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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 18, April 20, 2013

Who Will Be India’s Next PM?

Monday 22 April 2013, by P R Dubhashi


Who will be India’s PM after the 2014 general elections? This is a question being hotly debated in the print and electronic media. It is taken for granted that the incumbent Prime Minister, who has held the position for two consecutive terms (five years each), will not be the candidate. Two names are being prominently mentioned on behalf of the two major national parties—Rahul Gandhi as the Congress party candidate and Narendra Modi as the BJP candidate. Both the parties have yet to formally declare their candidate though some pointers or indications have been there. Rahul Gandhi was appointed as the Vice-President of the Congress party though it is not clear what difference this would make as he was already in the number two position in the Caongress party only next to President Sonia Gandhi. Modi recently won the Gujarat Assembly election again with a decisive mandate for the third time and became the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He has been acknowledged by many political leaders and business tycoons as a very efficient administrator who has given a model of good governance and all-round and rapid progress making him a fit candidate for the post of India’s Prime Minister. His recent speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi gave him an opportunity to make a mark in the nation’s Capital and become for the youth a symbol of hope and optimism in contrast to the atmosphere of passivity referred to not long back by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Of course he has his detractors who pin him down for his responsibility for the 2002 communal carnage in Gujarat.

But an issue more important than the choice of any particular individual candidate for the post of the Prime Minister after the 2014 general elections, is the basic question of our polity, namely, the process of emergence of a candidate to the most crucial political position in our country, that is, of the Prime Minister. We are not clear as to what the process should be. Should he straightaway emerge at the national level or by a process of migration from State politics to Central politics? We have no clear answer to this question. We can gain some insight by looking back at what happened after India attained independence and in the subsequent years.

Jawaharlal Nehru—the First Prime Minster

In the last phase of the struggle for independence Mahatma Gandhi was acknowledged as the foremost leader of the Congress party and the nation as a whole. With him were a set of outstanding individuals who were all national leaders in their own right. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rajagopala-chari and many others. Gandhiji chose Jawaharlal Nehru for the position of the Prime Minister over his seniors like Sardar Patel even though Nehru strongly differed from his master over many issues—particularly the path of economic development that India should undertake. Nehru was younger and vastly more popular all over the nation compared to the others. So Nehru became the first Prime Minister and remained so over a long period of seventeen years after independence.

Successor to Nehru—Shastri

Even before his passing away on May 27, 1964, his death perhaps hastened by the severe set-back he received by the Chinese invasion in 1962, the question started being raised—“after Nehru who?” The question became acute because such was his stature and nationwide charisma, his ubiquitous presence and his hold over government and relations with other countries, that many felt that there would be a vacuum in politics and government after his passing away and none would be able to fill it. Amongst those who were mentioned as possible successors were Morarji Desai and his own daughter, Indira Gandhi. Morarji Desai had been the Revenue Minister in the first Kher Government in the Bombay Province and succeeded him as the Chief Minister of the Bombay Province. He earned a reputation as a strong administrator who was also high-handed and unpopular. After the formation of Bilingual Bombay following the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission, he refused to face election for the choice of the Chief Minister for the new State and the opportunity was seized by his follower, Yashwantrao Chavan; Desai migrated to the Centre and held the important portfolio of Union Finance Minister in Nehru’s Cabinet, an office he occupied for many years.

After Nehru’s demise he naturally expected to be chosen as the successor. But that was not to be. The cabal in the Congress party, led by the seasoned politician, Kamaraj Nadar, felt that he was far too abrasive and preferred the mild-mannered Lal Bahadur Shastri who had served as the Railway Minister. Such was his sense of propriety that after a terrible Railway accident in which many died, Shastri took the responsibility and resigned, setting an example of highest integrity in public office which all applauded but few chose to follow. Later when Nehru felt the need, he called him back to help him as a Minister without portfolio.

As a result of the famous Kamaraj Plan, Moraraji had to vacate office but Shastri stayed on showing that he enjoyed greater trust of Nehru than others. So Shastri succeeded Nehru.

Many doubted whether this mild-mannered, short-statured man will be able to be equal to the onerous tasks of the Prime Minister. Dictator Ayub Khan of Pakistan felt that he could take advantage of the situation to seize Kashmir. But Shastri proved to be more than a match and Ayub Khan had to accept the Tashkent agreement under the auspices of the Soviet Union. But Shastri did not return alive from Taskent where he breathed his last.

