How an underrated PM, Narasimha Rao, transformed the lives of Indians

From mobile phones to private TV channels, the legacy continues to touch our lives.

 |  3-minute read |   04-07-2016
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The India of 1991, when PV Narasimha Rao became prime minister, was nothing like the India you live in today. As I point out in Half-Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India, the country he inherited was undergoing several crisis.

It was not just a balance of payment problem that the economy was suffering from, the license-raj hobbled manufacturers as well as consumers. Roads were patchy, and there were no private tv channels or mobile phones.

In addition, the welfare schemes of "socialist" India were underfunded slogans that did little for the marginalised.

Narasimha Rao’s time as prime minister transformed India, from encouraging the growth of a consumer class to improving welfare schemes for the poor.

Also read: 5 controversies that marred Narasimha Rao's political legacy

He also managed to deal with secession struggles in Kashmir, Assam and Punjab, as well as the collapse of India’s ally in the world, the Soviet Union.

These are some of the ways in which the legacy of this under-appreciated leader continues to touch our lives:

1. Mobile phone revolution:

Narasimha Rao outmanoeuvred his minister Sukh Ram in 1995 to ensure private and foreign participation in mobile telephony.

The decision transformed the sector. The vast majority of mobile users today use private operators. Given a choice, Indians have voted with their voice.

airtelideavodateleco_070416023505.jpg The vast majority of mobile users today use private operators.

2. Better roads, including toll roads

Rao allowed public-private partnership in roads and infrastructure.

It ensures huge private sector investment. Toll roads may have increased, but so has road quality. 

3. Education, employment-guarantee schemes

Rao used increased government revenue from liberalisation for education, health, employment, and rural development. He was the first to see that growth and redistribution are necessary for one other.

Many of his schemes later morph into the NREGA and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. 

halflion_070416023838.jpg Half-Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India; Penguin Books Limited; Rs 520.

4. Satellite television

When Rao became PM, there was only one tv channel (Doordarashan). With growth of satellite technogy, Rao resisted his instinct to regulate. He permitted Star, Zee, and other private channels to start operations in India.

Today, you can see one of 832 channels rather than just Doordarshan.

5. Consumer goods

Rao allowed Coca Cola back. 

We have seen how domestic and foreign brands transform daily living.

And it is not just about cornflakes for the middle-class. Cheap shampoo sachets and other innovations for the poor take off after Rao.

6. Helping exports

Rao allowed Manmohan Singh to devalue the rupee, helping exporters. It made India more competitive globally.

7. Private airlines

Rao allowed Jet Airways to fly for the first time; Damania, East-West and others follow.

82 million passengers travelled by air in 2014, most of them by private airlines.

8. Private banks

In 1993, Rao gave licences to HDFC, ICICI and other banks. It improved credit availability in the market.

9. Reduction in poverty

Data shows that liberalisation-led growth (and the schemes that it pays for) has reduced poverty, ill-health, and illiteracy at a much quicker rate than Indira Gandhi's "socialism".

10. Nuclear India

Rao gave a fillip to India's nuclear weapons; resisted American pressure. Vajpayee later called Rao the "true father" of the nuclear program.


Vinay Sitapati Vinay Sitapati @vinaysitapati

The author is a political scientist, journalist and lawyer. He teaches at Ashoka University and writes for the Indian Express.

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