Narasimha Rao

Inscrutable prime minister of India dubbed 'father' of the country's economic reforms

Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao, politician: born Vangara, India 28 June 1921; Chief Minister, Andhra Pradesh 1971-73; Prime Minister of India 1991-96; married (three sons, five daughters); died Delhi 23 December 2004.

An astute and dour-faced politician known for his pout that was a cartoonist's delight, the Machiavellian Narasimha Rao was India's surprise prime minister who kicked off India's market reforms in 1991 when the country faced bankruptcy.

At a time when India was politically beleaguered and besieged by a moribund state-controlled economy, Rao - who made political survival an art - opened up the country to overseas investments, setting the stage for the relative prosperity that prevails inside it today.

Quietly but deliberately, the inscrutable Rao demolished the notorious "licence Raj", a grace-and-favour, inward-looking socialistic system pursued by succeeding federal governments that bred inefficiency, nepotism and corruption for over four decades and made foreign equity participation possible. He was ably aided by Manmohan Singh, his finance minister and now Prime Minister, who acknowledges Rao as his "political guru" and as the "father" of India's economic reforms.

In his unassuming way Rao boldly infused into a diffident India a new confidence that it severely lacked, due mostly to the gross mismanagement of previous administrations. By plumbing the country's vast entrepreneurial skills and business potential and by loosening Byzantine investment procedures, Rao dragged India into the globally competitive 20th century where its potential and image continues to appreciate.

Yet, while Rao's fiscal achievements were considerable, he also had the dubious distinction of being the only Indian prime minister to have been handed down a three-year prison sentence for bribing independent MPs to support his Congress Party on a crucial confidence vote that saved his minority government in 1993. He was, however, later exonerated. He was also cleared of charges in two other corruption cases, one of them concerning a massive share-market scandal.

Rao's five-year tenure, ending in mid-1996, was marred by the demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque in 1992 in the northern town of Ayodhya by Hindu zealots, who believe it to be the exact birthplace of their god, Lord Rama. (The movement to build a temple to Rama on the site of the mosque is still active and the issue remains sensitive.) The mosque's destruction triggered off nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots that left more than 2,000 people dead. Many blame Rao's inaction in controlling the baying Hindu mobs surrounding the mosque, even though he could easily have prevented the catastrophe by mobilising the security forces that were waiting to be deployed.

For his inactivity, Rao's detractors dubbed him "mauni baba" or "Silent Old Man". Less charitable opinion has it that Rao gratuitously allowed the mosque to be demolished, thinking that with its destruction the problem too would disappear. If so, the assessment could not have been more flawed as the issue lingers menacingly over Indian politics and Hindu-Muslim relations even today.

Rao was born in 1921 into a prosperous agriculturist family in Vangara village in Karimnagar district, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. After being schooled locally, he attended Hyderabad, Bombay and Nagpur universities securing degrees in science and law. He declined a magistrate's post offered to him after he topped his law class, preferring instead to practise as an advocate at Hyderabad in the south.

It was in Hyderabad, ruled at the time by a Muslim king known as the Nizam, that Rao joined politics. He joined a protest march against the Nizam government's ban, at the behest of the British colonial administration, on singing a nationalist song, "Vande Mataram", or "Hail to the Motherland". Thereafter Rao joined the Congress Party, then leading the movement for independence from the colonial rulers, and participated in the nationwide Quit India Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi against the British in 1942.

After independence in 1947, Rao entered Andhra Pradesh state politics and between 1962 and 1971 held a series of senior portfolios before being elevated in 1971 to the chief minister's post. Rao's lacklustre tenure in the top job lasted for nearly two years, before he was dismissed and federal rule imposed on the state following the outbreak of an armed rebellion by separatist guerrillas seeking an independent homeland.

Rao was elected MP in 1977 and through the 1980s was minister for foreign affairs, defence, home and human resource development. His brief stint as federal home minister when the anti-Sikh pogrom erupted in Delhi and other north Indian cities following the 1984 assassination of the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by her two Sikh bodyguards, was severely criticised by the Opposition and human-rights activists.

In 1991, after an ailing Rao had announced his retirement from politics and reconciled himself to a quiet, non-controversial existence surrounded by his books at Hyderabad, destiny intervened and decreed otherwise.

The former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in southern India by a female suicide bomber halfway through a decisive general election and a rudderless Congress Party chose Rao to head it, as he was one of the few in the organisation with some gravitas and administrative experience. When the Congress Party won the elections, Rao was nominated as Prime Minister.

He ended up being the first prime minister from outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that had dominated Congress Party politics since independence to complete a full five-year term in office. He was also India's first prime minister from the south.

When Rao stepped down as leader of the world's largest democracy in 1996 India's economy was back on a steady growth track, but the Congress Party was in turmoil, following its poorest performance in elections since independence. Rao's defeat, precipitated by poor political decisions and overarching ambition, paved the way for the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition that ruled for six years. Rao soon faded into oblivion soon enmeshed in several corruption cases.

Other than instituting economic reforms, Rao displayed a diplomatic flair by forging closer links with neighbouring China, with whom India has an outstanding territorial dispute, and initiating a "look East" policy of building links with the Association of South East Nation Nations such as Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. After becoming Asean's "sectoral dialogue" partner under Rao in 1992, India graduated to a full-fledged dialogue partner five years later before becoming a summit partner in 2001.

Rao crushed the Sikh insurgency in northern Punjab state for an independent homeland that claimed nearly 70,000 lives and laid the ground in 1995 to conduct nuclear tests that were eventually carried out three years later by the Hindu nationalist-led administration. He abandoned the project when news of it leaked to Washington, which was anxious to prevent an atomic race in the region between rivals Delhi and Islamabad.

It was often said of Rao that he had made political inaction an art form, a reference to his tendency to put off decisions on knotty problems that ended up being resolved with time. Always one to keep his own counsel, Rao firmly believed that not taking a decision was also a decision. He took the view that the only friend he had was "himself".

A voracious reader, Narasimha Rao was an intellectual who was fluent in seven languages, including Arabic, French, Spanish and Sanskrit, and responsible for translating innumerable Indian texts with flair and competence into Hindi and English. He was the author of a salacious political novel, The Insider (1998).

Widowed at an early age, Rao was partial to female company. He was also an ardent fan of Greta Garbo.

Kuldip Singh

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