The recent “exoneration” of late prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao by the justice M.S. Liberhan commission of inquiry has once again ignited the controversy surrounding his tenure as India’s top executive.
So what was Rao all about? While there are few doubts as to his keen intelligence, it is the other aspects of his persona, ones that had a strong connect with the events of that age, that are contentious. He has been relegated to the dustbin of history. But that view is changing. A recent article in this paper (“Give Narasimha Rao his due”, Mint, 16 December) is one example.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The Rao government’s launching of the economic reforms in the wake of the balance of payments (BoP) crisis in 1991 is well known. What is often forgotten is the context and the situation the country confronted then. There was hardly any foreign exchange left to finance imports. The Soviet Union had collapsed and India was left with few, if any, friends in the international arena.
What is left unsaid is the courage of the man who had literally no majority in Parliament to have charted on what was then an unknown course. Previous bouts of economic liberalization had been blamed for the BoP crisis. Yet Rao moved precisely in the reform direction in the face of vehement political opposition.
Simultaneously, he also changed India’s external political orientation. The events of 1989 and the extinction of the Soviet bloc were there for all to see. But given the inertia in Indian policymaking, we could have drifted for some more years without effecting any foreign policy changes.
These are not the steps of a man who has his hands forced merely by circumstance. One can’t rule that out, of course, but it would be a twisting of the historical record to say that he lacked courage. What his actions bespeak is the ability to see ahead clearly and not mere immediate crisis management.
He has, of course, been blamed for corruption. Is there anything new in that? In tracking the historical record of any government, it is more important to look at the long-run forces it unleashes instead of the short-term expediency that it has to resort to. The fruits of reforms are for everyone to see. He also laid the foundations for improved Indo-US relations.
In this sense, the overwhelming attention on the scandals of his time in government continues to be the dominant theme. That is at best a one-sided appraisal of his legacy.
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