Of an institution-builder

Print edition : March 02, 2002

The Partial Memoirs of V.K.R.V. Rao, edited by S. L. Rao; Oxford University Press; Rs.445.

SOME people called Dr. V.K.R.V. Rao, Alphabet Rao because of the four letters that preceded his name Vijayendra Kasturi Ranga Varadaraja Rao (1908-1991). Dr. Rao is best remembered as an energetic institution-builder. He founded the Delhi School of Economics, the Institute of Economic Growth, also in Delhi, and the Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. He also earned minor fame for his book The National Income of British India - 1931-32.

These partial memoirs have been put together by his nephew S. L. Rao, a fellow of the Tata Energy Research Institute, Bangalore. In his preface, the nephew delineates the uncle's character deftly and candidly. These memoirs do not quite bring V.K.R.V. Rao to life. These will, one hopes, arrest Rao's descent into near oblivion.

Rao was not the most comfortable man to be with. The nephew acknowledges this:

The memoirs are not defensive or self-justificatory, attempting to sanitise his life so that posterity can judge him favourably. Rao was brutally honest about himself and his foibles. He had understood the effect his domineering personality had on people and consequently on his relationships and career...

Rao quarrelled with P. C. Mahalanobis, C. N. Vakil, Economics Professor at Bombay University, T. T. Krishnamachari, at one time a powerful force in Delhi. Also with Ashok Mehta (1911-1984).

Rao refers to me in his introduction. I had of course been very aware of V.K.R.V. Rao as a student at St. Stephen's College, Delhi (1948-52), but I got to know him when he joined Indira Gandhi's Cabinet. In a review of Kiran Mishra's book on Dr. Rao, I wrote in The Asian Age in 1996:

When he became a Cabinet Minister, his temperamental angularities did not go unnoticed. He came into politics in his sixties. Adjustment was not easy. He was intellectually from the top drawer, politically he was a novice and at times it showed. His temper did not endear him to his officials. One Indian Ambassador formally complained to Indira Gandhi. Sardar Swaran Singh, who never lost his temper, pacified the Ambassador and also spoke to Rao. I had no problems with him.

Rao had a brilliant career at Cambridge getting a 1st. In Cambridge he grew intellectually and physically. When he went up to Cambridge he was five feet and two inches. When he left he was five feet and nine inches!

When he came to the Lok Sabha from Bellary, much was expected of him. As a Cabinet Minister, he did not stand out. He was an accomplished speaker, though somewhat hectoring. He did not make much of an impression in Parliament. As a teacher, he had captive audiences. Not so in Parliament. Indira Gandhi did not include him in her Cabinet in 1971. That hurt. He was also close to S. Nijalingappa.

V.K.R.V. Rao first came to Delhi University in 1942 at the behest of Sir Maurice Gwyer. In 1957 Rao became Vice-Chancellor and was much in demand as a speaker.

I am not competent to comment on his work as an economist. He was a product of Cambridge of the 1930s. Maurice Dobb, the card carrying communist, influenced Rao, as did John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). He was in favour of a planned economy and is today considered passe by the pundits of globalisation and private enterprise.

Rao's nature was rooted in austerity. He did not embrace its harsher Gandhian aspects. His Gandhism was tempered with Nehru's humanism and intellectualism.

In some ways these memoirs are enveloped in melancholy. Rao neglected his family and regrets having done so. The chapter "Chances I missed" is touching and honest. He confesses, he could not stick to any job for any length of time...

No stability, no firm roots, no sense of belonging and peace and preparing for retirement... this I regret and so I also regret the opportunity that more stable and less restless life would have given me in making a worthwhile and permanent contribution to the frontiers of knowledge in my chosen academic discipline...

In the next breath he says that, if given a chance to relive his life, he "would do nothing else but to repeat it". This, in my judgment, is not a sign of wisdom. It is bad enough to go wrong in one life but to want to repeat folly is obduracy of a conceited kind.

The real sadness comes in the chapter "What life has taught me".

Life has certainly taught me that arrogance, conceit, overwhelming confidence in one's own importance are only illusions, mirages in the desert that one realises only when one gets close to them. I have learnt humility and modesty, though this has come rather late for sustained and visible articulation.

P. N. Dhar has also contributed two pieces to the book. Both are exceptionally well-written.

This volume badly needs an index.

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