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How PV Narasimha Rao, India’s first ‘accidental’ prime minister, earned his place in history

Sanjaya Baru writes: As the head of a minority government, he knew he had to take others along to be able to deliver on policy

Written by Sanjaya Baru |
Updated: June 28, 2021 8:36:29 am
Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. (Express archive photo)

A week before he turned 70, in June 1991, Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao became India’s tenth Prime Minister. In recalling his political career on the occasion of his birth centenary (June 28), some have remarked that he was the first “accidental” Prime Minister. In a manner of speaking that may be true. However, there were many reasons why he was also the “natural” choice for the job at the time.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Rao was, without question, the least unacceptable leader in the faction-ridden Indira Congress. His rivals at the time, N D Tiwari, Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar, checkmated each other. Rao’s candidature also benefited from the firm support he secured from President R Venkataraman, who adopted a new principle of inviting the leader of the largest political formation to form a government without seeking a proof of numbers. In ensuring this, Kerala’s K Karunakaran played a part. Moreover, a substantial number of Congress MPs had been elected from peninsular India and they rooted for India’s first south Indian PM.

While many analysts point to the support Rao secured from the Nehru-Gandhi darbar of Lutyens’ Delhi, he was also then the most experienced Congressman in his peer group, having been chief minister of a state, general secretary of the party and Union minister for external affairs, defence, home and human resources development. Tiwari had that kind of CV, but he had lost the election. Whatever the factors that contributed to his election as leader of the CPP and Congress Party president, Rao earned his place in history by providing quiet and confident leadership to a nation in crisis, ensuring political stability at home and securing India’s external interests through a particularly turbulent phase in international relations. Supported by his economic team, led by finance minister Manmohan Singh; his foreign policy team led by foreign secretary J N Dixit; and, by a handful of loyalists, including Pranab Mukherjee, Rao secured his place in history.

Most landmark events in one’s lifetime come to be widely identified as such, wrote the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm, “not because all of us have experienced them, even been aware at the time that they were landmarks. It is because we accept the consensus that they are landmarks.” The economic and foreign policy initiatives taken by Prime Minister Rao and his team are now well recognised as constituting a landmark event that marks an inflexion point in the country’s recent history.

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In his first few days in office, Rao was doing no more than crisis management. Large parts of the policy agenda had already been crafted in the many reports on reform prepared during the 1980s. The short-lived government of Prime Minister Chandrashekhar had agreed to introduce many policy changes in its discussions with the International Monetary Fund, and his finance minister Yashwant Sinha and commerce minister Subramanian Swamy signed off on them.

When Singh presented his budget proposals in Parliament, on July 24 1991, he was putting together all these ideas into a coherent whole. That same day, Prime Minister Rao directly authorised, in his capacity as minister of industries, the most significant policy change — the termination of the infamous licence-control permit raj. Clearly Singh knew the significance of the changes introduced for he made bold to quote Victor Hugo to claim that India’s rise as an economic powerhouse was an idea whose time had come.

Few among those born after 1991 can imagine the sense of siege that had come to grip the country in 1990-91. In the previous six years, two PMs had been assassinated, terrorism was on the rise, and caste conflict was raging on campuses. Maybe the middle classes wanted a Peronist leader, a strong man capable of restoring order and stabilising the economy through harsh measures. Maybe the poor wanted a populist who would spend his way out of a corner. Maybe the wealthy and the rich wanted a leader who would preserve their privileges and the cosy comfort of crony capitalism that the licence-permit control raj had become.


Yet the ship of state was steered through these stormy waters by a quiet, genial captain, underlining the fact that sometimes quiet but confident, competent and experienced leadership can do more for a country than bluff, bluster and machoism.

The PM who provided political cover to the policymakers in government so that they could take the momentous decisions needed to be taken in steering the country out of an economic crisis and a difficult external strategic environment, was himself a low-profile politician. He was no “great leader”. He was an intellectual, a polyglot, a scholar and yet few called him a Vishwaguru. Forget bombastic speeches, he would hardly speak. “When in doubt, pout!”. “No decision is a decision!”. These had become stock-in-trade Rao jokes in the country’s cocktail circles.

Rao was not the first PM to be an outsider to the Delhi darbar that has come to be dubbed Lutyens’ Delhi, but he was the first to serve out a full term. Others like Lal Bahadur Shastri and Charan Singh had short-lived tenures. What set Rao apart was that he had earned the respect of India’s power elite through his sheer competence, his learning and intellect and his soft touch. As the head of a minority government, he knew he had to take others along to be able to deliver on policy. His predecessors who had a similar handicap, of heading a minority government, did not know the art of consensual leadership and so had short tenures. Rao lasted his full five years in office by taking people along.


Those who dub his economic policy as “reform by stealth” fail to recognise that what Rao pursued was in fact reform through implicit, if not explicit, consensus-building. He called it the “middle path”. His consensual approach adopted by both his successors — Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh — served them and the country well. In the long run, it is an approach that serves India’s plural democracy better than brute majoritarianism.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 28, 2021 under the title ‘The importance of PV’. Baru is a policy analyst. His books include 1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History (Aleph, 2016)

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First published on: 28-06-2021 at 04:00:04 am
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