Book Review by Abhay Vaidya
“Was the prime minister sleeping when the Babri Masjid was being demolished?”
One of the most gripping chapters in the book under discussion begins with this piece of gossip as it goes on to present a graphic account of the then Prime Minister Mr P V Narasimha Rao’s deep engagement in dealing with the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi crisis of 1992.
The common perception of the reasons for Mr Rao’s failure to prevent the demolition are, however, far removed from the reality of what actually was going on in the Rao PMO.
S Narendra, the author of the book, was a key witness to the drama as he was serving the prime minister as a close and senior aide in various posts such as Principal Information Officer and concurrently Information Adviser to the Prime Minister (Feb. 1992 to July 1992) and Spokesperson of the Prime Minister and the Government of India from 1992 to 1998. He has recounted the various steps that Mr Rao took during the month-to-month and the day-to-day build-up to the tragedy. Along with this are some nuggets of personal conversations on the subject that Mr Rao had with the author.
Finally, he concludes the chapter by quoting a key paragraph from the Justice MS Liberhan Commission Report, which was presented 17 years after its appointment. According to the report, says the author, “the Constitution of India was inadequate to deal with a political problem in which a public official, in this case, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, failed to honour his assurance given in a sworn affidavit to the highest court of the land. He later failed to take steps to uphold the court orders. The Supreme Court relying on the assurance of the Uttar Pradesh government, did not grant the prayer to hand over the disputed land to the custody of the Union Government for protection.”
The book has been aptly titled as ‘India’s Tipping Point’ as it captures the bold economic reforms initiated by Rao in 1991 in response to the Balance of Payment (BoP) crisis faced by the country.
Such bold and visionary steps were least expected from Mr Rao, whose party presidency and priministership, as is well known, was seen as a compromise stop-gap arrangement “to tide over a troublesome period.” The bold economic reforms were also least expected as Rao was heading a minority government, which faced stiff resistance from the BJP and the Left in dismantling the licence raj structure.
The book begins with the announcement of 24th July 1991, when the Rao government “set off seismic tremors” with the abolition of the Industries (Development and Regulation) Act, 1951 (IDRA). This was followed by the setting up of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) to fast-track FDI (foreign direct investment) proposals.
In 20 short chapters, the book takes a broad sweep of not just the economic reforms initiated by Rao and his finance minister Mr Manmohan Singh; but also devotes considerable attention to his foreign policy initiatives such as strengthening ties with the US and shaping India’s ‘Look East’ policy. Incidentally, Ambassador Sudhir Devare, PIC’s founder member and former secretary (economic affairs), Ministry of External Affairs, has said in the blurb that the chapter on foreign policy “is candid and touches upon key decisions in the foreign policy arena under Prime Minister Rao.”
The author has also captured the numerous domestic and political challenges from within and outside his own party and the high-profile scams and scandals that Mr Rao faced one after the other.
Undoubtedly, these led to the slowing down of the economic reforms, says the author.
In the Epilogue, the author presents data pointing out how, between 1991 and 2019, the Union Budget grew by 19 times, the economy by 9 times and forex from $1,1 billion (adequate for barely 6 weeks of imports) to a whopping $500-600 billion today.
All in all, the book gives rich insights into the history of the landmark 1991 economic reforms which constitute the cornerstone of India’s growth story.
(Abhay Vaidya is Director, Pune International Centre)