Congress was a beehive of competing factions.

Every potential successor had an equally powerful adversary within the party. By a process of elimination Rao emerged as the consensus candidate to “carry forward” Rajiv’s legacy. No one knew that Rao had recently published an article under a pseudonym denouncing Rajiv as a brash, insecure and self-destructive politician. But now Rao appeared innocuous, showed no ideological leanings, had no antagonists or friends, and did not arouse visceral reactions.

But even before his party could fully fathom Rao’s unanticipated ruthlessness, he unleashed the unthinkable upon them. On July 1, Rao devalued the rupee. Within 48 hours, he devalued it still further.

He then went on national television to deliver what seems in retrospect like the most consequential speech since Nehru’s address to the nation at India’s birth in 1947. Rao did not aspire to grandiloquence, but the momentousness was not lost on those who heard him. “Desperate maladies call for drastic remedies,” Rao warned Indians as he revealed his austerity programme. “This is the beginning. A further set of far-reaching changes and reforms is on the way … we believe the nation, as well as the government, must learn to live within its means … there is much fat in government expenditure. This can, and will, be cut.”

He announced a plan that would substantially deregulate industry and delicense the private sector, pull down the barriers to foreign investment and provide tax concessions to private corporations, slash subsidies to farmers and curb labour activism. With blinding celerity, Rao was dismantling Nehruvian India.

“Reversing the policy options is not available to this government anymore,” he said frankly. “It is a one-way street and on all sides I have red lights.” He then floated the idea of introducing organisational elections to the Congress Party. Asia’s oldest political party had adopted a system of patronage when Indira Gandhi took charge. Appointments to party posts were doled out in New Delhi, and some of the most powerful leaders had no political mandate at all.

Rao, of course, was the most patent beneficiary of this system. But his proposal jolted his opponents who, after showing some early signs of rebellion, became more submissive. As if to bolster his position still further, Rao began cultivating the Hindu-nationalist BJP and fostered a friendship with its president, LK Advani.

In 1992 Advani led another rally to Ayodhya. This time, his followers demolished the mosque. And in a savage announcement of their “awakening”, they butchered Muslim children and women in Ayodhya.

Rao immediately dismissed all four BJP-run governments in India, banned religious organisations, and threw Advani in prison. In a highly charged speech in parliament, he accused the BJP leader of betraying his trust. But members of Rao’s own party now questioned his commitment to secularism.

As talk of upgrading relations with Israel picked up momentum, Rao rushed to mollify India’s Arab allies by inviting Yasser Arafat on a state visit to India in January 1992. The Palestinian leader was lavishly feted in New Delhi and by the end of the trip, Arafat approved Rao’s plans to engage with Israel. Forty-three years of estrangement between India and Israel ended within two months.

Rao aggressively renewed India’s lapsed relations with East Asian states, particularly with Singapore and Japan, with his “look east” policy. He travelled to Singapore and Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, Tehran, Paris, Bonn and London. The only two major capitals that he did not visit were Moscow and Washington.

He ignored the former and, in 1994, made a groundbreaking trip to the latter – the first visit to the US by an Indian head of government in nine years.

By the end of 1995, India was attracting more foreign investment than it had managed in the previous four decades combined and two-way trade with the US had jumped to $7.3 billion.

As the economic liberalisation picked up pace between 1993 and 1995, Rao’s party was thrown from power in traditional Congress strongholds throughout the country. In Rao’s home state of Andhra Pradesh, it was reduced to 26 seats in the 294-seat legislature. Campaigning for re-election in 1996, Rao omitted all references to the economic reforms. The New York Times reported that he “feared provoking a backlash among poor Indians who have had to pay more for rice, sugar and fuel”. Party candidates pleaded with Rao to stay away from their constituencies.

In the elections that followed, Congress suffered the worst defeat in its history. The Hindu nationalists stitched together a coalition, but Rao extracted his pound of flesh for the Ayodhya “betrayal” when he crushed Advani’s dream of becoming prime minister by having him implicated in a corruption scandal. Two years later, Sonia Gandhi took over Congress and Rao was expelled from the party. His name was gradually erased from the party’s history.

It is clear from Mr. Manmohan Singh’s performance as prime minister that the politics required to push through the economic reforms of 1992 could not have been managed by him. Part of the reason is that he is more of a democrat than Mr. P. V. Narasimha Rao ever was. The exploitative and corrupt Indian state, exemplified by the Bellary Brotherhood, was not invented by Rao, but he did perfect it. Mr. Manmohan Singh is not up to the job of squashing this parasite.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

May 22, 2012 at 10:04 am

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