In conversation with Vinay Sitapati

The author of ‘Half Lion’ highlights some little known facets of former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s life, and leadership lessons from how a man without much of a mandate brought in profound transformations

Charles Assisi

Vinay Sitapati argues Narasimha Rao was the most astute and consequential leader India has witnessed since Jawaharlal Nehru.

Despite his many negatives, Rao, more than anybody else, has crafted the India we live in today.

He  inherited a toxic legacy—a disjointed foreign policy, an economic catastrophe and internal strife that threatened to tear the country apart. For all practical purposes, he was powerless. In spite of which, he changed the narrative of contemporary Indian history. Sitapati is unambiguous in that history will remember him as a world leader of consequence.

There are various reasons why Sitapati thinks posterity will be kind to Rao:

1. He micro-managed economic reforms. Over time, it improved absolute prosperity levels across segments. Take for instance the mobile phone revolution—the most visible impact of liberalisation. It now means over one billion Indians are connected via mobile networks.

The two biggest policy changes that enabled this was allowing private sector participation and foreign investment. Rao was able to outmanoeuvre opposition to these changes, including from his communications minister Sukh Ram. He did this by deftly co-opting his opponents.

2. His tenure saw the true start of the Indian welfare state, by increasing funding for large welfare schemes, the true outcomes of which are beginning to be visible only now.

3. He changed India's foreign policy to become more pro-US and pro-Israel without antagonizing the Arab world. This, at a time when the Soviet Union, India's best friend, was fragmenting and few Indian leaders could see or understand why. He did on the face of violent opposition. 

4. Rao improved internal security. In 1991, the Lok Sabha elections could not be held in Punjab and Kashmir because of violence. Assam was still very difficult to govern. But by the time Rao ended his tenure, some degree of stability had come back to these parts of India.

So how did a man with ostensibly no power or charisma bring these changes?

He had a remarkable ability few humans possess, says Sitapati. He could look at himself dispassionately, stare his own weakness in the eye and know when to lose. That is an important trait for any leader. You ought to know what battles to fight; and what not to.

His political career—as state chief minister, and union minister before he became prime minister—gave him a deep understanding of the system. Philosophically, he could handle ambiguity. He used that as a political skill to great effect.

He chose Manmohan Singh as the face of liberalisation because he wanted to sell the story that liberalisation is not a political choice but a technocratic compulsion. They played the perfect jugalbandi, but there's no question who the lead singer was.

Do some learnings emerge from Rao's tenure in the current political discourse?  Political ideologies aside, there are a some big differences between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rao:

1. While Modi’s chief ministership in Gujarat gave him an understanding of how states work, he had no prior experience in Delhi when he was catapulted to power.

2. The second thing Modi ought to keep at the back of his mind is not to overestimate the strength of his mandate. The Indian system is full of veto players and you have to take everybody along. Rao led a minority government. So he lived under no illusions and had no faction or coterie. It made him an ideal consensus candidate. That is a great place to be in.   

[Production and music composition by Ashley Mendonca]

Also read an exclusive extract from the book 'Half Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India'

Independence Day Special

Twenty five years ago, India was in turmoil and a closed economy. A new Prime Minister had taken over who kicked off painful reforms . As India move closer to Independence Day, we look at how our lives have changed since then.

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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