Elder statesman Rao to be India's new leader

June 21, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW DELHI, India -- P. V. Narasimha Rao, an elder statesman who many think might not last a full term, will be India's next prime minister.

Backed by the inner circle of the dominant Congress Party's leadership, Mr. Rao, 69, a former foreign minister and longtime member of the party, was chosen to lead the party in India's next Parliament by a show of hands at a meeting yesterday of the party's newly elected parliamentary delegation.

He is expected to form a minority government in which the Congress Party is likely to get support from some of its former opponents among India's left-wing and Communist parties.

Mr. Rao was nominated after the decision earlier in the day by Sharad Pawar, a well-financed regional Congress Party leader, to withdraw his candidacy for prime minister, averting a full-blown power struggle that would have threatened the party's fragile unity.

Mr. Pawar, 51, chief minister of the western state of Maharashtra, still might end up with a top party post as part of a deal with Mr. Rao's camp, party sources said. Such a post would leave him well positioned to challenge Mr. Rao later.

Mr. Rao's selection as prime minister is widely viewed as a holding action while the Congress Party sorts out its still unsettled internal power arrangements in the wake of the assassination May 21 of its leader, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Many Indian political analysts think that Mr. Rao might be able to survive as prime minister for only a year or two, providing the appearance of stability at the top of the nation's political structure until Mr. Pawar or other challengers within the party can garner enough support to topple him.

Mr. Rao was the compromise choice as the centrist party's interim head after Mr. Gandhi's death and the subsequent refusal of his Italian-born widow, Sonia, to succeed her husband. Rao's relatively innocuous image as a man with few enemies, which brought him the party job, also appeared to be a major factor in his selection yesterday as prime minister.

A native of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Rao had headed various ministries under Mr. Gandhi and his mother and predecessor as prime minister, the late Indira Gandhi. He has no political power base of his own, except for close ties to top party functionaries who have derived their power largely from their association with the Gandhi family over the years.

Mr. Rao, who often is described as more of an intellectual than a politician, is a lackluster public speaker with an almost listless presence in private. He had heart bypass surgery last year and reportedly suffers from diabetes.

In a brief interview with The Sun, Mr. Rao indicated that under his leadership, India would seek closer ties with the United States. But, as with most of his responses to questions, he would not detail possible moves in that direction.

His top priority as prime minister, he said, would be to tackle India's deepening economic crisis. His government will have to seek several billion dollars worth of loans from international lenders immediately to avoid running out of cash before the end of the summer.

"Our economic situation is in bad shape," he said, blaming the problems on the two minority governments, both led by Congress Party opponents, since India's last national elections in late 1989. Both collapsed.

Having fallen about 25 seats short of a clear majority in India's recently concluded national elections, the Congress Party also will have to form a minority government, but Mr. Rao expressed hope that it would prove more durable than its two predecessors.

"We have had too much instability," he said. "I hope that this time we have learned how to make it work, how to subordinate political interests when necessary."

The new government will have to cope with increasing violence from terrorist movements in Punjab, Kashmir and Assam that many fear could tear India apart.

The Congress Party had hoped to form the new government in time to call off elections in Punjab, which have been delayed until tomorrow. That appears to be impossible, however, and 175,000 paramilitary troops have been sent to Punjab to protect voters.

Militant Sikh groups, seeking a separate state, already have killed more than 20 candidates in the elections, and many more candidates have gone into hiding. Last weekend, militants gunned down about 80 unarmed passengers, including women and children, riding on two Punjab trains.

Mr. Rao did not run for a seat in Parliament in the recently concluded national election. After he becomes prime minister, the Congress Party will have to find him a safe district in which to run in a by-election within six months.

As the national election results began to trickle in earlier this week, the power struggle between Mr. Rao and Mr. Pawar became more overt as Mr. Pawar's camp pressed, unsuccessfully, to select the next prime minister by secret ballot.

A decision to hold a public consensus vote was made at a late-night meeting Wednesday that was attended by Mr. Rao, Mr. Pawar and other party leaders. After meeting briefly with Mr. Rao again yesterday, Mr. Pawar withdrew with praise for the new prime minister's more than 50 years of service to the Congress Party.

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