A senior aide of former PM Narasimha Rao remembers pre-liberalization India in this new book

Liberalisation’s children, that is, those born after 1991, do not know the significance of July 24, 1991. The ball set rolling that day went on to spur India to claim a seat in the front row of the global economic order especially when the country, along with the global political order in the 1990s, was being transformed forever. As Prime Minister Nehru said, August 15, 1947, was the day of “India’s tryst with destiny”, ushering in political freedom, and redeeming a pledge made long ago. But India had to wait another 43 years to acquire an economic and entrepreneurial dimension that resulted in full freedom for India’s innate entrepreneurship, innovation, intellectual ability, and soft power.

When the Indian polity and the economy were sliding downhill, The Economist magazine in a lead article in April 1991 described India as a “Caged Tiger” – a tiger that had willingly walked into a cage. It may be difficult for millennials to comprehend the situation inviting such a description of the country. The following anecdotes may give them an idea of how dire the situation was.

In the early 1980s, a non-resident Indian (NRI) from Hong Kong wanted to make calculators in India in collaboration with the US firm Texas Instruments. The latter was then the world’s leading maker of calculators and electronic business machines. The government had set up a special economic zone (SEZ) in Santacruz, Bombay, specifically to encourage NRIs and resident Indians to invest and produce goods for both domestic consumption and export. After a wait of 18 months, the Indian licensing authority permitted the investor to make a few thousand machines, because in the official mindscape that was the size of the expected market for calculators. According to reports circulating at the time a close aide of the prime minister, a scientist who was an adviser on electronic industry matters, had said that calculators had a limited market and were not a priority.

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