Sanjaya Baru was media adviser to Manmohan Singh during his tenure as Prime Minister. His experiences in the PMO became the subject of Baru’s 2014 book on Singh, The Accidental prime Minister. Now, Baru has turned his gaze to another Indian PM, Narasimha Rao. In 1991: How PV Narasimha Rao Made History, Baru examines how Rao steered the country towards economic reform.
Excerpts from an interview with Firstpost:
Manmohan Singh and P V Narasimha Rao are the subjects of your previous and current books, respectively. You were well acquainted with both of them and knew them personally. Was there is a specific reason for choosing them as subjects?
Sanjaya Baru: Frankly, that was not part of any plan. I wrote my earlier book because I felt that there was a story to tell and I wrote this one as (I have mentioned in the book itself) we are now in silver jubilee year of ‘1991’. In the last several months, there were many articles that appeared in various publications about 1991. But I found that most of the writings were about what the economist did, whether it was Dr Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Rakesh Mohan or Rangarajan . Many in the media also gave out awards like Economic Times did, for Reformer of the Year.
However, many of them forgot that the political leadership at that time was provided by PV Narasimha Rao. When I started reading about it, I realised that even Chandra Shekhar had played an important role, as he was the Prime Minister for the first six months (from November 1990) and the crisis actually started developing from October 1990.
I started reading about his role and what happened during his tenure and I realised that both Rao and Chandra Shekhar played important roles. The book, in a sense, is not just about Rao. It is also about Chandra Shekhar. At the end of the day, the fact is that Rao became Prime Minister and succeeded, while Chandra Shekhar lost his job.
But at the book launch, most of the speakers devoted more time to Chandra Shekhar. Did you find that jarring?
Naturally Yashwant Sinha spoke about Chandra Shekhar, because he was in his government and I was expecting him to do that. I expected Chidambaram to be critical of Narasimha Rao. I wanted someone there to disagree with me. Normally, at book launches, there are speakers who just praise the author. That becomes boring. So I decided that there should be some controversy. After reading my book, he (Chidambaram) called me and told me that he was going to disagree with me and that he would point out some mistakes. I was worried — what mistakes had I made in the book? — so I read it again. I found that whatever I had written is authentic reality, as far as I am concerned.
For example, at the book launch we discussed his resignation and he questioned the way I have written it. And he gives a different version. But let me tell you, I have not written all the details as it would have been more damaging. The reason why I mentioned the resignation episode was to use it as an example of how Narasimha Rao chose to punish people who were close to Rajiv Gandhi.
The only two resignations he accepted were of Chidambaram and MR Scindia. Both of them thought that they were close to the Gandhi family, hence safe. By accepting their resignations, Rao was sending a bigger political message. So I mentioned the resignation episode as part of the larger politics that was being played out at that time and not to get in details. If you get in the details, what Chidambaram said at the book launch was not correct. The fact is that Chidambaram met Narasimha Rao along with his wife and explained what had happened. And Narasimha Rao did not say anything. Chidambaram thought that the issue has been resolved. When he reached home, he was told that his resignation had been accepted. You see, Rao used to play such games.
It was partly to send a message that no one should take him lightly. Anyway, I expected Chidambaram to be negative about Rao. And I was not surprised. Naresh Chandra was there and he did speak about his interaction with Rao and made an interesting point which many in the audience did not register (which I have also mentioned in the book): Rao’s address to the nation immediately after he became the PM. He became PM on 21 June, and on 22 June he addressed the nation.
I have quoted from the address. His speech was written by Naresh Chandra. In the speech, Rao talked about economic reforms, the need to tighten our belt. He talked about opening up the economy. The fact that this speech was not written by an economist like Manmohan Singh or Montek Singh Alhuwalia is important. That speech was written by Naresh Chandra and some joint secretaries. What Naresh Chandra wanted to say was that Rao knew what he wanted. [We] knew what should be done. As a cabinet secretary, Chandra was briefing the press regularly and everyone was fully prepared for the change. So he was saying, give us some credit. I do that in my book. I give credit to IAS officers like Naresh Chandra, AN Verma, Suresh Mathur.
So you are saying that the script for economic reform was written by bureaucrats and politicians?
No, I’m saying that a lot of people played important roles. I don’t want to underplay the role played by the economists. The fact remains that Rakesh Mohan wrote that note on industrial policy. Similarly, Montek Singh Ahluwalia wrote that paper on reforms when VP Singh was PM. Manmohan Singh provided leadership as finance minister. Dr Rangarajan was deputy governor; he played an important role. So all of them played important roles, I’m not denying that. I’m just saying the popular thinking, the press in particular, seems to project only economists as heroes. I’m saying that this was not right. Let us recognise the role of political leadership. I’m just trying to be balanced.
Is that true then that the foundation of the reforms was laid down by the Chandra Shekhar government and Narasimha Rao walked in on it?
