Twenty years ago, Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister and initiated economic reforms that transformed India. The Congress party doesn’t want to remember him: it is based entirely on loyalty to the Gandhi family, and Rao was not a family member. But the nation should remember Rao as the man who changed India, and the world too.
In June 1991, India was seen globally as a bottomless pit for foreign aid. It had exhausted an IMF loan taken six months earlier and so was desperate. Nobody imagined that, 20 years later, India would be called an emerging superpower, backed by the US to join the UN Security Council, and poised to overtake China as the world’s fastest growing economy.
For three decades after Independence, India followed inward looking socialist policies aiming at public sector dominance. The licence-permit raj mandated government clearance to produce, import or innovate. If you were productive enough to create something new or produce more from existing machinery, you faced imprisonment for the dreadful crime of exceeding licensed capacity.
Socialism reached its zenith in the garibi hatao phase of Indira Gandhi (1969-77), when several industries were nationalized and income tax went up to 97.75%. This produced neither fast growth nor social justice. GDP growth remained stuck at 3.5% per year, half the rate in Japan and the Asian tigers. India’s social indicators were dismal, often worse than in Africa. Poverty did not fall at all despite three decades of independence.
In the 1980s, creeping economic liberalization plus a government-spending spree saw GDP growth rise to 5.5%. But the spending spree was based on unsustainable foreign borrowing, and ended in tears in 1991.
When Rao assumed office, the once-admired Soviet model was collapsing. Meanwhile, Deng had transformed China through market-oriented reforms. Rao opted for market reforms too. He was no free market ideologue like Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher: he talked of the middle path. His model was Willy Brandt of Germany.
His master stroke was to appoint Manmohan Singh as finance minister. Rao wanted a non-political reformer at the centre of decision-making, who could be backed or dumped as required. He presented Singh as the spearhead of reform while he himself advocated a middle path. Yet, ultimately, it was his vision that Singh executed.
In his first month in office, the rupee was devalued. There followed the virtual abolition of industrial licensing and MRTP clearance. At one stroke, the biggest hurdles to industrial expansion disappeared. Who was the industry minister who initiated these revolutionary reforms? Narasimha Rao himself! He held the industry portfolio too.
Yet he did not want draw attention to himself. So he ingeniously made the delicensing announcement on the morning of the day Manmohan Singh was presenting his first Budget. The media clubbed the Budget and delicensing stories together as one composite reform story. In the public mind, Manmohan Singh was seen as the liberalizer, while Rao stayed in the background.
Singh initiated the gradual reduction of import duties, income tax and corporate tax. Foreign investment was gradually liberalized. Imports of technology were freed. Yet the overall government approach was anything but radically reformist. When bank staff threatened to go on strike, Rao assured them that there would be no bank privatization or staff reforms. When farmers threatened to take to the streets, Rao assured them there would be no opening up of Indian agriculture.
The IMF and World Bank believed that when a country went bust, that was the best time for painful reforms like labour reforms. However, Rao took the very opposite line. He focused on reforms that would produce the least mass losers (such as industrial delicensing) and yet produced 7.5% growth in the mid-1990s. These gave reforms a good name, and ensured their continuance even when Opposition parties later came to power.
In the 2000s, the cumulative effect of gradual reform finally made India an 8.5% miracle growth economy. Rao got no glory for this. He had lost the 1996 election amidst charges of buying the support of JMM legislators. This led to his exit as Congress chief. Although he was eventually exonerated by the courts, he died a political nobody.
How unjust! He deserves a high place in economic history for challenging the Bank-IMF approach on painful austerity, and focusing instead on a few key changes that produced fast growth with minimum pain. The World Bank itself later changed its policy and started targeting “binding constraints” (like industrial licensing).
Manmohan Singh said repeatedly that he could have achieved nothing without Rao’s backing. Today, 20 years after the start of India’s economic miracle, let us toast India’s most underrated Prime Minister — Narasimha Rao.