A strategist and a statesman: The enduring legacy of Narasimha Rao

Modern India owes much to Rao, politically, economically and strategically

narasimha-rao-cent-pti Narasimha Rao | PTI

Many in politics and the media call P.V. Narasimha Rao a 'modern-day Chanakya'. But he had once turned a Chanakya neeti upside down.

Book VI of Arthasastra, the authorship of which is attributed to Chanakya, says, “A king whose territory is situated on the perimeter of the conqueror's territory is an enemy; the king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror, is termed a friend (of the conqueror).” The maxim has since been reshaped and propagated as: “Enemy's enemy is friend, enemy's friend is enemy; and friend's enemy is enemy.” But once Rao once took a little help from an enemy's friend to beat the enemy!

The world was caught in the vortex of several transitions when Rao came to power following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The Soviet order was beginning to decline, the west seemed to be winning the cold war. The socialist ideologies were getting discredited and a neo-liberal capitalist order seemed to be triumphing in the world.

Indian politics too was in chaotic transition. The old, big majority, single party governments had gone. There was an assertion of the regional parties as also of the marginalised communities through the new Mandal politics. Indian economy was in a shambles; the dollar reserves had been exhausted and the country was surviving by pawning its reserve gold in the Bank of England.

Rao's boldest move was to bring in the politically naive Manmohan Singh as his finance minister. Leaving the economy in his hands but solidly backing him, Rao focused on global and domestic politics. The BJP raised the threat of Hindutva politics to counter the Mandal politics of the Janata conglomeration. Rao let them fight, though many felt he was being hit from both sides. As the BJP let out its steam at Ayodhya, Rao pricked the Mandal sails by implementing backward caste reservation in government jobs. In effect, he let the rightists and the leftists fight it out, as he kept aloof while also buying up MPs to cobble together a majority that was required for stable governance.

With the Soviets having withdrawn from Afghanistan, Pakistan was turning its attention to Kashmir. It had several hundred militants still alive after having fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and several million dollars given by the CIA to fight the Soviets. Islamabad now opened a new front by inserting the militants in the Kashmir valley with dollar-bought arms.

Rao sent the Indian Army to fight them, but he soon found that fighting a counter-insurgency war wasn't easy. The Army needed more battalions to fight it than in a conventional war. That was the time when Rao looked at the Chinese frontier.

Chinese leaders too had read the writing on the wall of world history. With the decline of the Soviet Union, Beijing was seeking to emerge as the next power, for which they were quickly modernising their technologies, their economy, their society and their military. They were keen to normalise their relations with their neighbours and focus sharply on their domestic political, economic and technological endeavours, and was eager to avoid any border troubles. Rao seized the moment to hammer out a peace and tranquility deal with China by which both countries agreed not to build up on the border or seek to tactically alter even a few square inches of land-holding, so to speak.

The two agreements of 1993 and 1996 were thus watershed agreements which enabled India to pull back several infantry battalions from the Chinese border and send them to hunt down the Pakistani-aided insurgents in the Kashmir valley.

Indeed, he could not end insurgency in Kashmir, but his action did break the back of militancy. Though he had just demitted power by then, it was Rao's work that enabled his successor Deve Gowda to hold elections in Jammu & Kashmir in 1996.

Even while embracing the western world politically and economically, Rao knew that he had to keep India free of the west's strategic shacklehold. Thus, even as he sent his Navy to exercise with the Americans, the British and the French, Rao also kept India's traditional ties with Moscow intact—a balancing act in which most third world leaders had failed. When Moscow, said to be under pressure from the west, denied cryogenic engine technology for India's ambitious rocket programme, Rao worked his diplomacy and made Moscow promise a few engines. They would later power India's prestigious GSLV programme.

Towards the middle of his tenure, Rao realised that Moscow's honeymoon with the west was turning sour. Russia found itself in dire straits, with its technological industries in a shambles, its scientific edge blunted, its strategic profile spited. Yeltsin could crush a parliamentary rebellion roused by the conservatives, but he too realised that he had been led up the garden path by the west.

As Russia sought desperately to re-emerge in global power politics, one of its first attempts was to try revive its arms industry. It needed orders, but given its low credibility, few would.

