P.V. Narasimha Rao’s The Insider is fiction, reality and prophecy come together. Anand is Rao himself, albeit in semi-fictional avatar. In the book, a young comrade exhorts him: “Run, Anandji, run for your life.... No one gives a damn for your genius! Escape, dreamer...before they get you condemned, before they destroy the real you and set the hounds of their suborned public opinion against you—so that you may never rise again!”
‘Dreamer’, ‘genius’, ‘condemned’, ‘hounded’, ‘destroyed’, ‘smothered’, and not allowed to ‘rise again’. Words that capture Rao’s political life. But also a partial representation of the man. The other Rao was a quintessential subversive. One who subverted every entrenched system in the country as well as every major theme in its political discourse.
Those who wanted to destroy him think they succeeded. What they don’t realise is that Rao condemned them to follow the legacy he laid out for India.
A man who emerged from the rough and tumble of India’s electoral politics, Rao was no armchair intellectual airdropped on to political positions. He is perhaps among the few politicians in the country who successfully contested the largest number of elections—an unnoticed record. It was only in 1991 that he did not contest elections, but went on to become the prime minister of the minority government formed in the year of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Those who claim to be ‘mass leaders’ today would not have won even half the number of elections he did. A cultivated mind and the gift of erudition did not come in the way of his stepping into the hurly-burly of the electoral arena.
Rao was a product of a political and economic structure dominated by the rural oligarchy. Although zamindari had been abolished, most of the zamindars remained the real wielders of power. Rao’s strict implementation of the Land Ceiling Act and land reforms as chief minister steadily chipped away at this structure and ended up redefining rural economic and political power equations. The surplus capital from agriculture was forced to look for avenues in trade and industry. And so Rao dismantled the rural, agrarian and feudal hold on the power structure in his state.
Rao was also the child, the beneficiary and, to some extent, the theologian of the era dominated by Nehruvian economics and politics, nearly half a century of independent India. For over the two decades that he moved to Delhi, there was not a single Congress document that he did not write or vet. And they were all reaffirmations of faith in the “socialistic pattern of society”. Little did anyone expect that he would be the man to dislodge that monolithic, invincible structure. It’s remarkable that Rao chose to radically depart from the faith he was born into and grew up with in his 70s.
Rao was no knight in shining armour from the free market castle, but he subverted the command economy effectively. Three regimes succeeded his—the UF, NDA and UPA—but none could repudiate the paradigm he had put in place. His overturning of the command economy was so complete that its fundamentals remain undisputed today.
What Rao fell victim to was Congress high command politics. During his stint as AP chief minister, he was ridiculed for the frequent trips he made to New Delhi. However, once he himself became the high command, and enjoyed unchallenged power as prime minister and Congress president, he did not go the way of his tormentors and instead did away with the high command culture. Haughty, upstart and arrogant ‘functionaries’ vanished during his tenure.
Rao acknowledged his political mentors in Swami Ramananda Tirtha and Burgula, but strangely, he refused to be one himself. He never encouraged a patron-client relationship between him and his followers; nor did his comportment inspire strong loyalty. It’s perhaps why he had no diehard followers who would celebrate his achievements, mourn his setbacks, or protest his humiliation after his death. He has no one today to stand up and say it was Rao who changed the course of Indian history in the last decade of the 20th century. No one demands a commemorative stamp for him; the award of a Bharat Ratna; or naming a scheme after him. His birth and death anniversaries are tame, unwilling routines.
Nobody owns Narasimha Rao. No caste, no linguistic group, no region, no stream of thought, no cohesive group of people feel passionate about him. This was a major failing of Rao the political leader. But even though he is not ‘marketed’, Rao’s place is secure in the pages of history. As a man who changed India forever and as the architect of the India that is rising before our eyes today.
(Dr Prabhakar is a political analyst based in Hyderabad.)
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