Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Why Narasimha Rao is suddenly a star

In a few months from now we will ring out 2016, and with it the 25th anniversary of what was a benchmark moment in contemporary Indian history: 1991. Over the past year, a raft of books, so many that it is impossible to keep count, have hit the stands as publishers scrambled to exploit the moment (in fact, even yours truly was sounded out by a publisher).

For those who came in late: 1991 was India’s tryst with economic and political history. The country encountered an unprecedented crisis as the karma of its past economic sins caught up; it was left with just enough foreign exchange to pay for a few weeks of imports. Alongside, the country was caught in the middle of a dramatic political transformation. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi left the Congress without a Gandhi at the helm for the first time. And separately, a social churn in society initiated by the implementation of the Mandal Commission backing affirmative action for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was threatening a reset in cow-belt politics.

It was indeed a transformative moment. In the period thereafter, the country’s politics and economics have altered incredibly. The size of its economy has scaled $2 trillion (around Rs133 trillion) and the Congress suffered its worst electoral humiliation in the 16th general election, winning only 44 seats—leaving it well short of the mark to inherit even the mantle of leader of the opposition.

Over all these years, the bulk of the credit for the economic transformation was accorded to Manmohan Singh, who served as the finance minister in 1991 (and subsequently served as a two-term prime minister for the Congress, beginning 2004). Self-appointed cheerleaders, particularly among the pink papers, repeated this narrative so often that it soon became a historical fact. Singh’s boss, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, was at best a footnote.

The mistake these Singh groupies made is that they ignored a fundamental fact: History is continuous and not some disjointed connect of random dates (chosen largely to suit their desired narrative). Yes, while 1991 was the moment that India chose to hit the accelerator on reforms, the heavy lifting—especially the alteration of the political mindset—was done in the previous decade (if there was a moment for a formal rethink, it was when India inked its first structural adjustment loan with the International Monetary Fund, committing itself to dismantling its licence regime).

The anniversary has actually become a launch pad for various writers, including politicians, journalists and researchers, to revisit history. I’m not sure if it is because Singh failed to impress in his decade-long stint as PM, which ended in 2014, but there has been a sustained effort to set the record straight as it were. Unfortunately, in a rather extreme fashion—all of a sudden, opinion has swung to the other extreme, painting Rao as the star of the historic turnaround which began in 1991 (surely Singh should be accorded credit, at the least for being a ready enabler).

The first off the blocks was Jairam Ramesh, technocrat turned Congress politician. His book, To The Brink And Back: India’s 1991 Story, was a very brave effort as its central character was Rao—the former prime minister, who was officially discarded by the Congress following his fallout with the Gandhi family (and continues to be a pariah).

The second outstanding effort was by former journalist turned Princeton University scholar Vinay Sitapati. His book—Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India—was brilliant. Being a researcher, he brought an academic rigour to the work and scored a coup by gaining access to Rao’s personal records.

Between them, Ramesh and Sitapati have in many ways initiated the task of redefining contemporary economic history. The many other efforts that have followed (or are still following) are an overdose of the same point. The latest being 1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History by Sanjaya Baru, erstwhile media adviser to Singh and author of the controversial yet popular tome on his former boss (The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making And Unmaking Of Manmohan Singh).

Nonetheless, it is indeed a good thing that several authors are attempting to debate India’s contemporary economic history and challenge the givens. The bigger takeaway from the articulation of these thoughts is the growing acceptability in the country of economic change (reforms, as some would classify it) and, by corollary, a social transformation—the first step to further democratize India.

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