On the eve of Indira Gandhi’s first visit to Washington as Prime Minister, our Ambassador was asked by US President Lyndon Johnson how he should address her. Should he call her “Mrs. Gandhi” or “Madam Prime Minister”? The Ambassador referred the matter to New Delhi. The Prime Minister replied laconically that his own ministers usually called him “sir”.
I remembered this story last week when a rare TV station put on a rare program on the disastrous GDP numbers. At one point in the debate, a spokesperson for the Samajwadi party asked the spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata party who was the outgoing Minister of Agriculture. This sector employed the most citizens; Surely the spokesperson for the ruling party would know which minister was in charge? The BJP hack did not. The tragic truth is he wasn’t supposed to know anyway. Because all that matters in the presentation of this government is “Modi! Modi! Modi! All that mattered to members of Congress in the 1970s was “Indira!” Indira! Indira ‘.
When, in the winter of 2013-4, Narendra Modi launched his candidacy for prime minister, an essential part of his appeal was that he would be “strong” while the then incumbent was “weak”. This last accusation was correct; especially during his second term, Dr Manmohan Singh was uncertain and indecisive as well as increasingly respectful towards the congressional first family. His weakness was amply demonstrated in September 2013, when Dr Singh publicly declared that Rahul Gandhi was an “ideal choice” for the prime minister, adding that he would be “happy” to work under his leadership. The remark belittled his desk. Dr Singh had been Prime Minister for over nine years at the time, and was a former Minister of Finance and Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. While Rahul Gandhi’s only qualification for the post of Prime Minister was the fact that he was Sonia Gandhi’s son.
Narendra Modi skillfully grasped the perceived as well as publicly proclaimed weakness of Manmohan Singh. He himself had, he boasted, a ‘chhappan inch ki chhati’, a 56-inch trunk. Unlike the incumbent, he was independent of mind, always his own man. He would be the strong and very strong Prime Minister that India needs and deserves.
The contrast between a strong Narendra Modi and a weak Manmohan Singh was played out by the BJP during the 2014 election campaign. This presentation certainly helped win Modi and his party to a resounding victory. But did this image of force subsequently help him in his duties as Prime Minister? Given the multiple crises that the country is currently facing, it seems not. For these crises are in large part attributable to the way this government is run as an individual spectacle, with the cabinet, the bureaucracy and the nation itself being held hostage to the capricious decisions of one individual.
In the cabinet governance system, the Prime Minister is supposed to be first among his peers. Although they work under the general direction of the Prime Minister, ministers are directly responsible for matters within their purview. This is the theory. In practice, throughout Narendra Modi’s first term as Prime Minister, no cabinet minister has enjoyed any autonomy. Even the finance minister, a longtime confidant of Modi, has been kept in the dark about major economic policies unilaterally decided by the prime minister. The foreign minister, an experienced and very intelligent politician, felt her duties were limited to tweeting support for Indians in distress.
In Modi’s second term as prime minister, the interior minister enjoys partial autonomy, but no one else. Otherwise, all important policies are developed and directed by the Prime Minister’s Office. If something goes well, the Prime Minister must take credit for it. However, if something is wrong, then other people must take responsibility (such as state governments led by opposition parties, the ghost of Jawaharlal Nehru, liberals, urban Naxals and, more recently. , God himself).
Narendra Modi’s centralizing and self-aggrandizing leadership style is in stark contrast to the BJP’s first prime minister. In Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cabinet, ministers such as LK Advani, Yashwant Sinha, MM Joshi, Jaswant Singh, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Shourie and Sushma Swaraj all had considerable autonomy in their functioning. The same was true for some ministers who did not belong to the BJP, such as George Fernandes and Mamata Banerjee. This style of consultative and collaborative leadership is certainly one of the main reasons why on some important points – the economy, foreign policy, defense readiness, our position in the world – Vajpayee’s India has made so much better than Modi’s India. This is not to say that the first NDA regime did not make a mistake; however, these errors would have been much more glaring if all decisions had been focused on the Prime Minister himself.
The fact that consultative prime ministers are better for the nation than prime ministers who act unilaterally is strikingly evident in the career of our longest-serving prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. During his early years in power, Nehru functioned much like Vajpayee. His cabinet had great pillars of the Prime Minister’s own Congress party – like Vallabhbhai Patel, C. Rajagopalachari, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Maulana Azad – as well as outstanding administrators from other parties, par excellence Dr BR Ambedkar. Nehru was the recognized leader, but by respecting his colleagues and largely allowing them to play freely in the line of duty, he himself made a huge contribution to healing the wounds of the score, uniting the country around ‘a new constitution and to lay the foundations for a multi-party democracy.
In 1952, Nehru won a second term. By now Patel was dead. Ambedkar had left the government. However, Azad and Amrit Kaur were still there, while other powerful members of Congress, such as Rajaji, held positions of power in the states. Nehru held these colleagues in high regard, some of whom had been in the struggle for freedom longer than himself, and who were all remarkable individuals in their own right.
Nehru’s second term was not as impressive as the first; however, it has not been without success, such as the encouragement of higher education and scientific research institutions. It was Nehru’s last years in power that were the most disappointing for him and for India. By that time, the colleagues he considered equals had all either died, retired, or joined the opposition. His cabinet was made up of people much younger than him, who relied entirely on him. He had no one to question or challenge him. Or even to advise him. This inevitably led to costly mistakes, such as the dismissal of the elected government in Kerala in 1959 and humiliation on the part of China during the border war of 1962.
Like Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi demands absolute deference from his ministers. They are happy to comply, hence the profusion of articles signed in the press by so many different ministers, proclaiming the greatness and omniscience of the Prime Minister. Vajpayee never expected such public genuflection from his cabinet colleagues. To be fair, neither did Jawaharlal Nehru, even when he began to stand a high distance from other members of his cabinet.
Narendra Modi’s self-image and public presentation of himself is as a strong and authoritative leader. Psychiatrists may wonder if the private ego actually conforms to the public image. Why would a man with a 56 inch chest fear an unwritten press conference so much that he hasn’t held one in six years? Could it be that his inner conviction is somehow less robust than the outer projection? Regardless, in the context of his party, cabinet, and government, Modi is indeed a strong man – only his will should prevail.
Or, more precisely, his whim. Demonetization and an ill-conceived GST were unilaterally rushed by the Prime Minister. The same was true of the severe lockdown so early in the pandemic. Experts in the field in these areas have reportedly warned against these movements. In fact, they did and were not respected. Likewise, Modi’s comfort with Xi Jinping has flown in the face of logic and rationality, and the country is now paying the price. And it was Modi who unilaterally abandoned India’s traditional neutrality in a US presidential election, and the country can still pay the price.
In this case, the policies decided by our strong man, the Prime Minister, destroyed the economy, further undermined our already fragile social fabric and weakened India’s position in the world. Even before the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores, it was clear that the country was much worse than when Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014.
In his second term, Manmohan Singh was undoubtedly weak and hesitant. The country has paid the price. Those who hoped the country would be redeemed by an authoritative ruler now have their answer. For while Prime Ministers who are too weak can pose a threat to the well-being of the nation, Prime Ministers who are too strong pose an even greater threat.
(Ramachandra Guha is a Bengaluru-based historian. His books include “Environmentalism: A Global History” and “Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World”.)
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