Former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, who kick-started India's economic metamorphosis from a moribund socialist-style monolith into an Asian powerhouse, died of cardiac arrest...

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NEW DELHI — Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who kick-started India’s economic metamorphosis from a moribund socialist-style monolith into an Asian powerhouse, died of cardiac arrest yesterday. He was 83.

Mr. Rao was a lifelong loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which produced India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi, both of whom became prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi’s wife, Sonia, heads the governing Congress Party.

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Brought from political retirement to head Congress after Rajiv Gandhi’s 1991 assassination, Mr. Rao was prime minister until 1996.

He cemented his place in India’s modern history with economic reforms designed in part by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was then Mr. Rao’s finance minister.

The two men engineered a financial revolution in India by slashing subsidies, launching the partial privatization of state-run companies and inviting in foreign investors.

In a 2004 interview with NDTV television, Mr. Rao said he had no choice but to launch reforms.

“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 community of nations, everything goes haywire.”

Mr. Rao and Singh also dismantled the “license raj,” the vast, complex system of regulations that forced businesses to get government approval for nearly any decision — often at the cost of enormous bribes.

Mr. Rao’s tenure was marred by the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 in the northern town of Ayodhya by mobs of Hindu nationalists instigated by the opposition. The mosque destruction sparked nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots that left more than 2,000 people dead. Many blamed Mr. Rao’s inaction in controlling the raids for the bloodshed.

The mosque tragedy and a Hindu nationalist campaign weakened Congress beyond repair. In 1996 — after ruling India for all but four of the previous 49 years since independence — Congress fell from power.

After Mr. Rao left office, he faced charges of corruption. In 2001, he was sentenced to three years in prison for buying legislators’ support to save his government from falling during a 1993 no-confidence motion. The conviction was overturned the following year.

Mr. Rao was born into an upper-caste farming family on June 28, 1921 in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. He launched his political career while still in law school by protesting British colonial rule in India.

At 36, Mr. Rao won a seat in the Andhra Pradesh state assembly, and entered national politics in 1977 as a member of Parliament.