Justice B.Sudershan Reddy
Distinguished legal luminary and former Supreme Court judge, Justice B. Sudershan Reddy sheds light on former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s vision, erudition and multi-faceted personality in this address delivered on PV’s death anniversary. It gives us a peek into the man hailed as the architect of economic reforms in India....
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Let me, at the very outset, welcome you to the 2018 PV Memorial Lecture. I also wish to state emphatically that it is with a great deal of trepidation and humility that I accepted this invitation to preside over this memorial Lecture. And I believe that diffidence is justified in as much as we seek to deliberate about our times and the inflection points of our progress as a constitutional democracy in honour of a man whose life was marked with many great successes, and many reasonable people would also say some poignant and even puzzling failures.
The sweep of forces and events, and the multitude of dimensions we would have to take into account to develop a holistic picture, in order to comprehend the life of a person like P.V., would not be something that one could even hope to do any justice to in the 15 to 20 minutes or so that I have here. For example, if we were to start with his first elections in 1951 — that he lost to a candidate of the Communist Party — when the fledgling nation-state was trying to recover from the horrors of communal passions and traverse all the way to his last stint as a constitutional functionary in the 1990s, when the nation-state was arguably being pushed back into a cauldron, in which communal passions were again becoming the fuel to the fire of discontent, it would not be unreasonable to think of it as the completion of one cycle and the start of another cycle in the history of this nation itself. Add to that, just one more dimension——of the changes in the political economy that he wrought as the Prime Minister, and evolution of P.V.'s thoughts—— and one begins to grasp the enormity of task of locating P.V. Narasimha Rao——the man, his ideas, his achievements and failures and what lessons he might hold for us today.
As a person who interacted only to a limited extent with Narasimha Rao——P.V., as he is affectionately called——I will not deign to speak at length about him. I limit my role here to painting a rough, and obviously incomplete, a sketch of a few select areas that P.V., left his mark on. The hope is that this might thematically serve as a bridge between the man in whose honour these annual lectures have been organized and the fraught times we live in.
I had the opportunity——nay honour to meet him on a few occasions. Both when he was in power, and also when he was not in power. He was famous for his erudition and it is only natural that it is talked up. From his mastery of 10 different languages — that seemed to give him a deeper insight into human nature, of individuals and of collectives—to his learning COBOL and coding for UNIX machines that seemed to give him insights into forces and processes that might be unleashed well after his lifespan -his thirst for knowledge seemed to know no bounds. I must confess that every single time I met him, I came away feeling enriched, intellectually stimulated and enlightened by the many different dimensions that he could visualize to a problem or an issue. If he weren't an active politician engaged in the task of deepening democracy, he would have been an incredible teacher and a scholar expanding the frontiers of knowledge.
However, he chose not to be an academic, but to be a public representative with a deep inclination to bring about change. In every position that he ever held he initiated and pushed forward reforms. From fixing the managements of temples to forbidding private practice by doctors in government hospitals (a practice that was leading to perverse incentives and practices), P.V.'s record clearly indicates that he had both the vision to see the big picture and also the inclination to work with the minutiae of details to attempt making government departments function better. Of course, the large changes that were initiated, when he was the Prime Minister, in the very manner in which the political economy is to be conceived and structured has been much celebrated. It ought to be a matter of collective shame that the acknowledgment of the pivotal and indeed the pioneering role he played in the reforms of 1991 was belated, and only recently have scholars, historians and biographers begun to tentatively sketch the contours of that story.
For me personally, the fact that P.V., was from the same hardscrabble rural background as I, and yet managed to rise so high on the leadership scale and make such immense contributions to the story of modern India, is what made him fascinating. A very reasonable and plausible argument can be made that Shri. Narasimha Rao's roots in rural India gave him a deep and an intuitive understanding of the structural roots of inequity and the possible avenues for strengthening the capacities of the deprived to assert and protect their innate human dignity. That connectedness and understanding, I believe, informed a lifelong commitment to bring greater dignity to the rural masses — something that is seldom talked about today as part of the many successes in his career as a politician and a constitutional functionary. I would like to briefly mention three changes, amongst the many, he brought about that had the potential to transform the lives of rural masses.
The first, of course, are the land reforms he initiated in the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh. What was remarkable of course, was that the reforms he initiated were going to adversely affect him personally. As many in the audience may know, P.V. was adopted by a rich but childless Brahmin family in his native village, Vangara. He inherited 1200 acres of agricultural land of which he gave up 1000 acres to comply with the reforms he had initiated. The capacity to sacrifice for what he perceived to be the larger good must itself be treated as worthy of great respect and admiration—— especially by those of us who live in these times when personal aggrandizement seems to have become the lure for many in the political sphere. To that, we can add another dimension: that he conceived this reform as being necessary for deepening of democracy in rural Andhra Pradesh.