Indira Gandhi

Again after a short spell of two years following Nehru’s death, the successor issue arose. This time Morarji again staked his claim. But this time he had to contend with Nehru’s daughter Indira. Indira had little experience in government —none except her short tenure as the I & B Minister in Shastri’s Cabinet. She was not satisfied with the position—her aspirations were higher. She had only contempt for Shastri. Though she had little experience in government, she was constantly with Nehru in his 17 years as the Prime Minsiter and had absorbed much of statecraft and international diplomacy as well as uncanny insight into Indian politics and politicians, including their weaknesses in their lust for power. She had also served as the President of the Congress party and showed her decisive capacity in compelling reluctant Nehru to dismiss the Communist Government led by Namboodiripad in Kerala and the formation of Maharashtra with Bombay as its capital. But unaware of the latent ambitions of Indira Gandhi and her nature not to countenance any resistance to her authority, the Congress Syndicate, consisting of Nadar, Nijalingappa (the Congress President) and Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, supported Indira who defeated Moraji by a wide majority in the contest for the post of the Prime Minister.

Indira Gandhi’s emergence as the Prime Minister was not a case of automatic dynastic succession. Nehru had not nominated her as his successor. There was the intervening interregnum of Shastri which was cut short by his untimely death. She defeated the unpopular Moraraji in an election to become the Prime Minister. After she became the Prime Minister, she took little time in demonstrating that she would not be a pliable tool—a ‘goongi gudia’—in the hands of powerful politicians. She soon showed her colours and started cutting the ‘Syndicate’ satraps to size. The crunch came when the occasion arose for the selection for the post of the President which fell vacant by the untimely death of the incumbent President, Dr Zakir Hussein.

Emergency and Thereafter

The Syndicate chose Sanjeeva Reddy without the consent of the Prime Minister. She decided to take this as a challenge. She supported V.V. Giri who stood as an independent candidate in clear defiance of the resolution of the Congress Working Committee. She supported Giri who won. That was the beginning of the end of the Syndicate. The Indicate (Indira Gandhi Congress) become the real Congress. The 1971 victory over Pakistan and creation of Bangldesh gave Indira Gandhi an unprecedented nationwide popularity and authority. “India is Indira and Indira is India,” proclaimed Barua, the Congress chief.

Soon her authoritarian rule evoked nationwide resistance triggered off by the call for ‘total revolution’ by Jayaprakash Narayan and the Gujarat Nava Nirman Movement led by the disgruntled Moraraji Desai. Perturbed by the nationwide response to the call of the Opposition leaders, Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975 without consulting the Cabinet, putting thousands of people all over the country in jail and suppressing freedom of expression of the media and citizens. Even the Supreme Court was cowed down with Chief Justice Chandrachud holding that even the life of the citizen was not sacrosanct during the Emergency. Indira Gandhi extended the life of the government and the date of election by a year. During this period, her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, became the effective ruler compelling unquestioned obedience by all Ministers and Chief Ministers.

Against the advice of her son, Indira Gandhi allowed elections at the end of the extended period and on the eve of elections released all those detained, including Jayaprakash Narayan. He brought the Opposition parties together including the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Congress (O) and the Socialist parties. The 1977 elections proved to be Indira Gandhi’s ‘Waterloo’. Not only was the party defeated, she lost her own seat.

At the instance of JP, Moraji Desai became the Prime Minister whom he preferred to other ambitious leaders like Charan Singh. A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani of the Jana Sangh become Ministers in the Union Government for the first time. But the government could not complete its full term. Indira and Sanjay worked on the ambitions of Charan Singh and pulled the rug from under the feet of Morarji who resigned. Charan Singh became the Prime Minister with the support of Indira Gandhi, Y.B. Chavan became the Deputy Prime Minister as a representative of yet another Congress faction headed by Brahmananda Reddy. Chavan had let down Indira Gandhi earlier at the time of the contentious Presidential election and now for the second time by joining Charan Singh as Deputy Prime Minister. He had to pay a heavy price for his ‘disloyality’ to Indira who saw to it that his political career was virtually finished.

Soon Indira played her game and withdrew support to the Charan Singh Government which had the ignominy of resigning without facing Parliament even once. Charan Singh was the first provincial politican to become the Prime Minister on the basis of caste support. Morarji had also been a Chief Minister of a State but he had long served as the Union Finance Minister and his becoming Prime Minister was not a one-shot promotion from the provincial government. In the general elections that followed Indira Gandhi got a majority and returned to power. The Janata Party disintegrated and the Jana Sangh assumed its new name—the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Morarji had long experience in governments both in the State and at the Centre with the reputation of being an efficient administrator. But he could never gain nationwide popularity which a Prime Minister needs.

