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PV Narasimha Rao Remembered as Father of Indian Economic Reforms  - 2004-12-23

PV Narasimha Rao, who served as India's prime minister from 1991 to 1996, died Thursday, more than two weeks after suffering a heart attack. Mr. Rao will be best remembered for launching India's free market reforms that brought the nearly bankrupt nation back from the edge.

Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao's political career was shaped by his involvement in India's struggle for independence from British colonial rule. His early mentors included Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. In fact, it was his loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that got him the nation's top job after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991. He held the post until 1996.

Former Indian Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujral says Mr. Rao will be remembered as the father of India's economic reforms. He says when Mr. Rao became the prime minister the Indian economy was in bad shape. It was very difficult at the time to introduce new ideas, new philosophies, and to convince people to support him on something untested. The Indian public and politicians at the time did not believe that they could try something new and get out of the mess but Mr. Rao persisted and persevered. Mr. Gujral adds Mr. Rao will always be remembered for pioneering far-reaching economic changes in India, which took India on a new economic path.

Mr. Rao is credited with launching free market reforms that opened up India's stagnant, socialist economy. The shift turned the bankrupt nation into a regional economic powerhouse. According to government figures, India's economy has posted an average growth rate of six percent since 1990 and poverty rates have fallen by 10 percent.

India's former foreign secretary, Sheelendra Kumar (SK) Singh, says Mr. Rao also sought to strengthen ties with the United States, which he visited twice during his tenure. He says Mr. Rao was a very mature and seasoned politician, a man of principles, a scholar, a linguist and a thinker. His tenure marked an upswing in India-U.S. relations. He believed that it was important for India to have a strong relationship with the United States, which would be beneficial for the development and democracy of both the countries, although there were some disagreements between the two during his time. Mr. Singh adds he was known for his conciliatory manner and ideological firmness which came in handy when he dealt with disagreements.

India's disagreements with the United States included Mr. Rao's refusal to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Here is how Prime Minister Rao explained his decision. "We do not want to sign something which we consider discriminatory and today, to think of signing NPT, looks very odd because within the next one year, the review process is going to start. So let us wait until 1995. We want the review to be done in a particular manner," he said.

Prime Minister Rao was the first Indian leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to complete a full five-year term. However, his term was not free from controversy. In 1992 Hindu zealots demolished the 500-year-old Babri mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya. The destruction of the mosque triggered widespread Hindu-Muslim violence that claimed thousands of lives.

Mr. Rao also was convicted of bribing regional officials for their support, although that conviction was later overturned on appeal. India's current Home Minister Shivraj Patil says Mr. Rao had moved beyond those difficulties. He says Mr. Rao could look beyond the present with a clear mind about the future. He was calm and confident. That is why he recovered from very difficult times. He sincerely believed in peaceful co-existence. Mr. Patil adds that PV Narasimha Rao leaves behind a legacy of India's economic liberalization and economic reforms that pulled the country from the economic brink it was facing.

Mr. Rao is survived by three sons and five daughters.