23rd December 2004: P.V. Narashima Rao, ninth Prime Minister of India, passed away

Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao, who as prime minister was responsible for far-reaching economic reforms and led the country during an uncertain post-Cold War era, was born on June 28, 1921. He died on December 23, 2004.

Rao was born in a village in Andhra Pradesh’s Warangal district. He was adopted and brought up in Karimnagar district. After graduating in Arts he secured a Master’s degree in law.

Besides his mother tongue Telugu, Rao could speak several languages including English Marathi, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Spanish and French. In the 1940s he helped edit a Telugu magazine. He participated in the independence movement and later became a member of the Congress. In 1957 he was elected MLA from Manthani constituency in Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh. Between 1962 and 1971 he served for short periods as a minister in Andhra Pradesh. He was chief minister of Andhra Pradesh between 1971 and 1973, and carried out land reforms in the state.

Considered to be an Indira Gandhi loyalist, Rao occupied important ministries such as home, defence and foreign affairs during the tenure of both prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. He headed the newly created Human Resource Development Ministry in 1986 and was the brain behind the Navodaya Vidyalaya scheme. He might have retired from active politics in 1991 and, in fact, did not contest the elections, but after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination when the Congress became the largest party in the Lok Sabha, the Congress chose Rao as prime minister. The country’s first prime minister from South India, he contested a by-election from Nandyal, winning by a record margin, to enter the Lok Sabha.

A day before he was sworn in as India’s ninth prime minister, Rao said, “As an individual, I feel overwhelmed, utterly humble. But as a representative of a great party, I feel like a colossus.” One of his most significant appointees to the cabinet was Manmohan Singh as finance minister. Singh, backed fully by Rao, ushered in the new liberalization era and would himself become prime minister in the next decade.

The economic reforms started by Rao in 1991 included opening up the country to foreign investment, deregulation of domestic business, and reforming the trade regime. Among many steps taken by Rao’s government, the Controller of Capital Issues, which decided prices and number of shares firms could issue, was abolished; the SEBI was given authority to act as market regulator; and the country’s equity markets were opened to foreign institutional investment.

Writing about the rapidly changing economic landscape of the country, India Today magazine wrote in July 1991: “After years of lethargy, the Government appears to be waking up to economic imperatives, initiating changes that are the most radical India has ever seen. Also, for once, there is a move to build a consensus about change, with the Opposition being used as sounding boards and the media as conduits to tell the population about the situation. ‘I have the prime minister’s mandate to think big,’ [Manmohan] Singh told his bureaucrats.”

The economic affairs pundit and commentator Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar wrote in June 2011, two decades later: “When Rao assumed office, the once-admired Soviet model was collapsing. Meanwhile, Deng had transformed China through market-oriented reforms. Rao opted for market reforms too. He was no free market ideologue like Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher: he talked of the middle path. His model was Willy Brandt of Germany.”

Besides economic reforms, Rao is often remembered, infamously, for being the prime minister under whose watch the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, an event that led to Hindu-Muslim riots in many parts of the country. Less remembered is his role in bringing the insurgency in Punjabto an end. As the senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha wrote in Outlook magazine after Rao’s death in 2004: “Rao [insisted] upon holding elections in the state in February 1992, in the face of dire threats by the militants, a boycott by the frightened Akalis, and deep misgivings even among some of his close advisors…Rao’s insight proved prophetic. The polls brought the Congress to power under a Jat Sikh chief minister, Beant Singh. Beant established an immediate rapport with police chief K.P.S. Gill… Beant was also able to mobilise the mainly Jat Sikh villagers in the border areas to resist the infiltrators…[T]he militancy collapsed within a year.”

Rao was accused in corruption and bribery cases but was cleared of all charges before his death. Among his foreign policy initiatives, he normalized India’s relations with Israel, pushed for a diplomatic campaign to expose Pakistan’s support for militant groups and launched the Look East policy.

Rao’s tenure as prime minister ended after the Congress lost in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. He suffered a heart attack on December 9, 2004 and died two weeks later. The writer and journalist Ashish Ray who knew Rao personally wrote after his death: “If Nehru laid the foundations of democracy, science and technology, Rao prepared the ground for a potential economic miracle; and re-invented foreign relations. He was second to none as a Prime Minister of India.”

Also on this day:

1902 — Kisan Diwas is celebrated every year on the birth anniversary of Chaudhary Charan Singh

2010 — K. Karunakaran, chief minister of Kerala, passed away 

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