Charan Singh was the first provincial leader with a strong casteist leadership (in his case the Jat community) to rise to the position of the Prime Minister. He was no exception. Future events were to show that casteist leaders with a strong base in State politics had the ambition to occupy the coveted post of the Prime Minister.

Indira Gandhi’s Assassination

Indira Gandhi’s tragic assassination at the hands of her own Sikh guards in 1984 following the Army attack on the Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, in which Bhindranwale, and several of his associates were killed and the Akal Takht damaged, created a sudden vacuum. Her active younger son, Sanjay, had earlier died in an air crash. Indira enlisted her elder son, Rajiv, to help her. He was happy in his post as a pilot but had to join his mother as her political assistant despite the aversion of Sonia Gandhi to politics and her opposition to her husband entering into a political career. Rajiv was away in Calcutta when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. He hurridly returned and was sworn in as the Prime Minister with the active intervention of political leaders and President Giani Zail Singh. Rajiv had little achievement or experience to his credit. His was a pure case of dynastic succession. This was apparently accepted by the nation, partly out of sympathy for his assassinated mother and mainly because dynastic succession is deeply rooted in the Indian psyche as a result of the long history of the Mughal dynasty, the Maratha and Peshwa dynasties and many other dynasties in the south.

Rajiv was soon able to establish his authority. His address at Bombay to remove political middlemen created new expectations of clean politics. He introduced a new team of his Doon school friends. He showed a flare for technology and invited Sam Pitroda to usher in the Information and Communication Technology Revolution.

Short-term Prime Ministers

But he was soon embroiled in the Bofors case which tarnished his image. Rajiv, who had earlier won with unprecedented majority in Parliament, failed to get a majority for his party in the 1989 general elections and his friend-turned-rival V.P. Singh, who was is the forefront in exposing the Bofors scandal, became the Prime Minister with the outside support of the Left and the Right. This was a new phase at the Centre with chronic political instability. V.P. Singh did not last long. When L.K. Advani was arrested in Bihar in course of his tour (rath yatra) and the BJP withdrew support, Chandra Shekhar succeeded him as a short-term Prime Minister with Congress support. His government collapsed when Rajiv Gandhi withdrew support on the flimsy ground that he was spied upon by the Haryana Police. Chandra Shekhar resigned. General elections had to be held prematurely in 1991.

In course of the election tour, Rajiv Gandhi fell to the human bomb, Dhanu, an LTTE volunteer, at Siri Perumbudur in Tamil Nadu. This was a blow to the Congress in the midst of the elections. It was left without leadership. The disconcerted party turned to Narasimha Rao, who was about to relinquish politics. He had had long experience in government. He was the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh and had held several portfolios at the Centre including Human Resource Development, Home and External Affairs. But he was a low-key politician always in the shadow of Indira Gandhi and no large following of his own. He was Brahmin from a State where Reddys and Khammas were the dominant castes. He was intelligent, experienced and multilingual. He could speak well in Hindi. After Rajiv’s tragic assassination, the election schedule was delayed. Following the results of the delayed elections, the Congress emerged as the largest party in the Lok Sabha with 240 seats, yet falling short of the magic number of 272 for a majority. Narasimha Rao was sworn in as the Prime Minister of a minority government. He conjured up a majority by bribing the MPs of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha led by Shibu Sorein. This was the beginning of the phenomenon of securing majority by resort to the corrupt practice of garnering votes of MPs of fringe parties.

Narsimha Rao—Prime Minister of
Minority Government

Narsimha Rao ultimately ran the minority government for a full term of five years. Silently he ushered in major policy changes. He had inherited a precarious economy. The nation was facing economic bankruptcy. Narasimha Rao appointed an experienced economic administrator, Dr Manmohan Singh, as the Finance Minister. The latter got financial bailout from the World Bank and IMF and in exchange introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme prescribed by them. That led to the policy of marketisation in place of planned development, privatisation in preference to the pre-eminence of the public sector, deregulation in place of controlled economy, and globalisation to replace ‘autarky’.

Narasimha Rao introduced major changes in foreign policy to move closer to the USA—he gave official recognition to Israel. But he did not endear himself to Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who appeared to resent his independent posture.

Maverick Prime Ministers—Era of
Unstable Politics

In the general elections of 1996. The Congress failed to get a majority. The era of unstable politics had begun. Small breakway parties jostled with each other to forge a majority. Out of this chaos, emerged maverick Prime Ministers. H.D. Deve Gowda, a provincial politician from Karnataka and leader of one of the dominant castes, the Vokkaliga (peasants), with no experience of working at the Centre became the Prime Minister but soon had to resign, when Sitaram Kesari, the then Congress President, called him ‘nikamma’ and brought him down.

