Originally Published 2015-09-18 10:17:01 Published on Sep 18, 2015
Rao, Singh and the Great Suicide 

"When politicians who are out of power write books, it is both understandable and intriguing. It is understandable because a period in opposition is about the only time a politician gets to devote several hours and months to putting together a manuscript. It is intriguing because a book by a contemporary politician is inevitably (over)interpreted for its hidden messages.

At one level Jairam Ramesh's To the Brink and Back: India's 1991 Story is obvious enough. It is a telling of the first 100 days (or so) of the Congress government that came to office in June 1991 and undertook the biggest pro-market reforms in India's post-1947 history. His book is the story of how it was done. It begins with pre-election steps that had been taken in this direction — including the debate and, to Ramesh's mind, resolve in the Rajiv Gandhi camp that anticipated the policy changes of June-July 1991. By then Rajiv Gandhi was dead, tragically assassinated on May 21, 1991. Ramesh recounts how P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh — an accidental Prime Minister and an unconventional finance minister — came together to actually implement Liberalisation 1.0. Ramesh was Rao's Sherpa during that period. He benefited from his previous access to Rajiv Gandhi and his role in the election campaign of that year, as well as the fact that he had worked with Singh in the Planning Commission in the 1980s.

His relationship with Rao was more complex. The new Prime Minister found him useful and inducted him into the Prime Minister's Office, benefiting from Ramesh's drafting skills and the fact that he was a bridge between the Rajiv Gandhi election team and the Rao government. As the 100 days ended, so did Ramesh's utility — and he was exiled once more to the Planning Commission.

This book, an expansion of an essay Ramesh wrote for a magazine some years ago, is a faithful recollection of the policy steps as they were taken and the political pitfalls as they were negotiated in those early months, from June to August 1991. Yes, they are from Ramesh's vantage position, but he has for the most part been a faithful and clear-eyed chronicler. He has provided interesting details and not exaggerated his role.

One suspects this is also Ramesh's ""thank you"" note to Rao, a man he seems to admire without finding likeable — or perhaps found it inconvenient to appreciate in subsequent years, as Rao himself became an exile from Congress historiography and was pushed to the margins by Sonia Gandhi, a forgotten figure, denied even the dignity of a cremation in Delhi.

The best part of Ramesh's book is in describing the little steps, the honest mistakes, the fragility and the uncertainty of those pioneering weeks. Rao was Prime Minister, but not quite leader of his party. He had to undo the economic legacy of the Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi period with many of his senior colleagues waiting for him to trip up, with the Bharatiya Janata Party extolling him for repudiating Nehru (which made it even more difficult for Rao within the Congress), with the Left accusing him of surrendering to the Washington consensus, with a government that did not have a parliamentary majority, with the need, in Rao's words, to do a U-turn without appearing to do a U-turn.

It wasn't easy. Singh, as a newcomer to formal politics, was both an asset and a problem for Rao. The Congress manifesto had promised a rollback of prices for 10 commodities in 100 days. In his first press conference, the finance minister said, ""It would be wrong to say that I have a magic wand to bring down prices. What I can promise is that in three years' time prices could be made stable if a strategy of macroeconomic management is pursued now."" The furore, even in the pre-""Nation wants to Know"", pre-Twitter days, can be guessed.

It made Rao nervous. Destiny forced his hand. On July 1, 1991, the rupee was devalued. A second devaluation was planned for July 3. At the 11th hour Rao lost his nerve and early on the morning of July 3 phoned Singh to stop the second devaluation. Thankfully, there were no mobile phones then. By the time Singh got through to Reserve Bank of India governor

C. Rangarajan in Bombay, (now Mumbai) it was 9.30 am. He was told the second devaluation had already been carried out at 9.00 am!

Rao and Singh made crafty use of their experience in the corridors of power. The fact that the foreign secretary, finance secretary and chief economic adviser (inherited from the previous government) were hostile to the very philosophy of economic reform was not allowed to matter. Rather than attempt to persuade them, they were sidestepped without any niceties being sacrificed. Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, the minister of law, justice and company affairs, was emotionally blackmailed by Singh into accepting industrial delicensing, which was presented to the Congress, in a preamble drafted by Ramesh, as the highest stage of the Nehruvian project.

It was an exciting moment and Ramesh had the privilege of a ringside view. A quarter-century on, he sees Rao as an agent of history, India's Deng Xiaoping (page 141) and even tells us that Rao was a tennis buff with the Spaniard Manuel Santana as a personal favourite. Yet, there were depths and secrets that Rao held that Ramesh says he has never been able to fathom.

He points to ""a devastating article titled The Great Suicide which had appeared in Mainstream Weekly in January 1990"". The anonymous author was ""described as a senior leader of the Congress (I)"" and the article was ""a highly critical analysis of the Rajiv Gandhi era and Rajiv Gandhi himself - whose style of functioning was panned as brash, self-destructive and immature - and examined the reasons for the severe drubbing the Congress received in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections"".

While Rao is believed to be the author of the article, this anecdote is not really germane to the economic reforms narrative of 1991. Why did Ramesh mention it? Twenty-five years after the first ""Great Suicide"", is he lamenting another?

Courtesy: The Asian Age"

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.