Obituary: Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao

Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao A. Das

Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao, the 10th Prime Minister of India died on 23 December 2004, aged 83. By any measure PV, as he was widely known was an extraordinary PM with many firsts to his credit. He was the first PM from the south of the Vindhyas, the first non- Nehru dynasty PM to complete a full term in office, the first Indian PM of the post-Soviet unipolar era and the first PM to make a break with Nehruvian control of the economy. Less well-known but widely acknowledged among specialists are his contributions to Indian nuclear deterrence and strategic missilery, to peace in Punjab, to innovative counter-insurgency postures in J&K and Nagaland, to India's leadership position in IT, to path-breaking strategic cooperation with Israel and a slowly-but-steadily evolving modus-vivendi with the USA and its ancillary States.

He did have his share of critics: On Ayodhya, on the financial markets scams, on the JMM scandal, on intra-party democracy and other topics. But on balance his position as a great PM and servant of the Republic is unassailable. Where did this remarkable man begin his journey? How did he operate? What made him tick? The answers to these questions are both complex and simple. Most observers tend to focus on the complex side, emphasising his polyglot scholarship, his Chanakyan stratagems, his inscrutability and his penchant for disinformation. But those who take a closer look would often find a simpler explanation: PV was not just a loyal servant of the Republic; he was ferociously committed to the essential Indian values that have sustained themselves over the millennia through Indian civilization’s struggles with both internal turmoil and external aggression. To him these values constituted “eternal” India and he would pragmatically to do what it took to defend, sustain and further its standing in the world.

Fittingly, the fates of PV and the Nation were inter-twined from the very beginning. He was born in a Telugu Brahmin family on 28 June 1921 in Vangara, in what was then Karimnagar Zilla in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s territory. This was a time and place where the condition of those not part of the Nizam’s ruling clique was not exactly enviable. Other parts of India were not idyllic either. Jallianwala Bagh was still a recent event. Tilak’s ideal of Purna Swaraj was firing the popular imagination with notions of Indian Independence and Statehood. Gandhiji’s methods of Satyagraha were spreading these ideas farther and deeper among the teeming masses than ever before. These dynamics were beginning to shake the very foundations of Britain’s political and economic domination of the sub-continent. This was the highly charged socio-political milieu that pervaded PV’s formative years and would influence him for the rest of his life.

In 1938, as a mere youth, PV committed his first notable political acts by joining the then nascent Hyderabad State Congress and by singing Vande Mataram in explicit violation of a Nizam-regime ban. For this act, he was expelled from Osmania University. PV took his expulsion in stride and graduated with a BSc from Bombay University. He subsequently completed L.L.B. from Nagpur University. Perhaps as a precursor of his later cross-party alliances, his close cohorts in this period included several people who would go on to become leading communists, including the redoubtable Arutla Ramachandra Reddy.

Never far from political action, PV took part in the Quit India Movement of 1942. His political and leadership skills were noticeable even then and he became a protégé of Swami Ramananda Tirtha, who became President of the Hyderabad State Congress in 1946. The Swami and Dr.Burgula Ramakrishna Rao assigned PV an important organizing role in the Join India Movement that picked up steam in Hyderabad in 1947 and PV forewent a legal career to work closely with other young men then on their way up the Congress ranks like Shankarrao Chavan, Dr. Marri Channa Reddy and Veerendra Patil. Their efforts were so successful in stirring up popular sentiment for merging the Hyderabad State with the Indian Union that the Nizam regime imprisoned them along with hundreds of others.

These events provided invaluable experience to the young PV in underground political organization and propaganda besides early exposure to military operations, security management and international intrigue. The coterie around Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, led by his Prime Minister Mir Laik Ali, the Majlis-e-Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen leader Bahadur Yar Jung and Kasim Rizvi, the leader of the Majlis-inspired paramilitaries known as the Razakars were intent on a military “solution” to the Join India Movement “problem”. Also in the picture were the United Nations, the British, the newly-emergent Pakistan government, the Aga Khan and shadowy figures like the Australian mercenary Sidney Cotton. Things continued to be rather rough going for PV and his comrades till the Union Cabinet authorized the Indian Army’s Operation Polo in September 1948, accomplishing the objectives of the Join India Movement. Not yet 30 years old, PV had witnessed up close how fragile the emerging Indian Union was and how much more fragmented some had preferred it to be. These impressions were never to leave him.

