Staring into the abyss: A review of To the Brink and Back, by Jairam Ramesh

A while back, I read a book by Sanjaya Baru, famous nowadays for having penned the book “The Accidental Prime Minister”. While that book was certainly more topical, his other book, the one I am referring to right now, is far more interesting. The title of the book is , quite simply, “1991”, and the subtitle is “How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History”.

The reason I bring that book up right now is because Mr. Baru begins his book by speaking about how, while at an event  at a university near Delhi, he asked students about the importance of the year 1991, and some levity aside, many people didn’t have a clue. Things became, he goes on to mention, slightly better when he asked the same question to a slightly older age group, and many people mentioned the reforms of 1991. What those reforms were, and who was responsible for them is a story, Mr. Baru says in the introduction to his book, many people are not aware of. Given the subtitle of his book, it is clear who the protagonist is – and further evidence in favour of his argument is to be found in the book that is the subject of this blog post: “To the Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story”, by Jairam Ramesh.

The book (a very short one) is Mr. Ramesh’s recollections of those tumultuous three months or so, when, as he so memorably puts it, history was put in motion. I often say in classes I teach that India gained her political independence in 1947, and started to gain her economic independence in 1991. The first half of that statement is a fact, and the second half is false, too true or not true enough depending on where you stand on the spectrum of economic ideology. But no matter where you find yourself on that spectrum, what is indisputably true is the fact that 1991 was a turning point for the Indian economy.

Having read both books, and some others besides, on the events of 1991, here is my simple list of why 1991 was so important:

  1. A lot of people today don’t know, or don’t want to know this, but there was, for quite a few people, a choice to be made. “To default or not to default” was an actual dilemma for some, and reading about those times makes it clear that the former option was certainly on the table. It is our great good fortune that the people in charge, and the then finance minister in particular, did not view it as a dilemma – India simply would not default. That in itself was a signal to us and the rest of the world – and the importance of that signal cannot be overstated. Put another way, the economist took a political stance that had truly far reaching economic consequences.
  2. India finally became competitive in the global markets, because of the devaluation of her currency. A strong currency is often taken to be a proxy for a strong nation, but nothing could be farther from the truth. If you chart India’s exchange rate movements (vis-a-vis the dollar, say) against her GDP growth rate, you can see this quite clearly. That devaluation mattered, it truly mattered. Ask Infy. And as the book makes clear, getting people to agree with this decision wasn’t all that easy.
  3. This point is the most important of the lot: our industrial policy changed on the morning of the budget. Yes, Manmohan Singh presented that budget, but the far more important announcement was about our industrial policy changing – for the better, at long, long last. This includes changes in the MRTP (Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices)Act, changes to the way foreign firms could invest in India, and changes in what kind of licences would be needed to produce, well, almost anything. And much else besides, I should add – but the point that one should understand is that the shackles were taken off where India’s producers were concerned.

There is, please understand, much more to the reforms of 1991, and most of it is contained in the book. But to me, the book is important because it makes a point about a political decision that had far reaching economic ramifications: India would honour her debt, no matter what the cost, and no matter what changes needed to be made to her industrial policy. This (political) commitment to do the right thing has had (economic) consequences that we are benefiting from today and beyond.

The book speaks about who did what before, during and after the three months of June, July and August 1991, and credit is given and withheld in various cases by Mr. Ramesh. See, for instance, his repudiation of Yashwant Sinha’s claims to have been the true father of the whole reforms story.

I’m not so interested in who did what though – reading the book to understand what happened, and how it happened is a fascinating lesson in the art of political economy. The chapter on the roll back of the increase in urea pricing, for example, is a great for understanding how to push what you want through – you can almost see Cialdini nodding in approval.

Is the book written for the layperson who knows nothing of economics? I will not pretend that it will be easy going, but I will say this: you will appreciate the importance of 1991 far more at the end of it. And as a citizen of India, four hours or so is a worthwhile price to pay to understand how we got to be where we are.

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Why 1978 and 1991 will likely be the most important years of the 20th century

If you had to pick just one year from the 21st century and say that this was the year that mattered the most, which year would you pick? Some might pick 1939 and the start of WWII. Others, for the same reason, might pick 1945, as the year it finally ended. Others more in tune with the long run forces of history might pick 1914 because that’s when the whole thing really started.

 

But that’s answering the question from a European perspective. Closer to home, you might want to pick 1947, and our neighbours to the east might pick 1949 for broadly similar reasons. But as an economist from these parts, my choice would by 1978 from a broader perspective, or 1991 from a purely Indian one.

 

Because 1978 was the year in which Deng Xiaoping famously said “Let some people get rich first” and kickstarted the process of market reform in China. Xiaogang is a village that almost nobody outside of China has heard of, but if you’re interested in the question of how nations get richer over time, you should take the time out and click on that link. There’s a lot else that Chinese economic history has to teach us, but we’ll get to it over time.

 

Let’s move on to the other date that we think is important from the 20th century: 1991.

 

“A moment comes,which comes but rarely in history,when we step out from the old to new,when an age ends,and when the soul of a nation,long suppressed,finds utterance.” Famous words, uttered by a famous politician, and possibly the most famous speech by an Indian politician. We’d argue that these apply in almost equal measure to the year 1991, because that is when the entrepreneurial spirit of India, long suppressed, finally found utterance.

 

It is when business stopped being a bad word in Indian parlance, and getting (and staying!) rich was seen not as a dubious achievement but an everyday event. Indians going to movie houses post 1991 admired the Mercedes that Amir Khan drove to Goa in Dil Chahta Hai, and not the smoudering angst that Amitabh Bachchan harboured against the system in Deewar. Aspirations were a good thing, and it was ok to say that publicly after 1991.

 

The Liberalized Exchange Rate Management System (LERMS), the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1991  and the other economic policies of that era were remarkable, and are rightly being celebrated today as the cornerstones of the remarkable change that has been wrought in India since. And we’ll talk about the impact that these policies had in the posts to follow.

 

But they are, in a sense, merely the tools that allowed P Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, PV Narasimha Rao and above all, Manmohan Singh to say what Deng Xiaoping had said all those many years ago in China.

 

1991 was about letting Indians get rich.