NEW DELHI: He may go down in history as the prime minister who put India on the path of liberalisation but P V Narasimha Rao will also always be remembered as the man under whose watch the Babri Masjid was demolished, jolting the foundations of secularism in the country.
The legacy of the late polyglot, scholar and politician with a difference will forever be tainted by the demolition of the 16th-century mosque on December 6, 1992, when he was prime minister.
Could he have stopped the demolition? The troubling question has been at the centre of a 30-year debate that continues till today.
On Saturday, another day for the record books, the Supreme Court delivered a historic verdict backing the construction of a Ram temple by a government-created trust at the disputed site in Ayodhya and ruling that an alternative five-acre plot must be found for a mosque in the town.
The spotlight returned to the key political players -- the BJP's L K Advani, Uma Bharti and Murli Manohar Joshi for putting their party on the arc of electoral wins.
And inevitably, Narasimha Rao, the Congress' first non-Gandhi leader to complete a five-year term as prime minister.
Rao, who passed away in 2004, was accused by several quarters of inaction in the face of the gathering movement for the demolition of the mosque.
Though his prime ministerial tenure saw many landmark developments, the demolition is writ large on his legacy.
According to Madhav Godbole, who was home secretary at the time, the Ministry of Home Affairs prepared a comprehensive contingency plan for the takeover of the structure by invoking Article 356 of the Constitution.
It was emphasised that in order for central paramilitary forces to successfully take over the Babri Mosque and the surrounding area, ensuring its security, timing and the element of surprise were of essence, he writes in his book "The Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir Dilemma: An Acid Test for India's Constitution".
But Rao felt the contingency plan was not workable and dismissed it, Godbole says in the book.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and ex-president Pranab Mukherjee, at an event earlier this year, expressed the hope that history will judge Rao in a better manner than it has done till now.
Rao's accomplishments in public life and as the prime minister have been hailed by political observers as extraordinary.
After all, it was under his leadership and support that then finance minister Manmohan Singh initiated the economic liberalisation of 1991.
The Rao-Singh combine put India on a path of fast-paced growth and India's growth story soon became an example for developing nations.
"I do sincerely believe that Narasimha Rao ji was a great son of our country. History will be much more kind to him than has been thus far. I am quite sure the history will record his immense contribution to the building of modern India," Singh said at an event here recently.
Fifteen years after his death, people still ask if he could have acted more decisively with some even accusing him of being a"Sangh man" in the garb of a Congressman.
Several Muslims seethe with anger upon hearing his name saying he could have acted on time to prevent the demolition.
After 1992, the Congress went into rapid decline in Uttar Pradesh.
It lost the confidence of Muslims, who blamed Rao for "betraying" them.
The Telangana-born Rao rose from humble origins to become the ninth Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996.
He was a polyglot -- aside from his mother tongue Telugu, he had excellent command over several Indian and foreign languages.
His intellectual prowess was widely acclaimed.
Rao was reportedly preparing to retire from public life.
But fate willed otherwise.
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by LTTE sympathisers and he was catapulted into the country's top job.
Rao's ascendancy to the prime ministership was significant in that he was the first holder of this high office from a non-Hindi-speaking region.
As PM, he turned the economy around, brought normalcy to Punjab and stabilised the Congress after it had lost Rajiv Gandhi.
Though the jury may still be out on whether he could have prevented the demolition, his name will come up whenever the demolition is remembered.