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  Books   12 May 2024  Book Review | Rao unshackled the elephant, reforms took on human face

Book Review | Rao unshackled the elephant, reforms took on human face

THE ASIAN AGE. | ALOKE ROY CHOWDHURY
Published : May 12, 2024, 1:22 pm IST
Updated : May 12, 2024, 1:22 pm IST

P.V. Narasimha Rao had emerged as a consensus Prime Minister for a country in the throes of a financial crisis

Some time back, Rao’s young boss and former PM, Rajiv Gandhi, who had brought a whiff of fresh air into India’s corridors of power by ushering in a telecom and computer revolution, had died a horrible death, blown up by a human bomber. Before his death, a political upheaval had brought two short-lived coalition governments which had taken the country to a position from where it was about to default on a huge foreign loan. — By Arrangement
 Some time back, Rao’s young boss and former PM, Rajiv Gandhi, who had brought a whiff of fresh air into India’s corridors of power by ushering in a telecom and computer revolution, had died a horrible death, blown up by a human bomber. Before his death, a political upheaval had brought two short-lived coalition governments which had taken the country to a position from where it was about to default on a huge foreign loan. — By Arrangement

Those were anxious, tumultuous days. The last decade of the twentieth century was ushering in great changes in the Indian subcontinent. None knew whether those changes were for the better or the worse.

P.V. Narasimha Rao had emerged as a consensus Prime Minister for a country in the throes of a financial crisis. And he needed to turn the country around as of yesterday for the huge nation to be able to stave off what was nothing short of bankruptcy.

Some time back, Rao’s young boss and former PM, Rajiv Gandhi, who had brought a whiff of fresh air into India’s corridors of power by ushering in a telecom and computer revolution, had died a horrible death, blown up by a human bomber. Before his death, a political upheaval had brought two short-lived coalition governments which had taken the country to a position from where it was about to default on a huge foreign loan.

S. Narendra, the last of the truly powerful spokespersons of the Government of India, describes in his book, India’s Tipping Point, those years when India did its version of the perestroika and unshackled the lumbering elephantine nation from many of its chains.

He can be forgiven for being more than charitable to his boss, Rao Garu as his followers called him, for indeed the ninth Prime Minister of India did much to save India from the kind of fate which countries like Pakistan and Zimbabwe, which keep falling into bankruptcies or near-bankruptcies, face today.

After all, Rao did go forth bravely to steady the ship of state by dismantling the licence-permit raj and push the “Hindu rate of GDP growth” to hitherto unheard of heights. Indeed some political economists believe, what he did in five short years on the economic front has not been matched either before or after him. 

“Liberalisation’s children”, or those born after 1990, would not be aware of the significance of the date — July 24, 1991 — when overnight the country opened its doors to new industries by abolishing licences to produce most things.

A few months back, the Economist magazine in a lead article had called India a “caged tiger” which had willingly walked into a lifelong trap by creating a bewildering plethora of rules and regulations. It went on to say that if “India could put its economy right, many of its other difficulties would immediately seem less overpowering; they would not vanish, by any means, but they would at least begin to seem to be beatable”. 

Months after this admonishment, Narasimha Rao and his hand picked finance minister, former RBI governor Manmohan Singh, seemed to be doing just that. Besides abolishing the license raj, the rupee was devalued and overseas trade controls dismantled, spurring commerce, the lifeblood of any nation. Foreign investment which till sometime ago was looked upon with suspicion was wooed to bring in much-needed technology and jobs.

Narendra and his legion of public perception managers in the government were given the unenviable task of explaining to the nation what the reforms meant and winning popular support for the move among a people used to a socialist order of managing the economy.

His team came up with the slogan “Elephant Unshackled”. This was not without opposition. The first few ads explaining the reforms were opposed by the Left bloc in Parliament as anti-people; the elephant messaging which came a bit later, was opposed by a section within the Congress who favoured the tiger uncaged symbolism.

In true Yes Minister style, Narendra wrote a note explaining that the tiger symbol had been appropriated by the Southeast Asian economies, while the lion symbol identified with Singapore and Africa. He explained his choice of an elephant, borrowing from both basic geography and Hindu mythology: “India is habitat of the Asian elephant. Importantly this animal is identified with Lord Ganesha and gajagamana — meaning strides of an elephant — sure-footed, graceful and impactful.”

Despite the burst of reforms which changed India forever, Narasimha Rao was a worried man. One worry which he never articulated openly, but many of us who covered those tumultuous days guessed was, how would the perestroika impact him and India? The fear in the minds of India’s top leadership and indeed among many others was would we follow in the path of the Soviet collapse?

To answer those fears, Rao developed a new political philosophy — reforms with a human face. He enunciated this at the 1992 Tirupati session of the Congress Party, where he spoke of measures to ensure India’s poor or “daridranarayan” as he put it, were not left behind in the reformist spree.

At a meeting of the National Development Council, he sent a chit to his old friend and then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Pranab Mukherjee, on whether allocations for rural development schemes could be substantially increased. With Mukherjee’s support, the money outlay for these schemes was more than doubled and new schemes like free midday meals for school-going children launched to spread literacy.

Soon afterwards, in his address to the US Congress, he expressed his reservation over the feeling that capitalism had triumphed as the Soviet Union had collapsed. He rejected Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument and expressed his worry about the plight of the poor.

Then came December 6, 1992, Rao’s moment of realpolitik truth. The right-wing BJP which had been trying to bump up its support base in the Hindi heartland, badly mauled by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, had launched the Ram Mandir movement. Its culmination was the arrival of a huge mob at Ayodhya which demolished the old Babri Masjid.

Rao, had to resolve the crisis which broke out in the wake of that fateful event. According to Narendra, the PM and his Cabinet swiftly moved to dismiss the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh and scotch the riots which broke out in the wake of the Masjid’s destruction. However, the damage had been done.

Was Rao misled into letting the kar sevaks or volunteers gather at Ayodhya? Did he believe that a dose of masterly inactivity would make the headache go away? No one really knows. Narendra quotes him as saying: “he told me more than once that he was particularly saddened by the betrayal of promises (that no penultimate action on Ayodhya would be taken) by L.K. Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee”.

History will judge whether the reformer PM erred or faltered. However, history will always remember P.V. Narasimha Rao as the man who changed India forever.

The writer is a senior journalist.

India’s Tipping Point: The View from 7 Race Course

S. Narendra

Bloomsbury

pp. 210; Rs 699

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