Rao was one of the first world leaders who reached out to help. The Indian military too was in dire straits. Its MiGs, starved of spares, were falling off the skies. Moscow was of no help because the old Soviet arms industry had all been scattered across the seceded republics over which Moscow had no control.

To Rao's credit, he spotted a win-win situation. He struck a deal with which the government of Russia agreed to collect and collate militaryware and spares from the scattered republics and supply spares that India needed. In return, Rao did two favours one of which almost broke into another arms scandal, much like the bad old Bofors, but didn't.

The first was to defer the purchase of a new jet trainer for the Indian Air Force. The IAF had been desperately seeking a new jet trainer and there were several on the offer from the west. But Russia, which was seeking to rebuild its arms industry, was developing a jet trainer by name MiG-AT, and looking for an order from India (which is always big). Rao agreed, and quietly asked the IAF to defer the trainer selection till the MiG-AT too was ready for competition. It is another matter that MiG-AT finally lost out, and the IAF went for the British Hawk.

But that didn't hurt Moscow. Rao had mollified them with another bigger, and more strategically significant, order that would nearly blow up as a scandal, but didn't, thanks to his deft political management. India had been looking for a new strategic fighter, and the tottering Russian aerospace industry was developing the Sukhoi-30MK against several odds. The plane had just left the drawing board, and prototypes were just flying when Rao's India placed an order to buy them in squadrons. The idea was to develop them further with Indian avionics, and other components bought from Israel, France and elsewhere.

The deal was finalised towards the close of Rao's tenure. Eyebrows were raised as to how India had selected a fighter that was not only unproven but was yet to be developed. As general elections were declared, opposition BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee raised questions about the deal at a press conference in Lucknow from where he was contesting. This correspondent, present at the presser, asked him for details, but Vajpayee said with a mischievous smile: “There will be more in the coming days.”

But there was nothing more. Nothing more was heard of the Sukhois as a scandal. Vajpayee went quiet over it, and the deal quietly progressed during the successor Deve Gowda's regime. The first squadron arrived during I.K. Gujral's time in Pune, and there was never any scandal. We later learnt that Rao had called Vajpayee and other opposition leaders and impressed upon them on the importance of the deal for both Russia and India. The whole future of Russian arms industry, to which Indian militaries were hinged, depended on the success of the Sukhoi-30MK fighter programme. Russia was looking forward to get back into the world's arm market with the Sukhoi-30MK.

It did. Various versions of the Sukhoi-30MK have since been sold to several countries including China, but the MKI version is still only for India. (The I stands for India.) Russian aerospace scientists still swear that the MKI version is unique and far superior to what they had sold to the Chinese.

Today, the Sukhoi-30MKI is the most lethal striking arm of the Indian Air Force, capable of dropping nuclear or conventional bombs on any corner of the Eurasian continent.

But for an unfortunate slip in camouflage, Rao would have made the bomb too. He did everything to conduct a nuclear test in Pokharan, but was caught by the US who put pressure on him. But it was the actions that he initiated that enabled Vajpayee to finally make the bomb in 1998.

All along while aiding the Russians for mutual benefit, Rao also maintained good ties with the western world, especially with Germany which was emerging as the engine of Europe's growth in the post-cold war world. He realised that India's destiny was in growing with the east and thus reached out to its eastern neighbours. The move would later enable his successors to come up with Look East and Act East policies, but the fact remains that it was Rao who opened out to the east. One of his major policy initiatives was to quietly scale down India's support to the Burmese rebels and befriend the ruling junta. This also enabled him to get their cooperation in managing India's northeast where the Indian Army would later launch the Operation Golden Bird with the tacit cooperation of the Burmese army. Deve Gowda would further build upon the initiative by striking a truce with the Naga rebels.

Modern India owes much to Rao, politically, economically and strategically. His deft management of the rightist and leftist forces enabled him to stabilise India's chaotic politics; his bold move to hold elections in Punjab at the height of militancy brought back the state from the brink of secessionist militancy. The political backing he gave to Manmohan Singh's economic reforms led to creation of much greater wealth than ever before and India emerging as a rising economic power. His strategic foresight led India steer clear through the choppy waters of post-cold war global politics.

Sadly, in domestic politics he is remembered as the man who shut himself up when the Babri Masjid was demolished, received suitcase full of currency notes from stock brokers, and bribed MPs to cobble up a majority.