Debating India

PORTRAIT

P.V. Narasimha Rao, R.I.P.

Thursday 23 December 2004

The veteran Congressman and former PM, the first from the non-Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to complete a full term remembered for Babri demolition, opening up the economy, various scams and what he did not reveal in The Insider passes on at 83.

A statesman, scholar and linguist, Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao will be remembered for several firsts to his credit during an eventful five years as Prime Minister in the last decade that saw India take a new economic path, the demolition of the controversial Babri Masjid and the rise of the saffron forces.

A hardcore Congressman, Rao, who died at the age of 83, was the first Prime Minister from the South, the first from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to complete a full five-year term and also dubiously the first to face criminal charges and accusations in and out of the top office.

However, before his death he was cleared in all the three cases he faced trial, the relief in the last Lakhubhai Pathak cheating case coming just a few months ago.

Born in an agrarian family in Vangara village of Karimnagar istrict of Andhra Pradesh on June 28, 1921, Rao took over the reigns of the Congress after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and became Prime Minister after the staggered Lok Sabha elections in June.

PV, as he was popularly known, would be remembered for initiating far-reaching economic changes which turned Nehru’s public sector penchant upside down.

Educated at Osmania, Bombay and Nagpur Universities from where he took his B.Sc. and LL.B degreees, Rao’s political baptism began in 1938 during the protest against the Nizam government’s ban on singing ’Vande Mataram’ in his college.

Rao, a widower, leaves behind three sons and five daughters.

A staunch and trusted loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rao had the rare distinction of holding important non-economic portfolios at the Centre — External Affairs, Defence and Home at different times in the 1980s. Rao, whose famous pout was a cartoonists’ delight, did not not contest the 1991 elections and had virtually wound up his establishment here reconciling to political retirement.

But fate willed otherwise. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, he became the consensus candidate for the Congress president’s post that put him in the Prime Minister’s seat after the elections.

He headed a minority government for sometime and later acquired a majority strength in the Lok Sabha under controversial circumstances which his detractors said was acquired through dubious means.

After he relinquished power in 1996, he went through a difficult period facing trials in the infamous JMM MPs’ bribery case and the Lakhubhai Pathak case.

While the lower court convicted him in the bribery case, the Delhi High Court exonerated him later. He was also discharged in the St Kitt’s forgery case.

One who earned the soubriquet "Chanakya" for his manoeuvering skills, he also came under attack from his own party colleagues and opposition leaders when his government pursued the "hawala" scam in which they were implicated. The scandal, however, finally met a judicial death.

If Rao has left a legacy as Prime Minister, it is because of LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation, Globalisation) and economic reforms under the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh as the duo pulled the country from the economic brink it was facing at the height of a severe foreign exchange crisis. One black spot of his rule was the demolition of the disputed structure at Ayodhya in December 1992 and nationwide communal riots that followed.

He was the Union Home Minister when riots erupted after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and even then he was blamed for "criminal inaction".

In 1993, a year after the securities scam, big bull Harshad Mehta created a sensation when he alleged to have handed over to him a suitcase with Rs one crore at his residence. It took a while for Rao to come out of the political crisis that the muck had left behind.

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