|To the Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story, Jairam Ramesh, Rupa Publications India Pvt Ltd, Pp 216, Rs 395.00|
The book is essentially on the economic policy and does not present either Narasimha Rao or Manmohan Singh in a very appealing light.
Based on recollections, conversations with leading Bharateeya politicians, written records available like Parliamentary debates, contemporary newspaper reports, unpublished material from late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s archives, minutes of Congress meetings, Jairam Ramesh, the former Minister of Environment and Forests and Officer on Special Duty with PMO, presents a “participant-observer’s narrative of the turbulent period of 1991 when Bharat faced an unprecedented financial crisis due to political uncertainty and lack of investor confidence.”
On 21 June 1991, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao became Prime Minster and appointed Dr Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister in about a month’s time. Bharat’s foreign exchange reserves had dropped so much as to be sufficient for a mere two weeks of imports. At the end of August, the reserves were 3.11 billion US dollars which plummeted to 896 million dollars by mid-January 1991 due to the rising price of oil during the Gulf War, lack of foreign exchange remittances by workers abroad, fall in exports to countries engaged in the Gulf War, the agitation against the Mandal Commission and the short-term borrowings in late 1980s by Bharat. Here Jairam Ramesh recounts the months in which Prime Minster Narasimha Roa engineered two-step devaluation and instituted gold transfers to raise foreign loans to keep the wheels of the economy moving. The far-reaching economic reforms were ushered in by Rao, despite heading a minority government. Giving a day-to-day account of the design and implementation of the economic policy Jairam Ramesh says that “in less than 35 days, the Rao-Singh duo helped to transform the country” and subsequently described at a press conference how “the early days of survival, compulsions and convictions propelled a paradigm shift in economic policy and the ups and downs, twists and turns in the saga of fiscal reform.” He adds that not only did Rao changed the export rules, but adopted a conditional International Monetary Fund Loan and liberalised Bharat’s industrial policy in consultation with his Foreign Minister Manmohan Singh.
Jairam Ramesh talks of the release of the 1991 Congress manifesto, titled First 100 Days, subsequent to which Dr Manmohan Singh declared that he had no magic wand to roll back prices of essential commodities. This undoubtedly shocked Prime Minster Narasimha Rao and the roll back was, and rightly so, virulently criticised by the Opposition. However, Jairam Ramesh praises Manmohan Singh’s first press conference as a “virtuoso’s performance” where he laid out the government’s priority in economic policy.
Jairam Ramesh goes on to describe Narasimha Rao as crafty as well as bold; a polyglot fluent in Telugu, Marathi, Hindi, Sanskrit and Urdu, familiar with Arabic and Persian; able to give interviews in Spanish and capable of writing in French; computer-savvy and operating desktops in the late 1980s. But he does not spare Rao from criticism either when he talks of the Harshad Mehta scam in April 1992; of his goof up on the ouster of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev when he said that any leader who “chalks out plans for the future should take each step cautiously” and how it must have affected bilateral relations between the two countries and even prompted Jaswant Singh of BJP, who later became the External Affairs Minister in NDA government, to say, “Indo-Soviet relations were involved and the government did respond with ineptitude blinked with timidity”; and the demolition of disputed structure on 6 December 1992 – the last named being thought to have been allowed to happen by Rao as suspected by most of the Congressmen, probably as he wanted a solution to the Ayodhya imbroglio by being rid of the structure.
Manju Gupta (The reviewer is former Editor of National Book Trust)