Hey Rao: Real tribute to Narasimha Rao, architect of 1991 reforms, would be to boldly grow again


That he is the only departed prime minister to be denied a separate memorial in Delhi is an indicator of Narasimha Rao’s historic de-memorialisation, which is no accident but very much the product of determined neglect. Something has been shifting in recent years though. On his 99th birth anniversary this weekend, at least three political parties were vying to honour him. Why are BJP, TRS and Congress suddenly looking kindly on this long neglected architect of the 1991 reforms?

Actually there has been a general renewal of interest in that moment as a sense grows that India has squandered its promise. The 1991 package represented a fundamental shift in the policy framework, meaningfully opening a virtual autarky to reforms and liberalisation. India gained immensely thereby. By contrast the last decade has been marred by incrementalism, adhocism and populism. Criticism that it is a lost decade for reforms and the economy has teeth. India looks in danger of becoming inward looking once again.

But the prospect of the first full year GDP contraction in four decades should be a wakeup call. Covid is the crisis of a generation, equal to or perhaps even greater than the balance of payments crisis that drove Rao’s reforms. So all the political parties raising a cheer to Rao currently should also take inspiration from his legacy. And support each other in doing it. There have been glimmers of light in agriculture, mining, labour laws etc. But they must be consolidated into a comprehensive package of second generation reforms, which can move India to a sustainable path of 8-10% growth annually. Not only would this enable India to overcome current problems of poverty and joblessness, it would also amount to the best possible foreign policy – given the nature and scale of the Chinese challenge that is becoming clear on the LAC.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.


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