Congress leader and former UPA minister Jairam Ramesh is author of To The Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story. Speaking with Nalin Mehta, Ramesh discussed working in Narasimha Rao’s PMO, recounting how India started economic reforms, Rao’s historical legacy — and the lessons of 1991 for today:

You say Narasimha Rao was magnificent — why?
In Rao’s first 100 days as PM, when we had two devaluations of the rupee, four gold sales, a complete re-doing of trade and industrial policy and a new budget which gave a new vision of government expenditure, he was anything but indecisive. He was running a minority government with problems in Tamil Nadu, Jammu & Kashmir, he had National Front and Left breathing down his neck, and Ayodhya was simmering.
He subsequently discovered the virtues of indecision — but in those 100 days, he was magnificent and decisive.

You think it’s time to reassess Rao’s legacy — isn’t that at odds with your own party’s thinking?
Mao said of Stalin that seven of his 10 fingers are good, three were bad. Indians are incapable of objectivity, of fair and objective evaluation. We either make our leaders into gods or condemn them as villains — leaders make mistakes, apparent with the benefit of hindsight.
The type of historical evaluation that the Chinese Communist Party did of Mao, the Indian political class, across whichever party, is incapable of.
Ambedkar warned India against dangers of bhakti yoga — political biography in India is bhakti yoga.

How did Rao manage opposition to reforms within Congress?
Narasimha Rao had this beautiful phrase — doing a U-turn without it seeming to be a U-turn is an art.
Political packaging was essential in getting industrial reforms through. The cabinet rejected it. Yet, four days later, the cabinet approved it — what was different was the political and historical context.
The policy text in the cabinet note was the same but we added a preamble on how previous policies were leading to this. The last words were, ‘These reforms are continuity with change.’
Second, political communication is very important. If you sit on a technocratic high horse, you will not win friends and influence people.

Why this 1991 account now?
I wanted to Chetan Bhagat-ise 1991. With due respect to Chetan Bhagat, a very fine writer, I’ve essentially tried to Chetan Bhagat-ise the 1991 story, with footnotes, so it has historical value.

What are the lessons of 1991 for the current government’s reform moves?
Political engagement, conspicuous by absence in the current regime, is essential. Also, Rao and Manmohan Singh were not-in-your-face people. They were intellectually very solid but they wore that very lightly.
They were not trying to be too clever — I find this government trying to be too clever by half.

Isn’t Rahul Gandhi ambivalent about reforms?
I don’t think he’s defensive about 1991’s reforms. After working with him for 11 years, I can say that Mr Gandhi’s main concern is to fight for the underdog. His approach is, growth and entrepreneurship will take care of itself — but who will speak for the underdog?

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