It is true. If Chandra Shekhar had the majority, he would have done the same thing as Rao. However, two important things that Rao did were not on Chandra Shekhar’s agenda: one, devaluation of the rupee. Chidambaram told me that then in fact, Chandra Shekhar was very critical in Parliament when the rupee was devalued. Devaluation of the rupee was very important for trade policy reform but Chidambaram had argued that Chandra Shekhar would not have done it. Two, Chandra Shekhar would not have gone in for de-licensing. But the fact is that there was a programme with the International Monetary Fund which was being negotiated in December 1990 by Yashwant Sinha. That programme required certain changes in policy which Chandra Shekhar would have had to do.
1991 was the same period when VHP launched its movement of building the Ram Mandir. In your book you have ignored that completely. Was that deliberate?
Firstly, my book is titled 1991 and all of this happened in 1992. So there was no question of my discussing these events. I end with the first two months of 1992 because I had to mention the AICC election which happened in 1992. But in my book, in the last chapter, I have stated that Narasimha Rao had written a book on the way he saw the whole issue of Ayodhya and Babri Masjid. He is the only Prime Minister who has written a book on a policy matter which he had dealt with.
At the book launch everyone, including you, spoke of the Machiavellian streak in Rao. But of late, there have been attempts to praise him. In 1996 he emerged as a villain of peace. Why the recent attempts to praise him then?
Firstly, when you say that he was seen as a Machiavellian figure, I don’t see it as a criticism. That is praise. Politicians are supposed to Machiavellian. You don’t succeed in politics unless you have that streak. In fact, I used to say that Manmohan Singh was Machiavellian. For Manmohan Singh’s birthday, I gifted him a copy of The Prince. In one of his parliamentary speeches, he even quoted from the book to defend one of its policies. So when you say a PM is Machiavellian, that is praise.
Second the way we saw him in 1996 was because the Congress party chose to put the entire blame of the Babri Masjid demolition and defeat on Rao. This is what Rao had written in his book as well: that if things go wrong, he would be blamed, but if they go right, the party would take credit. In fact, I have written in Accidental Prime Minister that even with Manmohan Singh, the arrangement was the same. So I’m not surprised that he was criticised so much. As the Congress needed someone to hang, they hanged Rao.
But I think the re-assessment that is happening today is happening for a different reason. That is because Narendra Modi has shocked the Congress Party by adopting one-by-one, various Congress leaders. He adopted Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Lal Bahadur Shastri. He has not given the Bharat Ratna to Rao. I think he may do so.
How much of subjectivity has influenced your book? As in one case you were associated closely with the subject and in the second, you had some kind of rapport with the subject.
Look, all books are subjective. Let us not fool ourselves by saying that something is objective and something isn’t. It depends upon how the author looks at it. It is the way I look at it. It is my subjective view. All you can do is to draw on the existing information to support that view. I’ve quoted from various people and various biographies, interviews and various reports. But at the end of the day, this is the view of the author. Now you can disagree with it. And my view is that in a democracy, everyone has the right to write a book. Every book is subjective as it is based on one’s own understanding. Even in disciplines like economics you can easily manipulate numbers to get your desired results and conclusions. So it is a theoretical framework and preconceptions that influence your work.
Being closely associated with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh you must have seen the manner in which the ‘first family’ influenced the decision. Is this the reason why the demand to divorce the Congress from the family is made?
I make a large point, which for me is very very important: The Indian National Congress was the party of the national movement. A large number of political leaders from across the country joined the national movement and INC. There were many in the INC before Independence who left the party after (we gained freedom) and formed other parties. They went into communist and socialist movements. But at the end of the day, the Congress was a national party until 1980. Even in Indira’s time, it was a national party.
In 1980, when Indira Gandhi returned to power, she started the whole dynasty business; [Sanjay] first, and then Rajiv. After that, we have this interlude when Rao became PM. Many of us thought that the Congress had gone back to being a normal political party and will not be ruled by one family. BJP is a regular political party where you become a member; you go up the ladder and become a leader. You have the communist parties which have the same process. The Congress was like this. Rao also became PM following this process. You see, all the regional parties have become dynastic. For the Congress to become a family party is shocking.
I come from a Congress family, but today, I cannot say that I am a Congress supporter. Rao’s tenure gave us the hope that Congress would become a national party. During Rao’s time, a lot of regional leaders did come out: Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh and SM Krishna in Karnataka are few examples. There were many regional leaders who went on to become chief ministers not because someone in Delhi wanted them to but because of the political support they had.
Don’t you think that cases like that of Lakhubhai Pathak and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha will always be among the reference points in any analysis of the political life of Narasimha Rao?
First of all, in none of the cases was he implicated. He and many of his supporters see it as an attempt to discredit him. It was a systematic attempt from 1996 onwards to distance Rao. You have to seriously look at how many of these cases were genuine. I give a simple answer to this: you look at the wealth of his children and grandchildren and compare it with any politician of that time or today. Things become clear.
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