At one stage in the early days of his Prime Ministership, P V Narasimha Rao was convinced by 'godman' Chandraswami that India could easily tide over its immediate financial crisis...
At one stage in the early days of his Prime Ministership, P V Narasimha Rao was convinced by ‘godman’ Chandraswami that India could easily tide over its immediate financial crisis because Sultan of Brunei had agreed to extend a line of credit, claims a book by former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh.
That Rao took it seriously is borne out of the fact that a plane was ready to fly the then Finance Minister to meet the Sultan, says Ramesh.
Ramesh, who was a close aide of Rao during those turbulent days, says in the book ‘To the brink and back: India’s 1991 story’ that “thankfully Manmohan Singh managed to convince his boss at the last minute that this would be a foolhardy adventure”.
The Congress leader prefaced his remarks by saying that Narasimha Rao was indisputably a loner, a man who did not do much to cultivate and build relationships.
To borrow a phrase from Michael White’s biography of Isaac Newton, Narasimha Rao was above all a secretive man, a man coiled in upon himself.
“Moreover his relationship with the sleaziest of characters Chandraswami being the most notable among them- which I saw at close quarters, were inexplicable and do not do justice to a man of such erudition and learning,” he says.
In the last chapter ‘A final word’, Ramesh says “so at the end of it all, what do I make of Narasimha Rao.
“There is no need to revile him – as indeed he has been- or render him with a halo – as is being done to fight today’s political battles.”
What is important, he says, “is an objective assessment, a frank appraisal — something that the Chinese do but we seem to be incapable of.
“After all Mao was officially declared 70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong. And Mao himself had said that we consider that out of Stalin’s ten fingers, only three were bad.”
Detailing the challenges Rao faced, Ramesh says that he came to power against the backdrop of the brutal assassination of a young leader of immense charm and charisma, a man of great energy and exuberance- all qualities he himself lacked in abundance .
Ramesh describes Rao as a “fox” who “was remarkably decisive” in a critical 90-day period in 1991 when India was staring at a balance of payments crisis-led economic disaster.
He writes Rao was India’s Deng Xiaoping (the Chinese communist leader who initiated reforms in China).
Ramesh says in his book that over June, July and August of 1991, Rao demonstrated that he wasn’t, unlike the general perception about him, at all indecisive.
“To borrow an analogy from Isaiah Berlin, if Manmohan Singh was the hedgehog who knew only one big thing and that is economic reforms, Rao was the fox who knew many things.
“It is the fox-hedgehog combine that rescued India in perhaps its darkest moment,” Jairam says in his book.
“India in 1991 could well have mirrored Greece in 2015. That it didn’t is due to the Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh combine.”
The book carries a brisk account of the early days of survival, compulsions and convictions that propelled the paradigm shift in India’s economic policy and the ups and downs, the twists and turns in the saga of fiscal reforms.
Rao became the Prime Minister on June 21, 1991 and appointed Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister. “In less than 35 days, the Rao-Singh duo ushered in momentous changes in economic policy – those that transformed the country.”
Along with the author’s insights, the book holds key documents and notes, the personal papers of Narasimha Rao, private conversations with Manmohan Singh, Parliament proceedings and minutes of seminal Congress meetings.