The master of realpolitik, he showed just how much could be done if the government put its mind to it
Given how it is Narasimha Rao’s five-year term that allowed the Congress party to be categorised as the one that started India’s sweeping reforms in 1991, the treatment meted out to the country’s former prime minister—his body was not allowed into the Congress headquarters, nor was he allowed a Delhi funeral—is especially unfortunate. If Congress president Sonia Gandhi wanted no trace left of the Rao years, she seems to have succeeded since, even today, most think of the then finance minister—and later prime minister—Manmohan Singh as the father of India’s economic reforms. Had he been alive, it is not clear if Rao would even have reacted to the slight, for the consummate politician that he was—and it couldn’t all have been an act, he must have schooled himself to be that way—he never reacted strongly to anything; yet, he showed us that, should the government want, it could do almost anything that he wanted. If Deng Xiaoping was famous for his phrase about it not mattering whether the cat was black or white—as long as it caught mice—one of Rao’s pithy lines was about the importance of signalling left when you were turning right.
If there is one lesson that Rao taught us, it is never to underestimate a politician; or that you don’t need to have a brute majority—or be seen as a ‘doer’—to get things done. What you need, instead, is a coherent plan—and that is something Manmohan Singh and his team delivered on so well—and a few people manning critical posts to execute it. A similarity between the Rao and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government—also known for furthering economic reforms—is the presence of strong principal secretaries in the PMO to push various proposals. Till it wanted to, that is, since after a few momentous years, Rao decided to pull back on the reforms process. Saddened by the media coverage of his 10 years, Manmohan Singh famously said that history would be kinder to him; if that were true of Rao, he would have been recognised as the father of India’s reforms, not Singh.