Vinay Sitapati, Half Lion: How P V Narasimha Rao Transformed India (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2016)
This political biography of India’s largely discredited, but immensely transformational prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao, proved to be an excellent summer reading. Remembered largely for being indecisive, excessively cautious, allegedly corrupt, and incredibly (politically) weak, Rao became India’s prime minister after the assassination of the powerful Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Despite running a minority government (that would face, and survive, three confidence motions) and his policy conservatism, Rao, along with a team of powerful bureaucrats and diplomats, prevented India from defaulting to the IMF, and decisively ushered in momentous economic and political reforms as India went to becoming a (partially) free market economy. Even in the foreign and security policy spheres, the book shows how Rao set in motion a series of events that made India a nuclear weapons state in 1998 (India tried testing in 1993, then in 1995, both times under Rao’s leadership, but was prevented from doing so by the US), and officially recognised Israel. Yet, despite these policy successes – that stand in contrast with his image of being an indecisive leader – India witnessed the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu kar-sevaks under Rao’s leadership. The incident severely undermined India’s secularism, led to bloody Hindu-Muslim riots across the country, and earned Rao tremendous criticism for mishandling the situation. A fascinating figure wrought with multiple contradictions, Rao played a pivotal role in the making of contemporary India — for the good, the bad, and the ugly.
It’s always a good idea to try to understand a bit the people and the culture of the country where we spend our summer holidays. For those among us who have the pleasure to spend some time in Spain, I can recommend Chris Stewart’s Driving over Lemons, a funny story of a British expat buying a house in the mountains of Southern Spain. It’s full of wonderful (and often accurate) cultural misunderstandings between Brits and Spaniards. It’s like the modern version of Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada or Ramón Sender’s La tesis de Nancy.
In terms of non-fiction, the summer is usually a good time to reflect upon the “big questions”. Recently, Frank Sauer published Atomic Anxiety Deterrence, Taboo and the Non-Use of U.S. Nuclear Weapons, a new book that examines why nuclear weapons have not been used in war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki – according to Ned Lebow, “the most important non-event of the twentieth century”. His focus on the role of fear and anxiety promises to offer new insights into this crucial topic of international relations.
I’ve been rereading Robert MacFarlane’s first book Mountains of the Mind, which is an engaging mix of personal narrative and cultural history of mountains and climbing. This summer has been spent mostly in the Radcliffe Camera, finishing a book manuscript, and MacFarlane’s first book has been keeping me sane, because 1. It has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m writing about (evolution and strategy); 2. It has quite a lot to do with my next project, which will be on explorers and identity; and 3. It’s about the great outdoors, which feels a very long way from the Bod.
Image: the Maughan Library, King’s College London, via wikimedia commons.