Exactly 20 years ago this week, Manmohan Singh, now in his second term as prime minister of India, made, as the greenhorn finance minister of a newly elected Congress government, the most important and far-reaching budget speech in the modern history of his country. In response to an unprecedented balance of payments crisis -- which left India with about two weeks of foreign-exchange reserves -- Singh, with the support of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, announced a host of reforms in his inaugural budget speech on July 24, 1991. His two-hour oration left no one in doubt that he intended to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
By dismantling government control over the economy, opening up Indian markets to foreign investment, cutting trade tariffs, devaluing the rupee, Singh broke down, in one go, the walls between the sluggish, protected economy of socialist India and the rest of the world. "I do not minimize the difficulties that lie ahead on the long and arduous journey on which we have embarked," Singh said at the conclusion of his speech. "But as Victor Hugo once said, 'No power on Earth can stop an idea whose time has come.' I suggest to this august House that the emergence of India as a major economic power in the world happens to be one such idea."