Late Indian prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. Photo: Wikipedia
Late Indian prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. Photo: Wikipedia

These days, in a blink of an eye many entrepreneurs are born, startups and companies are incorporated. Job-hopping nowadays is not uncommon in India.

Micro-lending is available in a jiffy. Technology progresses in a flash, and international brands and products set foot in India at the drop of a hat. Mushrooming of malls and multiplexes has changed the way Indians live, and spend time and money. Technology, disruption, and innovation are the new punk rock.

But the things we Indians enjoy today didn’t happen overnight. I am thankful to all those leaders who made this possible and paved the way for a new era.

If you are on the banks of the Yamuna River in New Delhi visiting various ghats and sthals (places where India’s former leaders were cremated), do not seek the memorial to India’s ninth prime minister. Instead, look at India’s economic liberalization, breakthrough reforms, and his foreign policies.

P V Narasimha Rao, a famous polyglot who spoke 17 languages, has been compared to Sir John Bowring, the fourth governor of Hong Kong, and famed linguist and Sinologist Emil Krebs of Germany. The former PM also translated Hari Narayan Apte’s Marathi novel Pan Lakshat Kon Gheto into English and Vishwanatha Satyanarayan’s Telugu work into Hindi as Sahasra Phan.

In the company of history’s iconic leaders

P V Narasimha Rao, who died exactly 13 years ago on December 23, 2004, aged 83, is to India what founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson are to the United States; Friedrich List to Germany; Hayato Ikeda to Japan; Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and Albert Winsemius to Singapore; and Deng Xiaoping to China.

P V Narasimha Rao was Jimmy Carter’s match for international diplomacy and negotiation, and India’s equivalent of Winston Churchill in the branches of literature and oratory. From a crisis-management and foreign-policy point of view, Rao can be compared to Franklin D Roosevelt. Rao is often referred to as the modern-day Chanakya.

When Rao took office as prime minister in the summer of 1991, India was drowning in debt. He pawned 60 metric tons of gold in exchange for a US$600-million loan from the International Monetary Fund. The gold was shipped on cargo flights to England and Switzerland from the Reserve Bank of India’s vaults.

Turbulent times were a challenge for Rao

Rao assumed power when India’s economy was in the doldrums, and he never enjoyed the luxury and privilege of sitting back and taking a deep, satisfying breath. India was financially and morally bankrupt with a weak economy, a minority government, terrorist incidents in Punjab and Kashmir, serial blasts in the financial capital Mumbai, and natural disasters, including the 1993 Latur earthquake in Maharashtra state.

Meanwhile, crucial events were taking place on the other side of the globe. East and West Germany were reunited after 45 years, the Iron Curtain was lifted, and the Soviet flag was lowered after 69 years. Negotiations between Washington and Moscow began on the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The United Nations Security Council restored peace in the Persian Gulf, after silencing Iraq’s Scud missiles.

GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, was giving birth to the World Trade Organization, which would have a far broader scope.

Rao, the father of Indian economic reforms along with then-finance minister Manmohan Singh, accomplished a turnaround of the Indian economy, despite setbacks.

The whole world knew of these economic reforms and his ability to steer the minority government for a full term. Below are some highlights of his statesmanship and India’s foreign policy during his tenure.

Rao’s visionary decision to look east

Rao drafted a visionary “Look East” foreign policy that opened new avenues for business and free-trade agreements with East Asian countries, something long neglected by former administrations.

The tactical diplomat shook hands with the member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He kept the Dalai Lama at arm’s length from India and mended fences with sulking China. It was under his stewardship that the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries formed the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA).

Rao laid the foundation for the Indo-Israel partnership during his tenure. Relations with Israel flourished and helped India in its hour of need. Israel supplied arms during the Kargil War, as the US imposed sanctions on India after the nuclear tests in 1998. Indo-Palestine relations went tepid, though India still extended issue-based support.

The great foreign-policy strategist reached out to the West and made appeasing gestures to the US, without losing India’s ally and best friend, Russia. No leader of previous Indian governments had dared to think of such a love triangle

By the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, India’s oldest ally, had started distancing itself from New Delhi. India blinked, and solidarity grew between Pakistan and one wing of the Russian government that supported the Mujahideen’s government in Afghanistan. A splinter group of the Russian administration supported India on its stance on the Najibullah government in Kabul.

All of a sudden the equations changed and Russia abandoned India for its newfound interest in Pakistan. Arms consignments to New Delhi decreased gradually as the shipments from Moscow changed direction toward Islamabad. It wasn’t until Rao took charge and invited Russian president Boris Yeltsin to India in 1993 that the two countries patched up ties.

The great foreign-policy strategist reached out to the West and made appeasing gestures to the US, without losing India’s ally and best friend, Russia. No leader of previous Indian governments had dared to think of such a love triangle. As a result, the US-India Commercial Alliance was created, while India and Russia renewed their arms-supply agreement and passed many other resolutions.

When Benazir Bhutto reached out to the UN Human Rights Commission, denouncing violations of human rights in Jammu and Kashmir 1994, Rao’s quick and decisive stratagem not only turned dramatic but also stunned the world. He made Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then leader of the opposition, the head of the Indian delegation to Geneva that put forth India’s stand on Kashmir at the UNHRC, which led to a victory.

Rao was also the first Indian prime minister to visit Iran, which established close links.

His multi-tasking was a significant talent

Rao always proved able to focus simultaneously on multiple seemingly different issues. Though he ran a minority government, which was India’s last non-coalition government (to date), he never compromised on national security. India successfully tested and launched the first Prithvi missile and PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) during his tenure. The idea of the Pokhran nuclear test was initiated by Rao and subsequently executed by Vajpayee.

The economic reforms paid dividends, contributed to globalization, fostered entrepreneurship, opened new sectors, and created employment. Ever since, India has been reaping the benefits of Rao’s foreign policies.

I always hated to see Rao disappointed. During his lifetime, he was denied due credit and respect, but he is in a better place now and must be busy doing reforms in the abode of God. He must be busy employing his diplomacy, linguistic skills, and other traits in uniting the heavens, purgatory, paradise, nirvana, and Abraham’s bosom.

This article commemorates the 13th anniversary of the death of former Indian prime minister P V Narasimha Rao and pays homage to that architect of economic reforms. The article was first published in Newsmobile, and the writer holds the copyright.

Sunil Dhavala

Sunil Dhavala is media entrepreneur. He has held leadership roles at National Geographic Channel, Fox Broadcasting, Radio Television Luxembourg, STAR TV and WPP Group. He is also an author, motivational speaker and panelist.

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