Some have criticised the Congress for not giving due credit to former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao for his “remarkable” achievements in the area of economic reforms. There cannot be any doubt that Rao took several steps towards liberalising the Indian economy. But it was Rajiv Gandhi who began a well thought out, calculated, and steady process of economic liberalisation during his tenure as the Prime Minister between 1985 and 1989.
He chose not to form the government after ’89 general elections even though the Congress had secured 197 seats (vote share of 39.5 percent) and emerged as the single largest party. Had he taken oath as Prime Minister, the pace of economic reforms would have been accelerated with required caution. Instead, India was forced to taste the bitter pill left behind by the governments led by Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Chandra Shekhar for 19 months and subsequently, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. There is little doubt Rajiv would have taken over the reins after the failed 19-month-old coalition experiment. As Prime Minister, Rajiv would have continued with his agenda of reforms while keeping a check on the unrestrained interests of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Unfortunately, Rao was never able to monitor the IMF.
What was so great which Rao did and Rajiv Gandhi, or anyone else, would not have done for reforms? In my opinion, Rajiv would have gone ahead with more vigil and maturity; keeping intact the fundamentals of Nehruvian socialism He would have avoided the temptation of shaking his legs to the tune of the IMF and other Western market forces. Rao was over the age of 70 when he demitted office. Rajiv would have been only 52-years-old in 1996. He was not in a hurry and had time to implement the structural changes in India’s economy after considering all the aspects of its poor population. The speed with which the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened in past two and a half decades following 1991 is not only alarmingly dangerous.
Those who blame the Congress for not giving credit to Rao for his achievements must tell us if they want to blame him for the events of December 6, 1992, in Ayodhya. Should due credit be given to Rao for the seeds deliberately sown during his tenure as Prime Minister for the elimination of his party—the Congress—from the cow belt of India? Should he receive credit for delaying India’s nuclear missile launch and not testing the atom bomb on December 19, 1995, under pressure from America?
I will credit Rao with initiating a free market economy but only without creating any mechanism that could have protected people working in unorganised sector. It has left millions of poor people entirely at the mercy of market forces. It is impossible to understand the plight of millions of poor Indians with the minds conditioned in Oxford, Harvard, IMF, and World Bank. I want to also give Rao credit for anti-labour policies vigorously initiated during his regime. As a result of these “reforms”, millions of middle and lower level employees lost their rights, protection, and dignity of work.
Those who find the current leadership of the Congress uninspiring and shed tears that Rao is an unsung hero do not want to listen to the real song Rao sang. He must also be acknowledged for introducing a culture of “analysis till paralyses”, which has set its roots deep within the Congress. He never made quick and meaningful decisions in matters that needed immediate attention. On the other hand, he was always in a hurry to make decisions when it came to opening the doors for international and national megacorps. The drum-beaters of India’s fast growth during the Rao-period do not realise the pains which many Indians suffered to achieve the goals he set out. To acquire six packs of economic muscles, Rao compelled India to go through several doses of unnecessary steroid supplements and in the process forgo all the ingredients of Nehruvian idealism.
After not getting the candidature in May-1991 general elections, Rao had packed his bags for Hyderabad. He was seriously thinking of becoming a monk and joining a monastery in Tamil Nadu. But the Machiavelli in him was not dead and immediately upon hearing the news of Rajiv’s sad demise at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, Rao took the first flight from Nagpur to Delhi the next morning. He ensured a meeting with the then President R. Venkatraman by calling his Joint Secretary Gopal Krishna Gandhi from Nagpur airport before boarding the plane. Let me not recall the manoeuvres through which he became the president of the Congress party and later the Prime Minister of India. I do not want to remember the stories of unchecked entries of Chandraswamy’s car in Prime Minister’s residence anytime, Lakhu Bhai Pathak—a non-resident Indian—episode and statements of Harshad Mehta—the master of share market scam. It was during his time that the investigations into the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case lacked the required speed.
India’s political history is full of Vinayak Trambak Randives, Amrit Danges, and Somnath Chaterjees on one side and Balraj Madhoks and Lal Krishna Adwanis on the other. Rao had always been treated with utmost respect by the Congress despite numerous disagreements and what could have been more gracious than to leave his misdoings “unsung”.
(The author is Editor and CEO of News Views India. Views expressed are strictly personal. The opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Millennium Post and this newspaper does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)