Out of my mind: Who would want to be PM?

Prime Ministers’ reputations have lately been trashed, not just for the incumbent — who has been the subject of two books — but also the last PM.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published:April 20, 2014 12:02 am

What sort of a prime minister would Rahul Gandhi make? He has shown a great reluctance to embrace power, calling it a poisoned chalice. He has also distanced himself from all that UPA-I and II have done; acting like an outside critic. So if the Congress were to form the next government (stranger things have happened), would Rahul be a decisive leader?

Prime Ministers’ reputations have lately been trashed, not just for the incumbent — who has been the subject of two books — but also the last PM. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, proclaimed as the Congress’s favourite non-Congress secular politician, suddenly has been called the weakest PM. Weakest in what sense? Should he have not just tested the nuclear bomb but launched it on another country to satisfy Congress criterion of not being weak? Weak to have ridden the bus across to Lahore?

India may have Satyameva Jayate as its motto but when it comes to politics and politicians, we recoil  if the truth is being told. The no-holds barred biography, the expose of personal foibles which Western journalists subject their politicians to, is not for us. John Kennedy’s affairs, his health problems, his mafia friends would never have been exposed by Indian journalists. We like our politicians pure and unsullied, innocent of all the temptations the world has to offer (except of course if they are called Narendra Modi).

What is more, there is a strong disapproval for any description of how the government works, especially if it involves the Family. This makes it very difficult to understand how policy is made. Thus, it would be instructive to know how the dual decision system worked. It was openly set up with Sonia Gandhi as the leader of the party and Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister.

There was never any doubt that she had made him what he was. It was also obvious that while the Congress had previously refused to head a coalition (1989), this time Sonia Gandhi was determined to make it work. I still believe she made a huge mistake by not becoming PM herself. She has more political sense than the rest of her party put together.

The decision to split the two posts was brilliant. There was also the larger and somewhat novel issue of managing the coalition; since the Congress had no previous experience of sharing power. There was another dual structure — the Cabinet and the conclave of coalition leaders.

The first was formal, constitutionally in charge, and the other informal but more powerful. Sonia Gandhi, as the chairperson of the coalition, conferred with other party leaders about appointments and sackings. Manmohan Singh had no control over A Raja. His appointment was part of the coalition bargain between Karunanidhi and Sonia Gandhi.

There is no need to deny that or pretend that it detracts from PM’s office. The reality of Indian politics is that any PM (including Modi, if he becomes the PM) will not have power like Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi used to have.

Vajpayee had a laid-back style like Ronald Reagan. He confined himself to making the big strategic decisions and left the details to his staff or his Cabinet colleagues. He led because of his charisma. Manmohan Singh knew that he was the Chief Executive while Sonia Gandhi was Chairman.

The arrangement worked in UPA-I because the lines were clear and party memebers were too happy to be in power to object to Manmohan Singh being appointed PM. He stunned everyone by making a strategic move when he charmed George Bush into the nuclear agreement. He exceeded his mandate, but stuck to his guns and helped the party win the 2009 general election.

The arrangement then came under strain. The Congressmen could not see why Manmohan Singh had to become PM a second time. He was not meant to claim the credit for the victory. Power at that stage seeped away from the PM. But then, around mid-2011, Sonia Gandhi began to have health problems and UPA-II lost momentum. It never regained it.

In case Rahul becomes PM, whatever else happens, power will remain in the family. And if he resigns like Kejriwal, there is always Priyanka.

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