Half-Lion: How Narasimha Rao transformed India (2016)

I am trying to understand the present situation better for a selfish reason. I am trying to decide what direction my career should take in the next few decades up to retirement. For this selfish reason, I am trying to understand the direction India will likely take in the next few decades.

The present moment has its roots in the liberalization of 1991. Books by Gurcharan Das spoke of India’s growth despite the state. The dismantling of the License Permit Raj was the state moving out of the people’s way. Das’ book spoke about what happened as a result of the dismantling process. One of the first books I read about liberalization itself was Jairam Ramesh’s book, To the Brink and Back.

Cover of the book

I heard the podcast episode with Vinay Sitapati on The Seen and the Unseen in June 2022 and later that month decided to pick up the book on Audible.

My reading had slowed down considerably since February 2022 and listening to this book was another effort to break the readlock.

In writing this book, Sitapati was given access to Prime Minister Rao’s private archives. He makes deductions based on his notes and balances them with accounts of people who were with Rao in those crucial years. These give an insight indirectly into Rao’s actions and his thinking. The title of the book is a direct translation of NarasimhaHalf Lion.

On the subject of economic reforms, there was a charge that Rao undertook liberalization as a result of pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sitapati argues convincingly to state that Rao used the IMF and Nehru-Gandhi’s legacy to push reforms. Rao makes these arguments at the Congress session held in Tirupati in 1992. Sitapati argues that Rao learns from Deng Xiaoping to reform while seeming to maintain historical continuity.

On the subject of Rao’s inaction during the Delhi Riots of 1984 and the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, Sitapati argues that 1984 is Rao’s vilest hour while he is more innocent than guilty for his inaction in 1992. He asks why Kalyan Singh, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh is not vilified for 1992 as Chief Minister Modi is vilified for 2002 and not Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

There are two parts of the book that were of interest to me. One, was his contributions to Indian foreign policy. Second, was his contribution to the Indian nuclear programme.

He is known for his Look East policy looking at South-East Asia. He is also known for opening channels of communication with the USA and Israel. In the background of the fall of the Soviet Union, he is credited with making sure that Indian defense products got continued maintenance support from Russia and the newly created Eastern European countries.

Rao is also known for laying the foundation for the nuclear tests India conducted in 1998.

I was disappointed to see only one chapter dedicated to Rao’s foreign policy and the nuclear programme but hope this is the first in a series of new well-researched political biographies. Sitapati has written another book about the BJP before Modi. I would probably listen to Sitapati’s podcast episode on The Seen and the Unseen before deciding if I might buy the book.

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