Why do political parties think that experience at the top level of the second tier of governance is irrelevant for appointing or electing Prime Ministers?

Henry IV laments in the Bard's eponymous play: “Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose, To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude, And…. Deny it to a king? Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Or, if you like, a turban. Crown or turban, it really doesn't matter because as Mahendra Singh Dhoni has discovered, the helmet can protect him from what comes from outside his head.

But what do prime ministers do with what comes from inside their heads? Those who have held lower-level top jobs and become Prime Minister know the answer.

An important lower-level top job in India is that of a chief minister. As P. V. Narasimha Rao once said, they know where the shoe pinches. But the Indian record in this respect has been quite poor. Of the 14 Prime Ministers that India has had, only five had been chief ministers.

Meri marzi

How did the rest become Prime Ministers? Jawaharlal Nehru became PM because Gandhiji wanted him to. In an election in 1946, 19 of the 20 DPCC members present voted for Sardar Patel. Gandhji turned to him and asked him to stand down in favour of Nehru. The rest is history.

In 1964, the Congress High Command, a name that echoed the Second World War nomenclature of Bomber Command and Fighter Command in the Royal Air Force, chose Lal Bahadur Shastri because he was regarded as being meek, pliant and right-wing. After he died of a sudden heart attack in January 1966, the High Command appointed Indira Gandhi for exactly the same reason. None of these worthies had ever been a chief minister.

Then, in 1977, the Janata Party, which had defeated the Congress, chose Morarji Desai as Prime Minister. He was toppled by Charan Singh in 1979. Both had been chief ministers of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh respectively.

In 1980 Indira Gandhi came back to power. After her assassination in 1984, another man who had never been chief minister became Prime Minister: her son Rajiv Gandhi.

Then, if you don't count Chandra Shekhar, who lasted only four months, came two Prime Ministers who had been CMs — V. P. Singh and Narasimha Rao. In 1996, came a new Prime Minister, Mr Haradanhalli Deve Gowda, who had also been a chief minister.

Since then there has been a drought. Inder Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had never been chief ministers. This raises the question: why do political parties think that experience at the top level of the second tier of governance is irrelevant for appointing or electing Prime Ministers?


Compared to someone like Rahul Gandhi, would not Ms Jayalalithaa, Mr Narendra Modi, Mr Nitish Kumar, Mr Navin Patnaik, Ms Mayawati, Mrs Sheila Dixit or Mr Digvijay Singh make better Prime Ministers? But when a question was put to a senior Congressman as to whether Mr Rahul Gandhi could not be projected as the chief minister of UP, which goes to polls next year, pat came the reply: “We cannot downgrade Rahulji.”

Each of them has won a re-election. Each has been chief minister for ten years. Each understands politics and governance. Each has an intimate knowledge of the administrative system, the legal system, the sociology of politics, the history of the country they will be governing (rather than just the history of their own family) and the way Indians think. Yet, we have to make do with persons who are very ordinary to start with but who, after becoming prime minister, are slowly built up into paragons of virtue, sagacity and wisdom.

The ordinariness shows in different ways. Indira Gandhi was insecure and suspicious. Rajiv was well-intentioned and immature. Inder Gujral was, well, Inder Gujral. Vajpayee felt wounded most of the time. And Dr Singh has been pusillanimous in a measure wholly unbecoming of a Prime Minister.

What, as Lenin asked, is to be done?

I will tell you next time.

(This article was published on August 4, 2011)
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