In Barry Levinson’s film Wag the Dog, a White House spin doctor tells a Hollywood filmmaker to ‘produce’ a war to distract the public from a scandal that could derail the President’s re-election bid. The spinmeister tells the Hollywood honcho that people would believe anything as long as it’s on television. The power of popular culture in creating anything from an image to a version of reality is unparalleled. Unless TV or a film says so, we might find it difficult to accept anything. Perhaps that’s why it’s not surprising that for a country such as India, half of whose population was born after the 1991 economic reforms, the young hardly know anything about the man who ushered in what they grew up thinking to be a way of life.
As India enters the 75th year of its independence, it also marks the 30th anniversary of the 1991 reforms. When one thinks of the ‘1991 moment’, it’s automatically assumed to be the Union Budget presented by Dr Manmohan Singh. However, a few hours before that historic speech, the new industrial policy was tabled in the Parliament that pulled the plug on four decades of socialism that shackled India’s progress. Besides being the Prime Minister, Rao also held the industries portfolio, which is why he is rightfully considered the father of India’s economic reforms.
Popular culture has not been too kind to PVNR both while he was alive and in death. In the first few months of his prime ministership, Rao was seen as a breath of fresh air; maybe it had to do something with him being the first non-Gandhi PM from Congress in decades. Rao had practically hung his boots and was looking forward to a writing career when Rajiv Gandhi’s death pushed him to lead both the Congress and India. Once the honeymoon period was over, the press got after Rao for leading a government charged with corruption more than ever seen in India.
It’s not like there was not enough for popular culture to celebrate when it came to Rao, and he was as well-known for his literary prowess as he was for his astute political skills. In its obituary of Rao, The Guardian called him a man respected for ‘his scholarship and astonishing linguistic prowess’. Rao could speak 17 languages, including Spanish, German, and Persian, and translated several books from Marathi to Telugu and Telugu to Hindi. Legend had it when media baron Rupert Murdoch met Rao, he gifted world cinema films, including Spanish classics of Carlos Saura.
Even though there is a renewed interest in Rao, thanks to a fine biography in the form of Vinay Sitapati’s Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India, a greater revival seems unlikely, at least, soon. One can blame the self-righteous moulding of popular culture by a few who have made loud judgments against some, such as Rao, for it. If not for it, the sound of skeletons dancing in closets would be heard for miles.
Film historian and bestselling author