P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991–96)

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P.V. Narasimha Rao, in full Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao, (born June 28, 1921, near Karimnagar, India—died December 23, 2004, New Delhi), leader of the Congress (I) Party faction of the Indian National Congress (Congress Party) and prime minister of India from 1991 to 1996.

Rao was born in a small village near Karimnagar (now in Telangana, India). He studied at Fergusson College in Pune and at the Universities of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Nagpur, eventually receiving a law degree from the latter institution. He entered politics as a Congress Party activist working for independence from Britain. He served in the Andhra Pradesh state legislative assembly from 1957 to 1977, supporting Indira Gandhi in her split from the Congress Party organization in 1969; initially called the New Congress Party, the splinter group took the name Congress (I) Party in 1978. He held various ministerial positions in the Andhra Pradesh government from 1962 to 1973, including that of chief minister (head of government) from 1971. In that latter post he implemented a revolutionary land-reform policy and secured political participation for the lower castes. He was elected to represent Andhra Pradesh districts in the Lok Sabha (lower chamber of the Indian parliament) in 1972 and, under Gandhi and her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, served in various ministries, notably as foreign minister (1980–84, 1988–89). Besides his political career, Rao was known as a distinguished scholar-intellectual who once was chairman of the Telugu Academy in Andhra Pradesh (1968–74). He was fluent in six languages, translated Hindi verses and books, and wrote fiction in Hindi, Marathi, and Telegu.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991, the Congress (I) Party chose Rao as its leader, and he became India’s 10th prime minister after the general elections in June. Rao almost immediately began efforts to restructure India’s economy by converting the inefficient quasi-socialist structure left by Jawaharlal Nehru and the Gandhis into a free-market system. His program involved cutting government regulations and red tape, abandoning subsidies and fixed prices, and privatizing state-run industries. Those efforts to liberalize the economy spurred industrial growth and foreign investment, but they also resulted in rising budget and trade deficits and heightened inflation. During Rao’s tenure, Hindu fundamentalism became a significant force in national politics for the first time, as manifested in the growing electoral strength of the Bharatiya Janata Party and other right-wing political groupings. In 1992 Hindu nationalists destroyed a mosque, leading to sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims that persisted throughout Rao’s term as prime minister. Corruption scandals rocked the Congress (I) Party, which continued its long decline in popularity and lost control of several major state governments to opposition parties in 1995.

Narasimha Rao was a shrewd PM in every Machiavellian sense, and the most important quality he had was to know when to speak and when not to. As a PM, he inherited arguably the worst possible state of the country to govern. Just to give you a peek into those tumultuous times, the nation had barely enough foreign reserves left for two weeks of imports, was dangerously close to default on international loans, and just months short of plunging into economic darkness. Domestically, a social crisis was brewing through protests centred around Mandal and Mandir. A former prime-minister, Nehru-Gandhi scion was blown up on home soil. The situation in Punjab, Kashmir, and North-east was extremely delicate. And all this was thrown at a PM who was finalising his political retirement just about a year before the 1991 general elections. Not to mention, he was leading a minority government that could be thrown out if even once the opposition voted together on a no-confidence motion.

The fact that he lasted a full five-year term, and galvanised the Indian economy into a modern beast in the process is a testimony to his political genius.

Greatest Achievement: Economic reforms

It is crucial to understand the context in which he operated, and achieved those results. Narasimha Rao, once in charge of the government in 1991, immediately turned his attention to the financial crisis at hand. All cabinet members chosen were seasoned congressmen, but he wanted a technocrat, a reformer to be his finance minister. The very thought that he was willing to look beyond senior elected party men for the critical post demonstrated his seriousness of the crisis. He initially offered the job to I.G.Patel, former RBI governor, and one of the two shortlisted men for the position. Patel refused, and thus Manmohan Singh became the finance minister. He surrounded himself with known reformers like Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Amar Nath Verma amongst others.

P.V. Rao was wary of criticism from his party if they sensed a significant departure from Nehruvian socialism and Indira’s state control policies. Hence, he often disguised the reforms as an extension of Nehru’s and Rajiv’s dream, and not his self-creation. Rao even went further by letting Manmohan outline the reform charter at CWC meetings. The PM mastered the art of disguising change under the garb of continuity, a skill he learned from his admiration of Deng Xiaoping. At one such party meeting, Rao tricked a senior congressman in believing that the reforms were part of Congress’es manifesto. Such was his reluctance to hog the limelight on the most prominent economic change since Independence.

His leadership tales of preventing the country from drowning into financial oblivion, and steer the ship towards economic wonders will be part of Indian folklore for years to come. A prime-minister who did not get his due in modern history. While we look beyond emergency and revere Indira on most occasions, we have almost forgotten the premier who pulled the country out of a deep hole. The truth nevertheless will always remain that Rao played Chanakya to Manmohan’s flair.

Greatest Failure: Babri Masjid (perceived at-least)

The Masjid was demolished while he was the PM. A detailed analysis is required to understand the nuances of the crisis, but he certainly had the opportunity to dismiss the Kalyan Singh headed UP-government in November 1992 and let central para-military forces take over the temple complex. Congress and opposition alike went to town in shifting the blame from the state government to the Central Prime-minister. History also has its weird way of castigating and exonerating prominent figures.