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P. V. Narasimha Rao, 83; Indian leader boosted economy

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 at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital. He was 83.

Mr. Rao was admitted to the hospital on Dec. 9 after complaining of shortness of breath, said Chetan Sharma, his aide.

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, is now the head of the governing Congress Party.

Brought from political retirement to head Congress after Rajiv Gandhi's 1991 assassination, Mr. Rao was swept into the prime minister's office on a wave of sympathy, and held office until 1996.

He cemented his place in India's modern history with a series of economic overhauls 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 an interview this year with NDTV television, Mr. Rao said he had no choice but to launch overhauls.

"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 what was known as 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.

"It's a personal loss to me," Singh said of Mr. Rao's death. "He will be remembered as the father of economic reforms."

Singh announced seven days of national mourning. Leaders of rival Pakistan also expressed sorrow.

Mr. Rao "will be remembered for his endeavors toward improvement of relations between Pakistan and India," said a joint statement by two Pakistani leaders, President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

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 mosque 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, Mr. Rao was sentenced to three years in prison for buying lawmakers' support to save his government from falling during a 1993 no-confidence motion. The conviction was overturned the following year. Mr. Rao never served any time in prison, but became the first prime minister to be tried on criminal charges once out of office.

He also was acquitted of charges that he conspired to forge bank documents to malign a political rival, former prime minister V. P. Singh.

Mr. Rao was born into a farming family on June 28, 1921, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. He launched his political career while 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 India's Parliament. Before becoming prime minister, Mr. Rao held a number of top posts from 1980 to 1989, including foreign minister and defense minister.

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