Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The path to Race Course Road

If Manmohan Singh sees out the current Parliament, he will be the first person to serve consecutive, uninterrupted terms as Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi. It would be a considerable achievement, even if one has to add the obvious qualifier that Singh has not simultaneously been the leader of his party or of the governing coalition. Yet it is by no means obvious that the Congress/UPA would be more successful, electorally or legislatively, with Sonia Gandhi as PM.

Manmohan Singh is a mild man who, in India at least (the Western media usually depicts him as a wise scholar-statesman), tends to inspire mild opinions ranging from cautious approval to moderate scepticism. Whatever you think of him- and I lean narrowly to the sceptical side- it is evident that he has no viable political future beyond 2014. After that year's election, if not sooner, Singh will retire as PM, for the simple reason of age (he will turn 82 that year; Morarji Desai at 80 is the oldest incoming PM of all time). One of the most fascinating processes of the next few years, then, will be the rat race to succeed him within the Congress (more on this soon, in another post). Thinking of the many prime ministerial hopefuls, however- of whom the present Home Minister is certainly the most openly ambitious- led me to think about the path to the top job that Singh and his predecessors have followed. If one is not a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is it necessary to have been a senior cabinet minister (for instance, in the key portfolios of Finance, Home or External Affairs)? To what extent does India have the notion of a political "career" with incremental promotion?

Let us examine, briefly, the path that each previous Prime Minister took:

1) Jawaharlal Nehru: As the first PM, of course, Nehru did not get to the top on the basis of previous ministerial service. Instead, his rise was based on two main factors: closeness to Gandhi and personal charisma. Clearly, this was not a path future leaders could really hope to emulate.
2) Lal Bahadur Shastri: Shastri, on the other hand, was an exemplar of a successful political "career": a consistent rise through the ranks, culminating in his appointment as Home Minister in 1961. It is worth noting that Shastri's main rival for the top job was Finance Minister Morarji Desai: showing that at the time, a void in leadership was resolved between senior members of the Cabinet, rather than by bringing in someone from outside.
3) Indira Gandhi: Like Shastri, the original Mrs. Gandhi came to power by defeating Desai, although this time in a formal rather than informal contest. It would be easy but misguided to see this as the introduction of dynastic politics to India: if Nehru had truly wanted his daughter to succeed him, he would have installed her as his successor before his death. Indira had never served in a senior Cabinet job, although she had been Congress President and Minister of Information & Broadcasting. Her appointment was a political (mis)calculation by the Congress Syndicate: exploit the personal popularity of Nehru while retaining control of the party. Mrs Gandhi's electoral victories in 1971 and 1980 can be attributed in part to her political skill, but her initial appointment was little more than a historical fluke.
4) Morarji Desai- Desai emerged as the leader of the Janata Party both as a consequence of seniority as well as his symbol as one of the two most prominent opponents of Indira Gandhi (the other being Jayaprakash Narayan). It is inconceivable, however, for Morarji to become PM without his long term as Finance Minister, where he established his reputation.
5) Charan Singh- Charan Singh was Home Minister under Desai- until he brought down Desai's government in late 1979- thus establishing a trend whereby, in a situation where the PM did not have the full command of his party/alliance, the Home Ministry was given to his biggest rival/guarantor (think Devi Lal or LK Advani. Rather than seeing the Home Ministry as Charan Singh's path to the top, it is better to see his position as Home Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister) as a reflection of the power that he already held. The source of his power: his status as India's first mass-successful agrarian politician.
6) Rajiv Gandhi- Till date, Rajiv Gandhi is the only case of a purely dynastic rise to the position of Prime Minister. He entered politics and Parliament less than four years before he took office as PM, and held no posts of any consequence (his only official post was Youth Congress President). Indeed, his most visible political achievement was piddling at best- the organization of the 1982 Asian Games. Unlike in 1966, his appointment was no political calculation, nor was it ever in question. It was merely proof that under Indira Gandhi the dynastic principle had become the Congress' governing one (Indira Gandhi remains the last member of the family to face an electoral challenge to her leadership from within the party).
7) VP Singh- VP Singh, in terms of his path to the top, was Morarji Desai Mark II: a well-known Finance Minister who was forced out of his post, first to the Ministry of Defence and then, as a result of his suspicion of the Bofors scandal, out of the Congress altogether. Like Desai, Singh triumphantly returned to office as the leader of an unwieldy coalition with little in common beyond opposition to the Gandhis and the desire for power. Like Desai, he installed his political guarantor- Devi Lal- as Home Minister and Deputy PM, although Tauji, unlike Charan Singh, had little desire for the top job. Like Desai, Singh lost his majority in less than half a term.
8) Chandra Shekhar- But while Charan Singh stabbed Desai in the back, VP Singh was stabbed in the front- by Chandra Shekhar, surely a competitor for the biggest nonentity ever to become PM (his competition is No. 11 on this list). The "Young Turk" intrigued his way to his life's ambition of becoming Prime Minister: something that was only possible in the Indian political climate of 1990, when all major parties were essentially buying time.
9) PV Narasimha Rao- But for their remarkably different characters (especially in terms of integrity) Rao could be seen as the Andhra Shastri. He had served in three of the four most important Cabinet positions (Home, Defence, External Affairs) and had never sought to challenge Gandhi family leadership. With Sonia Gandhi, like Indira Gandhi in 1964, refusing to challenge for the top job, Rao's long record of service made him the best candidate for promotion.
10) While best-known as the "acceptable" half of the BJP leadership in the 1980s and 1990s, Vajpayee had served Cabinet time as Minister of External Affairs in the first Janata government, which meant that by 1996 he had already been in the frontline of national politics for two decades. Yet Vajpayee's path is distinct from any other PM in that (in partnership with Advani) he came to power by leading a coherent, unified and viable single-party opposition to the Congress: even if the actual government was a coalition, the big three cabinet portfolios were retained by the BJP throughout Vajpayee's six years as PM. A more challenging and impressive path, then, than perhaps any other.
11) HD Deve Gowda- These days it is increasingly common to hear Deve Gowda lament that the fact that he is "not accorded the respect due to a former Prime Minister of the country." This has a lot to do with the fact that the rest of us are still confused as to how Deve Gowda became Prime Minister in the first place. Bigger and more distinguished names- such as Jyoti Basu- did the rounds for United Front PM before the little-known Vokkaliga engineered his way from Hassan to Delhi. Deve Gowda benefited from being the only sitting Janata Dal Chief Minister; experienced observers in Karnataka were shocked that the brazenly corrupt and provincial Gowda was elevated above, for instance, his long-time rival Ramakrishna Hegde. Hegde himself was devastated and never recovered, politically or personally.
12) IK Gujral- Once Information & Broadcasting minister under Mrs Gandhi, the widely respected- in some circles at least- Gujral left the Congress in the 1980s and was Minister of External Affairs in both Janata Dal governments. When Deve Gowda's government was brought down by the capricious Sitaram Kesri, Gujral was installed essentially at Kesri's mercy and brought down less than a year later.
13) Manmohan Singh- If Rajiv Gandhi was the first pure dynast, Manmohan Singh is the first pure loyalist to be appointed PM. To be sure, he has other qualifications- a long career of government service, from the RBI to Finance Secretary to the Planning Commission to, most famously, his excessively lionized, but undoubtedly solid stint as Finance Minister under Narasimha Rao (who himself doesn't usually receive enough credit for economic reforms). When Singh was chosen in 2004, however, it was clearly his loyalty to family and party (which come to the same thing) that was his greatest asset. Because Manmohan had never been a politician per se before 2004, he was reliable and unthreatening. That said, it is likely that without his time as Finance Minister he would not have been a prominent or credible enough figure for the job.

13 prime ministers, then, in just over sixty years. What lessons can we draw from their diverse careers, for the various aspirants of 2014? Here are some general conclusions

1) Unless you are a Gandhi or a "fluke" PM (Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda), you are likely to need experience in the key positions of Finance, External Affairs or Home. Every single PM that did not fit one of the above two categories served in one of these cabinet posts.
2) The Congress is a good place to start. Vajpayee is the only Prime Minister to have never been a member of the Indian National Congress, and Deve Gowda the only other to not contest an election on a Congress ticket. With the Congress once again in the ascendancy, it is the only safe place to be for a PM aspirant. If things change: never fear, there is a great tradition of Congress-rebel PMs, comprising Desai, Charan Singh, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Gujral.
3) Unless you are a dynast or the leader of a major party, avoid signalling your intentions years ahead. Desai failed in 1964 and 1966 partly because of his overweening ambition, a quality that later felled Ramakrishna Hegde, Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav, all of whom could have been PMs had they shown more discretion. Conversely, the "accidental" PMs Gowda and Gujral benefited from being seen as non-threatening. The present Home Minister would do well to keep this in mind.

Indian politics changes in such quick and unexpected ways that it is often foolish to make predictions on the basis of past events, no matter how accurate the historical analysis (and getting this right is hard enough). If anything, I will be curious to see the extent to which the process by which the next Prime Minister emerges fits in to past patterns.

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