Inder Kumar Gujral become the next Prime Minister—for a year. He had served as a Minister in the Union Government under Indira Gandhi and was the ambassodor to the Soviet Union but had no big political following of his own and no base in State politics.

A.B. Vajpayee as Prime Minister

This uncertain political scenario at the Centre gave an opportunity to the BJP to form a government under the benign and harmonising leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. His first term was for 13 days, second for 13 months and the third a full term from 1999 and 2004. He was in public life for a long number of years as a moderate leader of the BJP, and had served in the Janata Party government of Morarji as the Minister for External Affairs and had established friendly relationship with Pakistan. He was an eloquent speaker in Hindi, and moved the audience. He was able to run a coalition government of 24 parties with a fair amount of harmonious working. He continued the policy of liberalisation of the Congress party and the foreign policy of Jawaharlal Nehru. He gave a measure of political and economic stability which the nation badly needed.

At the very beginning of his term as the Prime Minister, he ordered nuclear tests in Pokhran making India a nuclear power in the face of vehement opposition of the USA. At the end of his term (1990 to 2004) he advanced elections by a few months hoping to get re-elected but he was in for a disappointment. The Congress came back as the largest party though with 145 seats, far short of the required majority which it was able to muster with the help of the Leftist parties.

Congress Back in Power—Dr Manmohan Singh the Unlikely Prime Minister

The success of the Congress party was astonishing. Left leaderless after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congressmen fell at the feet of Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, to assume the party leadership. She did so, however reluctantly. As the President of the Congress party she modelled herself in the image of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi—wearing sarees like hers. She learnt to read speeches in Hindi written by others, but in Indira’s style which did move the audiences in rural areas, especially women. It was to her leadership that Congress owed its re-emergence after reaching the point of oblivion.

After the 2004 general elections everyone expected the victorious Sonia to be elected unanimously by the Congress Parliamentary Party as the Congress candidate for the post of the Prime Minister. But Sonia surprised everybody much to the disappointment of the dynasty worshippers, by excusing herself from the responsibility and nominating Dr Manmohan Singh for the post. However unwilling, the newly elected Congress members of the Parliamentary Party were left with no option but to accept her decision. This was hailed by the sycophants as a great sacrifice of Sonia Gandhi that put her on par with Mahatma Gandhi.

Soon it was realised that though Manmohan Singh was the head of government, the real political power rested with Sonia Gandhi. She was the head of the Congress party and had the last word in everything including affairs of government. Thus for the first time we had a situation in which the Prime Minister was not the tallest leader of the nation and ruling party and was not even elected to the Lok Sabha. Many predicted that this particular arrangement would not last. It did, not only for the first term (2004 to 2009) but also for a second term (from 2009 to 2014). The credit must go to the understanding between the two and the willingness of the Prime Minister to submit to the will of Sonia Gandhi as a last resort.

The 2009 general elections were a big disappointment to the BJP, and in particular its tallest leader L.K. Advani, dashing his hope of becoming the Prime Minister. He was a Minister in the Janata Government headed by Morarji Desai and had long been prominent on India’s political scene.

Just before the end of the term of the UPA, the Communists withdrew their support to government on the ground that the Prime Minister insisted on signing the nuclear deal with the USA though this was not an item in the agreed ‘common minimum programme’. This reduced the government to a minority but the it managed to gain the vote of confidence by breaking the ranks of the Opposition parties and mustering their support. The Opposition parties cried foul—alleging a ‘cash-for-vote scam’. Huge bundles of notes were placed on the table of the House to prove the allegation. However, nothing came out of the uproar. The government completed its full term. The scam did not dent the image of the Congress as was expected. In the general elections of 2009, it crossed the mark of 200 seats and could form the government in alliance with regional parties like the TMC and DMK.

After Manmohan, Who?

Elections are now due in 2014. Dr Manmohan Singh is not the candidate for the PM’s position. Hence the question—who will be the next PM?

