Twenty-five years ago, on 24 July, then finance minister Manmohan Singh got up at 5pm and presented what was by any yardstick a watershed Union budget. However, five hours earlier, the then minister of state for industry, P.J. Kurien, had, without attracting any untoward attention, placed a policy document in Parliament that would formally signal the end of India’s tryst with the socialist-era hangover of industrial licensing—the biggest economic reform initiative.

However, popular history, defined by media stories the next day, all but missed Kurien’s cameo and spun a narrative around the budget, including the industrial policy reset by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government as a footnote. Consequently, Singh was heralded the unlikely hero and Rao and Kurien assigned much less consequential roles. Ironically, 25 years later, most media commentaries continue to commit the same error of omission.

It is time to put the spotlight on these unsung flag bearers of the big bang economic reforms initiated in 1991, broadly, for two reasons. One, obviously, to rebalance the skewed narrative. Here one has to tread carefully. In the binary world that we live in, it will soon boil down to an either-or (pro-Rao or anti-Singh); history, as we know, can never be reduced to binary logic. Second, to showcase the fact there were far more people batting for reforms and that, consequently, there was, with the exception of the Left parties, a political consensus—though nobody would admit it publicly, because at that time the political dharma was socialism.

To be sure, some recent books have sought to rework the narrative and put the spotlight on Rao, the prime minister who picked Singh as his finance minister and oversaw the entire initiative in 1991. A book by Congress MP Jairam Ramesh argued that Rao played a defining role in the 1991 reforms blitz. More recently, Princeton University scholar Vinay Sitapati makes an even stronger case in his book Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India.

Mint itself has run a year-long series to capture the momentous journey India undertook, and some of the pieces do seek to expand this perspective that there were many more heroes. (You can catch the commentary at livemint.com/liberalization and the podcasts capturing the real experiences of people to these monumental changes here)

The anniversary is actually a good moment to rethread the modern economic history of India. Seldom has any democracy undertaken such a monumental policy shift, albeit at India’s signature “incremental" pace, without triggering fault lines in the country. Often overlooked is the fact that this transition was actually effected in stages and hence in that sense, there was continuity in the reforms.

It was in the 1970s, especially after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s brief stint as prime minister, that doubts first emerged on the virtues of the command economy—that the antipathy towards market forces may be misplaced.

There were great debates within government, which eventually found fruition in policy articulated by Indira Gandhi after she was re-elected in 1980 as prime minister. Of course, the trigger was an external crisis, which forced India to reach out to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. Part of the deal was India’s committing to economic reforms, including delicensing of industry. It’s another matter, though, that after a promising start, Gandhi promptly did a rethink. It was left to her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her after her assassination, to revisit reforms. However, he too lost his nerve after a combination of macroeconomic reversals and political scandals struck his government.

It was under Chandra Shekhar, who took over briefly as prime minister in 1990 that the reforms started assuming the shape and form of the 1991 package. In fact, the credit would have accrued to then finance minister Yashwant Sinha had the Congress not pulled down the government, which survived on their outside support. The rest, of course, is history.

As Kurien, currently deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, recalls, without the guile and wisdom of Rao (in the company of his principal secretary, Amarnath Varma, who as a bureaucrat was familiar with the Shekhar-Sinha blueprint), the reforms would have been stillborn.

“I have a lot of admiration for Rao sahib," says Kurien, before adding, “It was his idea, supported by Amarnath Varma, to place the industrial policy document in the House and not read it."

Even at the cost of passing up on his moment in the media, Rao preferred to play down his own role; if indeed the contents had been read out on the floor of the house, pandemonium would have ensued.

For that matter, even Kurien, an old-school Congressman, who understood the importance of the changes (though he had his reservations, employed in delaying the delicensing of automobile manufacturing) played his part in Rao’s A-team. You will probably not see him in a TV studio debate holding forth on the virtues of economic reforms, and yet he served as a loyal foot soldier when it mattered.

Recalling their role establishes the undeclared consensus around reforms. And the fact that five prime ministers since Rao have not wavered in the direction of change, only underlines the continuity of reforms too.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

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