INDIA'S Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, is often characterised as a survivor, strengthened by economic and political successes and tempered by bouts of confrontation with those opposed to change and modernisation. So is his partner in the liberalisation drive, Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. Over the past three years, the two men have moulded India into its present shape - economically, socially and politically. The 73-year-old Mr Rao has survived no-confidence motions, electoral setbacks and Hindu-Muslim violence that has rocked the government, and mass mobilisations of trade unions against reforms. He has ruled longer than any other prime minister, apart from the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty which ruled India for decades. And the finance minister has outlasted the criticisms levelled by some in the right-wing opposition who seem to prefer the more socialist emphasis of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. Mr Singh has also endured financial scandals. Since inheriting an almost non-performing economy in mid-1991, Mr Rao and Mr Singh have engineered an economic revolution, while cautiously treading a middle path in reversing the socialist ways. All along, they have tried to maintain stability in the economic balance sheet. Economic change has been brought about with a steady hand and a renewed awareness of maintaining a balance, especially in labour reform and restructuring the enormous public sector. They have been careful not to dismantle welfare measures, subsidies on which India's millions of poor depend, or to abandon rural development. For example, in the budget unveiled in February, there were promises of more spending on health and education. Mr Rao has said he will not dismantle what Nehru built - the public sector, especially - and that he will follow ''the Nehruvian model. Our direction is the same. Only our re-orientation is different''. At a two-day Congress (I) meeting recently, he said it was necessary to ensure ''that [economic] reforms do not hurt the poor''. At that meeting, the ruling Congress (I) party, India's oldest, adopted a resolution that indicated a tilt towards more caring economic doctoring. The resolution noted there were no contradictions between a market economy and effective state intervention in building up social infrastructure. A part of the resolution said: ''We will introduce change and reforms, but in a manner that does not threaten the delicate social fabric of our country. In the new economic environment, the role of government is being refined.'' At the same time, the ruling party called on the government to implement recommendations made by two committees on restructuring state-owned firms. One committee is headed by the Central Bank governor, C. Rangarajan, and the other by the economist, Omkar Goswami. The Commerce Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, said the public sector ''has its relevance in the context of the new economic policy''. The public sector ''will continue to play a crucial role'', he said. There are political sensitivities involved in initiating reforms, illustrated in the recent backlash over rising sugar prices. The anger prompted the government to allow private traders to import sugar, which also became a highly disputed issue. The architects of reforms are aware of the political price to pay for trying to move too far, too soon. Reformists are also mindful of state elections due later this year and parliamentary polls a year later. However, Mr Rao's strategy of cautious optimism has brought benefits: the value of exports rose 21 per cent in 1993-94. In the April-June period, exports grew 9.5 per cent to US$5.61 billion, according to latest data. Imports increased seven per cent to US$5.8 billion. Last year's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth was estimated at 3.8 per cent. The Reserve Bank of India forecast this year's growth at five per cent. But annual inflation has risen above 10 per cent as against slightly above seven per cent a year ago. And industrial growth, according to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, fell two per cent in the three years between 1990 and 1993, after averaging eight per cent. The decline was largely due to a lack of investment in infrastructure, which is now open for foreign investment. There was three per cent industrial growth in 1993-94. Donor nations pledged US$6 billion for the financial year 1994-95 to meet India's need for high-quality, long-term development in such projects as family planning, nutrition, rural work and education. The aid package was lower than the one last year.