Interview number three from the specially curated ‘Interview Series’ that Open Road Review is doing with the ‘Kumaon Literary Festival’ as their ‘Online Literary Magazine Partners’. This interview was conducted over email.
Vinay Sitapati is a political scientist, lawyer, and journalist. He teaches at Ashoka University. Vinay studied at National Law School Bangalore and Harvard University, and will be graduating with a PhD in politics from Princeton University. Half-Lion was released in June 2016 and has already proved a bestseller in English and Telugu. The Tamil, Hindi, and Marathi translations, along with the US edition, will be out in 2017.
Kulpreet Yadav: The chapter on Babri Masjid in your book Half Lion enunciates the circumstances that led to one of the historic blunders of independent India—the demolition of Babri masjid. The role of Mr. Narasimha Rao, who was the prime minister at the time, in ensuring its safety is not very clear. What does your research suggest?
Vinay Sitapati: If I had found that Rao was complicit in the demolition, I would have written it. But my research shows that those who today say that it was obvious that the mosque would fall on December 6th, were silent before then. In the run up to the demolition, Rao’s own cabinet – including rival Arjun Singh – did not recommend that UP chief minister Kalyan Singh be dismissed, nor did the ‘secular’ opposition or the Intelligence Bureau (whose reports I saw). The Supreme Court and UP governor actually chose to trust Kalyan. Even Sonia Gandhi spoke up only after December 6th. I point out that Rao made a judgment error in trusting the BJP, but he made that error only because there was no easy legal way to protect the mosque. The claim that Rao was complicit is a Congress conspiracy, done to discredit a rival to the Nehru-Gandhi legacy.
KY: People rarely attribute the economic liberalization of India to PV Narasimha Rao, whereas your book convincingly provides a counter-narrative. Could you highlight some of the major steps taken by the former prime minister for the readers?
VS: The blue prints for liberalisation were ready much before Manmohan Singh became finance minister, possible as early as 1983. The problem was that no prime minister had the political ability to combat the opponents to reform – the big business houses, left intellectuals, bureaucrats, and the Congress party itself. Rao’s genius was that he had the political skills to outmanouvre the opponents to liberalisation. For example, when it came to the Congress party, he repeatedly claimed that liberalisation was, in fact, something that Rajiv Gandhi wanted and Nehru would have agreed with. This is far from the truth, but it worked. So much of the India we live in today – from privately financed roads to better electricity and mobile phones – are all due to Rao, and we don’t even thank him for it.
KY: On the chapter on India’s nuclear explosion, Rao is once again seen dithering. But he had good reasons for it—a fact that has never really been articulated well by scholars in public. Could you briefly explain the circumstances that dictated his decision?
VS: Vajpayee himself called Rao the ‘true father’ of India’s nuclear program. When Rao came to power in 1991, India was far from being a nuclear weapons state. Rao invested money and backed the nuclear team. But he was also keeping an eye on the international environment, where the US was putting pressure. The evidence suggests that Rao pretended to want to test in late 1995. In doing so, he fooled the Americans into thinking that India had the capability – while at the same time giving breathing room to our scientists to develop the hydrogen bomb.
KY: The Congress leadership didn’t consider PV Narasimha Rao a mass leader and has never recognized his vital decisions that are responsible in shaping the India of today in many ways. What, according to you, are the reasons for it?
VS: There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, Sonia Gandhi felt that Rao tried to unmoor that Congress party from the Nehru-Gandhis. After she entered the Congress in 1998, her party has systematically discredited the legacy of Rao. The second reason is that Rao could be a vicious opponent, and treated his rivals in the party quite badly. They returned to the Congress after his prime ministership, determined to ‘fix’ him.
KY: What are some of the other ways in which Rao’s legacy still impacts us today?
VS: The main one is of course on the economy. Every time we give a missed call on our mobile phone, we have him to thank. The expansion of the middle class and growth of the private sector is due to him. But my research – including exclusive access to Rao’s own papers as well as over a 100 interviews – found other ways in which Rao still lives with us. Many pro-poor schemes, such as the NREGA and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, were first thought of during his time. He also re-oriented India’s foreign policy at a time of crisis (the Soviet Union collapsed soon after he took power). The India we live in today is Rao’s India.