Soon the Telengana insurgency would break out, inspired by the CPI’s famous “Ranadive Line” and would last into the 1950s. From this time on, PV would never be far from power. He proved himself an invaluable albeit informal rapporteur on the insurgency to Dr. Burgula Ramakrishna Rao, who was now Hyderabad’s Chief Minister and others in the government apparatus who took a hard line in dealing with it such as Sardar Patel and Rajaji. In 1953, Andhra State was formed from the Telugu-speaking areas of the old Madras State with the legendary Tanguturi Prakasam Panthulu as chief minister. The Telugu-speaking areas of Hyderabad State would soon be merged with Andhra by the States Re-organization Bill of 1956 to form the modern Andhra Pradesh State with Neelam Sanjiva Reddy as Chief Minister. PV won election to the State’s first Legislative Assembly in 1957 and would hold a series of posts in the new State’s Cabinet from 1962, handling portfolios like Law and Information, Law and Endowments, Health and Medicine, and Education. His formidable intellect, lucidity of thought and range of scholarship made him a very effective administrator. In the Congress split of 1969, he aligned himself with Indira Gandhi, Damodaram Sanjeevaiah and Kasu Brahmananda Reddy against Kamaraj, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Nijalingappa and other stalwarts of the Syndicate, landing him the Chief Ministerial Gaddi in 1971. However, he could scarcely hold the job for two years. His Land Reforms initiative could not overcome a deadly combination of the Jai Andhra movement, the Naxalite rebellion and a revived Telengana agitation which fed off each other and led the State down a slippery slope to President’s rule. When Jalagam Vengala Rao became Chief Minister in 1973, PV had been sidelined in State-level politics forever, though he would continue as MLA till 1977.

This setback seems to have awakened the litterateur in him and he went through a prolific publishing phase, producing both original works and translating works from Telugu to Hindi and from Marathi to Telugu, notably 'SahasraPhan' and 'Abala Jeevitam'.

He moved effortlessly to National politics, winning election to the Lok Sabha in 1977 and bucking the anti-Congress wave that the Janata Party rode to power at the centre. When the Congress was swept back into power in 1980, Indira Gandhi tapped PV as External Affairs Minister (EAM). IFS mandarins who were used to less were surprised to find in him a sophisticated political superior who could quote in the original Sanskrit the Vedas, Bhagwat Gita, Upanishads and major Puranas. He could also charm Haj-bound Ulema in his impeccable Persian-laced Urdu Zubaan and expound on the Greek and Latin classics. He surprised Fidel Castro at the 1983 NAM summit in New Delhi with his command of Spanish and Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in Rawalpindi by his knowledge of Clausewitz and Jomini. This was also a time when PV began playing a significant role in shaping India’s then ambiguous strategic deterrence policies. The relationships he forged with members of India’s strategic community at this juncture would prove particularly long-lasting and fruitful and included luminaries like President APJ Abdul Kalam and the recently-deceased National Security Adviser JN “Mani” Dixit. He would go on to head the Home Ministry, assume the mantle of Raksha Mantri and then to become the first ever HRD minister, but he would return as EAM just in time to assist Rajiv Gandhi in dealing with a stalwart Junius Jayawardene and a slippery Anton Balasingham. Mani Dixit was again PV’s partner in this process, along with MGR, another of his non-Congress friends.

PV himself considered his ministerial career to have only one blot: The assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own pro-Khalistan bodyguards and the anti-Sikh riots that followed under his watch as Home Minister.

In the run up to the 1991 election, PV turned 70 and decided to hang up his boots, packing his things and pondering the details of his retirement. When Rajiv was assassinated by LTTE terrorists, this very fact presented him to the AICC as a disinterested but seasoned senior leader who could command the confidence of the party’s rank and file and organize an electoral victory. His old friend K. Karunakaran played an instrumental role behind the scenes in the AICC to mollify other contenders like Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar. That he was considered unobjectionable to Rajiv Gandhi’s family also furthered his prospects.

The Indian people, concerned as they were about eternal India in those dangerous times, saw in him someone they could trust the Nation’s destiny with. The opposition was kind as well. NT Rama Rao allowed PV to contest unmolested from Nandyal constituency as a fellow Telugu Bidda. The BJP did put up a candidate against him, though as a token gesture. PV was able to form a government and the rest is history. The prospective retiree went to work and with gusto! He knew the Nation was at a cross-roads and he knew which direction he had to take it. Socialist controls were out, economic liberalism was in. The Soviet Union was out; friendlier relations with the West and Israel were in. Nuclear apartheid was out, credible (soon to be un-closeted) deterrence was in. Also out were innumerable little things that changed India forever: The India that was supposed not to outlast a few early leaders, the India that was stuck between plebiscitary dictatorship and non-governance, the India that was seen as being held together by charisma instead of by character, the India that was supposed to buckle under some well-placed terrorist blows, the India that was supposed to be incapable of anything but sclerotic economic growth, the India that was supposed to perpetually let its citizens down, the India that was a supposed “has been and never will be”.

For all this and more, a humble Indian Prahlad may thank his Lord Narasimha.