P. V. Narasimha Rao
The irony is that India’s strongest political and economic reforms were conducted by its weakest government—the government led by P. V. Narasimha Rao (PVNR).
When we think of the strong leaders of the twentieth century, personalities like Stalin, Churchill, Xiaoping, Nehru, Thatcher, and Reagan come to mind. No one would think of PVNR as a strong leader. Normally dour, he was a lackluster politician. He had a feeble connection with the masses. But in retrospect it is clear that he had as great an impact on India as Stalin, Churchill, Xiaoping, Nehru, Thatcher, and Reagan had on their own countries.
Before becoming the prime minister, PVNR never exuded strength. He never said or did anything that might create the impression that he had an ideology and the ability to act decisively. While he held several important portfolios, in his public appearances he looked like a faceless bureaucrat whose sole purpose in life was to follow the orders of his political masters. In his speeches and interviews, nothing except the politically correct banalities came out of his mouth.
In 1991, he was catapulted into the office of prime minister by powerful politicians who took him to be a weak man who would always be a blind follower of the almighty Nehru-Gandhi family. They expected him to keep the seat of prime minister warm till the time a descendent of the Nehru-Gandhi family became ready to take that office.
No one expected PVNR to do anything that would jeopardize the interests of the Nehru-Gandhi family. No one could have believed that he had it in him to take any political decision without taking permission from the Nehru-Gandhi family. No one could have believed that he would initiate economic reforms and liberate the country from Nehruvian socialism. No one could have believed that he would unleash cultural forces that would transform India’s politics.
PVNR was the prime minister for five years, between 1991 and 1996. The office of prime minister transformed him. He started taking decisive economic and political decisions. The history of India after independence can be divided into two phases: the after-PVNR phase and the before-PVNR phase. With a few decisive moves, he destroyed the edifice of Nehruvian socialism and opened a large chunk of India’s economy to investors and entrepreneurs.
The Ram Janmabhoomi Movement (RJM) gained new strength while PVNR was the prime minister. Though the RJM was being spearheaded by the BJP (under L. K. Advani’s leadership) and other affiliates of the Sangh parivar, PVNR contributed to the strength of this movement by refraining from ordering a decisive police or military action to squelch it. It is not clear if PVNR was secretly in favor of the RJM. Was he a supporter of the Rama temple in Ayodhya?
The India of the twenty-first century, where there is high economic growth and growing consciousness of Hindu traditions, was founded in the years when PVNR was the prime minister. Strange to say, but PVNR was India’s unlikely hero.