An insider's view

An insider's view

The controversial legacy of P V Narasimha Rao continues to be debated. As Union home minister, he looked the other way when thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As prime minister, he could have prevented the demolition of Babri Masjid. He didn’t. But as PM, he succeeded in steering the nation out of an unprecedented economic crisis by ushering in far-reaching economic reforms.

Technocrat-turned-politician and former Union minister Jairam Ramesh tells the story of 1991 reforms in To The Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story. It is an account of the events leading to the path-breaking economic liberalisation unleashed by Rao’s government with Manmohan Singh as the finance minister. Jairam, who had a brief stint as officer-on-special-duty at PMO in the initial days of Rao’s tenure, gives the account as a participant as well as an observer. He states “how I saw Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh shake up India.” As an economist, he was convinced about the inevitability of economic reforms. The narrative tells us how the bitter pill was administered with sweeteners and how obfuscation couched in the right language drew sceptical Congressmen aboard.

Jairam finds reforms a gamble of sorts.  By some astute manoeuvres, Rao-Manmohan team achieved politically damaging devaluation in two phases, abolition of export subsidy and a new industrial policy, marking a clear break with the past. As vehement opposition to industrial policy surfaced from Congressmen, Jairam, who prepared a note on industrial policy, added a long preamble providing a political context to the text. He further says it was “a lesson in how to facilitate a desirable U-turn without it seeming to be a U-turn. This was my first major lesson in political packaging and marketing.” The rest of the argument is that there is continuity with Nehruvian policy!

The finance minister avoided the use of the word ‘devaluation’, only adjustment of the exchange rate of the rupee! PM denied devaluation was done under IMF pressure. “I am glad we have done it. If we had not done it, the alternative would have been disastrous.” There was no alternative to devaluation. FM told the Parliament devaluation was not done under duress.

On industrial policy, the PM addressed the nation relying on Jairam’s draft. “I could not believe that the PM had conveyed my speech to the nation in toto.” However, he adds: “This was my first and last success with him as far as speeches went.” But this speech was missing from the PM’s speeches published. Jairam considers the 1991 budget among the most historic of all as it marks the dawn of a new era. Those officials who did not back reforms were marginalised. He reveals that the entire reforms programme was conceived and executed without the full and active participation of the finance secretary and the chief economic advisor.

Surprisingly, when his stars were on the ascent, Jairam was summarily shunted out of the PMO. He suspects the hand of PM’s spiritual advisor, controversial godman Chandraswami, behind his ouster. Another angle is that the man Friday of Rajiv Gandhi could not have enjoyed the trust of wily Narasimha Rao for long. Or, did the PM find Jairam growing too big for his boots?

Jairam holds Narasimha Rao in high esteem for his scholarship and knowledge of Sanskrit, but finds him a complex personality, “not at all easy to comprehend, and he made no effort whatsoever to make people want to understand him.” He was “a loner who didn’t do much to cultivate and build relationships. His relationships with the sleaziest of characters, Chandraswami, were inexplicable. It didn’t do justice to a man of such erudition and learning.” Jairam doesn’t pause to explore what went wrong between Rao and the party. There is only a casual reference to the Harshad Mehta scandal, first of the mega scams post liberalisation.

The pre-publication brouhaha over the book was unwarranted. There is no earth shattering revelation on behind-the- scene goings-on. Even the quotes from the unpublished papers of Rao do not throw light on anything significant. In the 25th year of economic reforms, Jairam may be the first to go back to the eventful days.

Though aware of several claimants for reforms, he is eager to claim a lot of credit for Rajiv Gandhi. In not so humble words, Jairam states his case: “I was privileged to play a small role in setting history in motion.” He has written with panache. Lucid style and clarity make the volume an interesting read.


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