From Communalism to Privatisation, P.V. Narasimha Rao Was New India's Architect-in-Chief

His tenure as prime minister changed the structural foundation of the independent Indian state.

All over the world, there is an uproar against the monuments erected to people whose legacies were exploitation, colonialism, and injustice. Black Lives Matter has forced privileged white society to reexamine the historical suffering of racialised minorities. Confederate monuments in the US have been removed from state buildings and public spaces. Colonial adventurers and slave traders’ statues are falling in the UK. Even M.K. Gandhi is under new scrutiny for atavistic ideas.

In India, new memorials are built for leaders without attention to their corrosive legacies. This has a lot to do with their caste privilege: Caste Hindus do not even admit that caste exploitation exists, and do not feel guilty about their inherited privileges. This moral emptiness and lack of empathy are part of caste logic. Thus, caste society unabashedly erect monuments for men whose legacies were growing social violence and economic inequity.

The year 2021 will be the 100th birth anniversary of P.V. Narasimha Rao (or PV, as he was widely known), the former prime minister of India. Already the mainstream media in English and Telugu is producing new eulogies, and the Telangana state government is preparing grand celebrations for the state’s unsung bidda (son).

Also Read: Telangana: Why KCR is Championing the Legacy of Congress’s P.V. Narasimha Rao

Chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao and many supporters of PV accuse the Congress party, under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, of humiliating and sidelining PV as the father of liberalisation in India. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government’s attempt to appropriate PVs as an icon of state pride is not surprising. The Congress in Telangana is struggling to survive, and KCR can use PV’s image to further corner them.

Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao speaking at an event commemorating P.V. Narasimha Rao’s centenary. Photo: Facebook

Thwarted in his dream of becoming a central player in national politics, KCR is attempting to subvert the radical politics in Telangana and reinstitute feudal Brahmanical culture. His enthusiasm to renovate temples and conduct public yagnas kept Brahmins happy and allowed him to imagine himself as a medieval Velama king. He has spent crores from the state exchequer to gift gold ornaments to temples, and makes more visits to godman Chinna Jeeyar Swamy’s ashram than to New Delhi. His idolisation of PV is a populist stunt to win goodwill from Brahmins and distract from his government’s failures.

P.V. Narasimha Rao hails from a conservative Brahmin caste that played a critical role in upholding the Nizam’s rule. Traditionally, as the only literate caste, Brahmins in Telangana performed dual roles as temple priests and land record keepers. In the latter capacity, they were also landlords. As a Brahmin and landlord, with an unusual penchant for languages and scholarly pursuits, PV was a born politician. Despite conceding political ground to the dominant Reddy and Velama castes, he advanced and entered the Congress’s inner circle because of caste capital.

He was made chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and held many important Union ministries, gained an entrenched position in the party and emerged as consensus candidate for prime minister after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

PV took the reins in a most uncertain period, during a deep economic crisis – of India’s balance of payments – as well as a social crisis, of the anti-Mandal agitations. Without a majority in parliament or strong command over the party, no one expected that he would complete his term of five years. In this context, his actual legacy is what he did to survive. His unethical strategies, for which he was called Chanakya, changed India forever.

Enabler of Hindu fascism

The 1990 anti-Mandal agitation brought the anger, hatred, and entitlement of the upper castes on to the streets of urban India. In Jean Dreze’s phrase, it was the first ‘revolt of the upper castes’ against the national project to provide new educational and employment avenues to the oppressed and marginalised. It also offered the Hindu right a chance to expand its base among upper castes in urban and rural India.

Also Read: 30 Years On, Mandal Commission Is Still a Mirror for India

PV’s soft corner for Hindutva emanates from his feudal Brahmin background and his political rise in the backdrop of the Hindu right’s anti-Nizam agitations. He let L.K. Advani undertake the Rath Yatra, thus making majority communalism an acceptable form of mobilisation and advancing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fortunes. The cost of state complicity and negligence was the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. Despite having the powers to take over the Babri Masjid and use armed forces to control the communal mob, the national government under PV’s watch played a spectator role. Communal carnage followed, and thousands lost their lives.

File photo of L.K. Advani during his 1990 rath yatra. Also present, Narendra Modi, then an RSS pracharak, now prime minister. Photo: Reuters

The Hindu communal trajectory inaugurated under his watch grew spectacularly. The use of hate and violence for Hindu communal consolidation was normalised, leading to the current era of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath. Today the diabolical title of Chanakya is bestowed on Amit Shah for his own unethical tactics. All this was the result of PV’s failure, and it is his legacy that India’s democracy is under threat.

Course corruption

After 1991, political and corporate corruption not only increased but also became an acceptable way to win power and amass wealth. Harshad Mehta’s infamous stock market scam of 1992 was the beginning of financial corruption in India. The telecom scam, in which former telecom minister Sukhram was convicted, was another milestone. The godman Chandraswami, spiritual adviser of PV, was involved in multiple financial scams, and the Jain Commission report accused him of involvement in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

PV made political horse-trading a legitimate tactic to survive floor tests in the parliament. It undermined the electoral process, but again the media praised him as Chanakya, master strategist.

India is for sale and loot

Economic liberalisation began the path to privatisation. It also changed the moral vision of the state, from the guarantor of the rule of law, justice, and public welfare, to the facilitator to corporations and security state.

Also Read: The Old Deal: BJP’s Answer to COVID-19 Is More Privatisation

On the surface, this fundamental shift was imposed from outside – by the World Bank, the IMF, and their conditions. In reality, it was a strategy to undermine claims of the aspiring poor to state resources and a share in the national wealth. Disinvestment in public sector companies; outsourcing governance and selling public assets became the vision of state under PV – even the state’s primary focus. Using World Bank loans as an alibi, the state subverted its own social justice agenda and killed institutions which lower castes aspired to enter.

P.V. Narasimha Rao. Photo: Reuters

Privatisation aimed to downsize the state and expand the role of the capitalists without attaching any strings of social responsibility, in terms of reservations and equity in resource allocation. It stripped the oppressed castes’ claim over an expanding corporate domain. At first, Left parties resisted liberalisation, but they soon fell in line. All mainstream parties have now bowed to privatisation as part of governance and offer no alternative vision.

P.V. Narasimha Rao reshaped the structural foundation of the independent Indian state, with devastating consequences for the marginalised, especially Dalits and Muslims. Now they endure every day the violence unleashed by the Hindu right mob. In the long run, beyond 2021, he will be remembered not as a Chanakya but the man who set India on the road away from social justice and toward fascism.

Chinnaiah Jangam is an assistant professor in the department of history, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. His book Dalits and the Making of Modern India was published by the Oxford University Press, 2017.