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Like 2020, Narsimha Rao Govt Too Faced Resistance To 1991 Economic Reforms

For representation.

For representation.

As of now, impasse continues with the determined farmers refusing so far to give in to the allurements and pressures of the government alike.

Farmers from the regions that ushered in green revolution in the 1960s could also have been harbingers of the second green revolution. Unfortunately, that has not happened so far, leaving the nation’s agriculture in a state of stalemate. Changing the status quo invites protest, breaking inertia leads to friction, howsoever good the intention. Same can be said about the situation arising out of the notification of the new farm laws and the consequent siege of the national capital. As of now, impasse continues with the determined farmers refusing so far to give in to the allurements and pressures of the government alike.

Those who favour the new farm laws are of the opinion that if the Narendra Modi government went back on its promise of agriculture reforms it would lose out on its 1991 moment when the PV Narasimha Rao regime introduced the economic reforms. This also raises the question of why such resistance to farm reforms when the economic reforms of the 1990s had a comparatively easier ride. This indeed calls for a comparison.

In matters affecting a society, there are several adjuncts and perceptions from economic, political and social points of view. It has to be remembered that none of the three factors can ever work in isolation and they must complement each other. The farm laws for sure may accrue long-term benefits to the farmers but does it address their short-term fears? This is the problem at hand, and this could be explained through a comparison vis-à-vis the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh reforms of 1991.

First and foremost, Rao picked a much-respected economist to usher in economic reforms. Dr Manmohan Singh’s academic profile till he took over the reins to usher in structural changes in economy was not really known to be pro-market, rather it had socialist leanings. Nevertheless, when he took charge, he had the profile and the wisdom to defend the government policies with élan both inside Parliament and on forums outside it. Today, the spearhead for piloting the farm reforms is Narendra Singh Tomar, the Minister for Agriculture. Which is also why government has also had to seek intervention from seasoned politicians like Rajnath Singh while opening up channels of communications with the protesting farmers.


While Dr Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao were the face of the reforms, it was Pranab Mukherjee who was the political negotiator. Mukherjee, once a powerful finance minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, had been sent into political hibernation by Rajiv Gandhi. Rao rehabilitated him as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. It goes to the credit of Rao’s political stratagem that Mukherjee while heading the high-temple of socialistic economy model, the Planning Commission, actually worked overtime to dismantle the license-permit economic regime.

Today the Narendra Modi government lacks a political negotiator. The absence of leaders like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj could not have been felt more as it’s being sensed in the present circumstances. Both leaders had a personal rapport with political and apolitical outfits in Punjab and Haryana.

The question is who engages with the forces not supportive of the reforms in the present form. The situation looks more ironic with the fact that Narasimha Rao’s was a minority government, whereas the Modi government enjoys brute majority in Parliament.

Having talked of politics, it has also to be remembered that the economic reforms of 1991 were initiated at a time when the country was facing both social and economic crisis in the aftermath of the implementation of the Mandal Commission report and shrinking of the foreign exchange reserves. The Chandrashekhar government, which preceded Narasimha Rao government, had to pawn gold to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to tide over the crisis.

The implementation of the Mandal Commission report by the Vishwanath Pratap Singh government had sent out a message loud and clear to the youth of the so-called forward castes, who till then dominated the government services, that the door has been shut on their aspirations. Reforms pushed by Rao gave the message that it would not only tide over the economic crisis but also open new vistas for educated youth as private sector would expand in a liberalized economy. This helped building a social consensus working actively in the favour of the reforms then, which doesn’t seem to be happening now.

Even if there was a social consensus for the farm laws, this social consent has not been active enough to create an atmosphere in support of the government. There could possibly be a huge majority supportive of the law but this majority has not been expressive about it.

One of the reasons for them not being expressive could be that there isn’t a 1991 like economic and social crisis looming large, where the reforms was seen as the panacea for all the ills. As the Prime Minister himself says, “Aapda mein avsar (opportunity in crisis)”, and it’s the absence of crisis which is failing to generate that surge in support.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt at creating that active public support has also not been effective enough. A section of the leadership instead of talking about the benefits of the law has ended up belittling the protests and the farmers, which has not gone down well with the masses. In 1991, too, there were sections which were going to suffer from the end of license-permit raj and they resisted the reforms through various subterfuges but their ‘distress’ was submerged by the sentiment to overcome a bigger crisis.

The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst. Views expressed are personal.

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first published:December 29, 2020, 16:44 IST