Thursday, December 23, 2004

R.I.P. Narasimha Rao

As fate would have it, we'd just put down The Insider, PVNR's fictionalized memoir, the very morning he died -- you can imagine our shock on learning of his passing. The following are some preliminary thoughts.

His book is hardly great literature, nor even consistently written -- it is a fascinating read nevetheless, because it chronicles the rise of a humble Indian to Prime Ministership. In his world, genuine democrats and idealists jostle with venal politicians and amoral interest groups. We all know the darkness of Indian (& democratic) politics; the book is revelatory in shining a spotlight on how people of character can still survive this morass -- and can do good. It also effectively counters Western historians like Paul Johnson who dismisses Indian democracy in his othewise fascinating book Modern Times.

PVNR did a lot of good. As his book chronicles, he was a socialist -- but with a ground level understanding of agricultural economics and, through scholarship, of global economics. His intellectual struggles with ideology (as a young & crusading land reform Minister) adumberated what he would do as Prime Minister. He opened Indian economy to the world, re-engaged with America, formally recognized Israel, and opened diplomatic avenues to East and South-East Asia.

When Rajiv Gandhi was felled, we were a young student at Columbia University. At a crisis meeting organized by the Department of South Asian Studies, the mood of learned academics and most Indians in the audience was gloomy -- they felt India would now surely fall apart absent a towering personality holding it together. PVNR, hardly a towering figure in his life, made fools of all those pessimists. When India emerges as a great power, the world will look to the early 90s under PVNR's leadership as a fundamental reason why. This will be his towering legacy. Rest in Peace, Narasimha Rao ji.

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