So far as the Congress is concerned, the path of dynastic succession is clear—Rahul Gandhi. The party has not yet named him but at the recent Jaipur session of the Congress party, he was elected as the Vice-President which was much hailed by the Congress members, though it was hardly a change from his number two position he always held next only to President Sonia Gandhi. The party abounds with sycophants, one of whom, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, openely declared him as the next Prime Minister; but he was promptly snubbed by Rahul Gandhi himself. To a press reporter’s question whether he wants to be the Prime Minister, Rahul replied that it was wrong to ask such a question. Apart from the dynastic claim, Rahul has little to his credit. He has studiously refused to hold any position in government thus depriving him of direct experience in government administration. His strenuous effort to rebuild the party with competent young people is yet to show results. His vigorous forays in the State Assembly elections in Bihar and UP did not yield much result. His feeble attempt in Gujarat was not expected to shake the strong position of the deeply entrenched leadership of Narendra Modi.

As for the BJP, they have no one name for the Prime Minister’s post. The leader of the party in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, the leader in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, and of course Narendra Modi, who triumphantly won the Gujarat Assembly elections for the third time, are said to be in the run. Modi’s record of good governance has won the applause of many, including the leading industrialists of the country. The ban by some foreign governments has been lifted. The British High Commissioner met him and the EU has shown the green light. The Congress people, however, disdainfully reject the talk of any comparison between their chosen leader (often called ‘Yuvraj’ by the opponents) who is a national leader and Narendra Modi who is a mere State leader. Several other Chief Ministers of the BJP like Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh have also good records to their credit, so also Nitish Kumar,
the Chief Mnister of Bihar, who heads the government in alliance with the BJP. BJP President Rajnath Singh has tried to stop all speculation regarding the BJP candidate for the Prime Minister’s post by saying that the decision will be taken and announced at a proper time by the Parliamentary Board of the party.

However, at the recent meeting of the National Council of the BJP, Modi was given a standing ovation and his speech, in which he made a frontal attack on the Congress party and the ‘family’, was widely reported and discussed in the electronic media.

No National Leader for PM’s Post

It is unlikely that a big national figure would emerge. The architecture of politics in India has radically changed in recent years. Apart from the threee BJP Chief Ministers, other State leaders like Jaylalithaa of Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik of Odisha are political leaders of heavier weight than most Congress Ministers at the Centre. Of them Chidambaram has rich experience of many years and has made a name as a good adminis-trator. Yet he lacks the popularity needed to be a Prime Minister and is in the same mould as the incubent Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and may not be able to be the Prime Minister without political support. He cannot address public meetings in Hindi which may be a handicap. This is the dilemma—no clear national leader and much ambiguity regarding the route of migration of a Chief Minister to the top post of the Prime Minister.

There are two ambitious UP politicians who have set their sights on the Delhi takht. UP is the largest Indian State and two regional parties, namely, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), have contended with each other in the State for power. The leader of the BSP, Mayawati, who was the Chief Minister of UP, lost the last Assembly election to the SP headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav who had also been the Chief Minister of the State. Mayawati’s support base are the Dalits and Brahmins who are large in number in UP and whose leader Mishra joined hands with her to oust Mulayam with his Yadav-plus-Muslim formula. It was widely speculated that Mulayam would be the Chief Minister after the SP’s is victory but he installed his Australia-educated young son Akhilesh on the UP gaddi, leaving him free to try his chance to be the Prime Minister. He does not have an all-India following but he hopes to achieve his ambition by the political formula of ‘give and take’. Mayawati, on the other hand, has some following all over India outside UP on the basis of the Dalit card. Both are at present waiting for their chance, while helping in the survival of the UPA II Government which is in a minority.

Another ambitious politician waiting in the wings is Sharad Pawar of Maharashtra. Several times he has been the Chief Minister of the State and is at present the Union Minister in charge of Agriculture. His party, Rashtravadi Congress, a breakway group, is sharing power with the Congress in the State of Maharashtra. He has over the years kept good relationship with all parties and politicians thereby hoping to fulfil his ambition for the Prime Minister’s post for which he had unsuccessfully challenged Nara-simha Rao, who packed him back to the State when he was Union Defence Minister. Recently his right hand man at the Centre, Praful Patel, has publicly put ‘his hat in the ring’, provided he gets the needed support.

Clearly India has entered a phase of uncerta-inity at the Centre—a coalition government with unstable alliances, and a Prime Minister without all-India popular support and real authority. The political balance in our federal polity has undergone a radical change. The Centre has become weak and States more powerful. If the Centre cannot have its way without the consent of State governments ruled by various regional parties with their local interests, “things are out of joint and the Centre cannot hold”.

Dr P.R. Dubhashi, IAS (Retd.), Padmabhushan Awardee, formerly Secretary to the Government of India and Vice-Chancellor, Goa University, is currently the Chairman, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Pune Kendra. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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