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Indian Leader P.V. Narasimha Rao

By Vijay Joshi
Associated Press
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page B06

NEW DELHI -- Former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose free-market economic reforms in 1991 launched India's shift from a bankrupt nation hobbled by socialist policies into a regional economic power, has died. He was 83.

Mr. Rao died Dec. 23 of cardiac arrest at All India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital. He was admitted Dec. 9 after complaining of shortness of breath, said Chetan Sharma, his aide.

As prime minister, Rao was a chief promoter of economic liberalization in the early 1990s.

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"It's a personal loss to me," said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was once Rao's finance minister and his right-hand man in the reforms campaign. "He will be remembered as the father of economic reforms."

Mr. Rao was a longtime loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which produced India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajiv Gandhi, also became prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi's widow, Sonia, now leads the governing Congress Party.

Mr. Rao was brought in from retirement to lead the party after the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, and he was swept into the prime minister's office on a wave of sympathy for the bereaved party.

He cemented his role in the country's modern history by initiating a series of economic changes crafted by Singh, a Cambridge-educated economist.

The two men wrought a financial revolution in a nation where Soviet-style economic policies had long held sway. They slashed subsidies, launched the partial privatization of state-run companies and invited foreign investment.

They also dismantled what was known as the "license raj," the vast, complex system of regulations that forced businesses to get government approval for nearly any decision -- often with enormous bribes.

In a 2004 interview with New Delhi Television, Mr. Rao said he had no choice but to launch the changes.

"There was nothing more to do. You had no money, you were going to become a defaulter within two weeks," he said. "Once you become a defaulter, your entire economy, your honor, your place in the comity of nations, everything goes haywire."

Mr. Rao's career was overshadowed by accusations that he did little to curb the savage religious violence that tore through India during his term, which lasted from 1991 to 1996, and by corruption charges leveled against him late in life.

A dour, often-indecisive politician, Mr. Rao also was the first prime minister to be tried on criminal charges while out of office. He was, however, cleared of all charges for which he faced trials.

Mr. Rao's tenure was marred by the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 in Ayodhya by mobs of Hindu nationalists. The mosque destruction set off nationwide riots among Hindus and Muslims that left more than 2,000 people dead. Many blamed Mr. Rao's inaction in controlling the mosque raids for the bloodshed.

The mosque tragedy and a Hindu nationalist campaign weakened the Congress Party. In 1996, after running India for all but four of the 49 years since independence, the party fell from power.

Mr. Rao was born into a farming family on June 28, 1921, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. He launched his political career when he was still in law school, joining protests against British colonialists.

At 36, Mr. Rao won a seat in the Andhra Pradesh state assembly, and he entered national politics in 1977 as a member of Parliament. He held a number of top posts from 1980 to 1989, including foreign minister and defense minister.

Survivors include three sons and five daughters.

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