As I was wondering what to write on this week, I realised that in a few days, half of this year 2021 will be over. Back in January, everyone thought or rather hoped that we were all done with the “New normal” and soon one will get back to the “Old Normal” in more ways than one. Till March, we were coasting on towards that. Then came the dreaded 2nd wave leaving us literally gasping for breath. And in no time we are back to hoping to see the end of this year. Just the feeling we had the same time, last year.
And probably 30 years ago in the year 1991. If 2021 has been a tough year for those who are running the country, I reckon 1991 would also have been so and for a variety of reasons. When the history of post independent India is written, the year 1991 would feature prominently. Today, the year is associated with the unleashing of economic reforms and liberalisation in India and being crowned as the ‘Year that changed India”. But it has got so many other associations to it, which is what I thought I will write about, when we are in the midst of “30 Years of 1991”!
As 1991 dawned, I was in my 2nd year of MBA course in Bombay. Just as the year commenced, we were witness to the 1st televised war in the Gulf when US attacked Iraq to liberate Kuwait in “Operation Desert Storm”. In India, cable TV was still in its infancy. But we could watch some visuals of the war in “The World This Week” programme which made New Delhi Television (NDTV now) and Dr. Prannoy Roy household names in English speaking households in India. I must add here that those days as young students we had tremendous appetite for news and current affairs which is seemingly missing in the current generation. Oh yes, that law of diminishing marginal utility! When News is a plenty all around, it finds lesser and lesser interest.
And it was during this war in 1991, that India probably removed its veil of Non Alignment, when the then government under Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar allowed re-fuelling of US Aircrafts in India. The decision had to be soon reversed under immense political pressure eventually in particular from the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress which was supporting the Chandra Shekhar government from outside. Though the war happened in the Gulf, it had its own implications for India as a country. Oil prices sky rocketed pushing the imports bill to hit the roof and plunging the economy into a deeper crisis. And we had a humanitarian crisis to deal with as the Gulf was home to millions of Indians.
In May, I was back in Madras after completion of the course and preparing to return to Bombay after a short break. On the 21st May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumpudur near Madras by a suicide bomber at an election rally. The death of Rajiv Gandhi that too in that most tragic manner shook the nation. Rajiv Gandhi was all set to return as the Prime Minister with the Congress getting a comfortable lead. But his untimely death put the country again in chaos and when the results came, Congress became the single largest party but short of majority on its own.
It is difficult to speculate as to what would have happened to our country had Rajiv not been killed and had he returned as the Prime Minister. It was widely believed that having learnt his lessons from his first stint, Rajiv was a wiser man and with his youth, energy and impatience would have changed the course of the country for the better.
With the loss of Rajiv, P.V.Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister heading a Congress led coalition government. He made Dr. Manmohan Singh his finance minister and between them unleashed a slew of economic reforms that liberalised India. Those were eventful days and day after day, headline grabbing announcements followed. Dramatic devaluation of the rupee, pledging of the country’s Gold reserves, announcement of the New Trade policy, announcement of the New Industrial policy that would end the licence-permit Raj, the historic Budget presentation and so on. When all these were happening, one didn’t realise that these will forever change the destiny of India.
Unlike now, when economists and policy experts are in unison singing the praise of the 1991 reforms, back then the reforms were always projected as “Acts in Duress”. Even among the ruling Congress, there was no consensus on the reforms forcing Dr. Singh to make that famous quote that he walked around with his resignation letter in his pocket.
Elsewhere in the same year, the dissolution of the Great Soviet Union was in rapid progress and by December the entire Soviet Union was formally dissolved that eventually ended the Cold War. Google also tells me that the World Wide Web was launched to the public in 1991 and Microsoft.com went online, though I have no recollection of these!
Coming back to India, not to be limited to financial problems, in the same year 1991, on June 28th, Kashmiri militants kidnapped the then Executive Director of IOC, Mr. Doraiswamy. He was finally released after a couple of months in exchange of a few militants. I remember this vividly as day after day front page in the newspapers were occupied with this news.
For India, not just 1991 but the next two years were indeed full of challenges that wrecked the country pushing it from one crisis to another. So, looking back, as a country we came out of all that relatively unscathed as we kept growing to what we are today, though the pace and extent of growth may not be our liking.
30 years hence, in 2021, as a country we have been inflicted hard by a global pandemic that has been hogging everyone’s attention. Our economy has been bruised badly. Lives have been lost and still counting. Clearly not just India, but globally we have been set back by couple of years if not more.
As we come out of the 2nd wave, a recovery is imminent but not without the potential danger of further waves. We can only hope that this time also we will follow the 1991 cycle. If you remember, the economy fared poorly in the 1st year of the reform (1991-92) but from 1993-94 after two years, the economy was on a roll.
Going back to 1991, personally for me that was the year when I started my professional career and so along with the country, the year has a personal significance and it will be always etched in my memory. Where were you in 1991 and what are your memories of that year? Do share in the comments section.