However much we may quibble that his land reforms did not really achieve the economic results that he had hoped for, we cannot but reflect on the impact it had on the minds of the intended beneficiaries of the measures. Even though the measures benefitted a much smaller number than envisaged, the discourse of right to ownership of land they had tilled and toiled over for centuries itself suggested to them a co-equal right to claim ownership of the country, and gave many from the deprived communities much local strength to be able to assert a role in the political processes and aspire to positions of leadership. Given the lengthy history of graded inequalities and consequent denial of inherent human dignity of vast swathes of the populace, the land reform measures he initiated, and the normative discourse that he unleashed have to be understood as significant milestones in our core constitutional project of social justice.
The second initiative that I would like to highlight relates to his exemplary work as the Union Minister for HRD in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet in the mid-1980s. He was, of course, the creator of the HRD ministry, that combined various departments——of culture, youth affairs etc, with education. Far more important was the New Education Policy of 1986 that he authored. Going past mere vision statements, he was the one who gave shape to the concept and implementation of Navodaya residential schools project. These schools were designed to identify the more talented of the rural students and provide them access to education of a quality that was comparable to what urban children were getting. While Rajiv Gandhi is credited with conceiving the idea, P.V., it has been widely argued was the one who threw himself, heart and soul, into designing and implementing this program. I would like to believe that the fact that his formal education was accidental——in a rural and backward village of Telangana — inspired him. It yet again reveals his insight that education was a vital and essential avenue for acknowledging and protecting the human dignity of individuals——cutting across socio-economic and communal backgrounds.
The third initiative I would like to highlight is that his Government pushed through the 73 and 74 Amendments to the Constitution of India in 1992-93. These amendments substantially eliminated the discretionary powers of State governments and legislatures in conducting elections to local bodies in rural and urban areas. One remarkable change was the reservation of a third of the positions for women. Before you go rolling your eyes, let me summarize empirical research-based assessment by Professor Rohini Pande, of Harvard University, and her team. They studied 495 randomly selected villages in West Bengal and found that:
(i) Having female leaders dramatically changed voters' perceptions of the effectiveness of women, albeit it occurred only after repeated exposure;
(ii) That notwithstanding biased perceptions about men being more efficient, upon repeated exposure to women being in leadership positions changed voters perceptions that women could be as, and in fact more, efficient than even men; and
(iii) Most importantly, in villages which had women pradhans a couple of times, the aspirations of parents for their daughters, as well as aspirations of teenage girls were raised.
Let me hasten to add, at this point, that I am not implying that an urban background would have been an obstacle to his conceiving the urgency of the needs to initiate structural changes in rural societies. However, I do believe that in all the excitement about his role in initiating 1991 reforms we forget the much wider canvas on which he worked; and that insufficient work has been done by academicians, scholars, and biographers to repeatedly engage with the life of this remarkable man, to uncover his motivations and their sources.
While Vinay Sitapati's "Half Lion" is a substantial contribution in this direction, it is still only a first step.
More than most, in modern India, Shri. Narasimha Rao has been at the receiving end of the curse that afflicts the memory of leaders who have served in difficult times——achieved much, and also claimed to have failed much. As Shakespeare’s Antony intoned: "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." It is good that many are now seeking to excavate the life and times of this son of India.
At the very beginning of my speech, I had asserted that I was humbled that I was asked to preside over this Memorial Lecture and that I was even a trifle scared. How could I not be After all these lectures are organized in memory of a man who wielded power throughout his life and yet seemed to be so capable of being detached when out of power, and go back to his romance with letters and knowledge.
In contrast to that, we live in times when leaders proclaim that they will rule for the next fifty years. Such braggadocio, a hallmark of authoritarian politics, which takes its roots in deep seated anti-intellectualism, is deeply disrespectful of the citizens and the democratic processes they sustain, and is essentially disconnected with the ethos of this nation. It is said that the world is a dangerous place where it is lead by demagogues who manipulate the truth. They lie, they know they are lying and they know that we know they are lying.
As institutions and all foundations of political discourse and polity, are assaulted by the vulgar and the violent, the memory of Shri. Narasimha Rao needs to be used to reinforce another set of beliefs: (i) that scholarship and capacity to deeply reflect and analyze the consequences of policy decisions is not a handicap for leaders but a shield against overweening arrogance when in power——an arrogance that results in certitudes of ignorance and disdain for the poor and the weakest who will suffer the most; and (ii) that dignified and civil bearing, whether in power or out of power, are not signs of weakness but of a belief in the strengths of democracy and innate human dignity of our citizens.
So, I take leave with this thought. He may have been named "Half Lion, Half Human", but the boy from Vangara village grew up to be human. Fully, and all too human. But thank God for that. We should hope to see more of the likes of him.