Opinion

Prime ministers, two presidents, and their guide

Chitragupta | Updated on June 06, 2021

(File photo) In the run-up to the 2024 polls, the chemistry between PM Narendra Modi and RSS chief Dattatreya Hosabale will be crucial   -  PTI

The dynamics between the PM, President and the ruling party president have a crucial bearing on governance

The party system in genuine democracies like India’s — and never mind the fools who say it isn’t one — poses a peculiar challenge for political theory and practice: how does a Prime Minister, or more generally, the head of the government deal with the two persons who matter the most in his or her professional life?

One of them is the country’s President or the repository of sovereignty and the other is the party president.

The problem arises because the former has constitutional power over the Prime Minister and the latter has political power over him or her. That’s how it is in the older democracies.

In that sense the Prime Minister has the most stringent check on his or her power provided the theory is not jettisoned. Heads of government in other countries have understood this and they play the game by respecting these two centres of power.

But this does not happen in India because we have a feudal mindset wherein all power has to be concentrated in a single person. This applies to regional parties also. Power sharing is seen as a threat.

That’s why the Indian experience is very instructive when it comes to the interplay of national and constitutional power in determining political and governance outcomes between its three poles. Indeed, such have been the dynamics that it leads prime ministers to make serious errors of judgment.

This is because basically, Indian Prime Ministers — since Nehru — have done one or two or all of the following three things. The wonder is that they have succeeded and thus, paradoxically, increased their propensity to make mistakes.

Self goals by PMs

Where the country’s President is concerned they have done two things. Both have always led to prime ministerial mistakes because there is not much room for wise counsel.

One is the amendment to Article 74 which binds the President to the Cabinet’s — meaning the Prime Minister’s — ‘advice’. He or she is allowed just one chance to ask the Cabinet to reconsider. It never does so.

The other is that they have ensured pliable Presidents. After Rajendra Prasad (1950-62) none of them has challenged the Prime Minister over policy.

(On propriety, however, there has been one challenge. That was during March-June 1987 when President Zail Singh let it be known that he could sack the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.)

The other aspect concerns the party president. Here also they have done two things.

They have either ensured the appointment of a rubber stamp as party president. Or, even worse, they have become party presidents themselves.

The only exception to this was Sonia Gandhi who reversed the order: as party president she appointed a proxy Prime Minister. That’s why Manmohan Singh made so few political and governance mistakes. Also, she became to the government and the party what the RSS is to the BJP and its governments, namely, a guide.

So what has happened in India is that constitutional and political power have got vested in, and mixed up with, executive power. As we have repeatedly seen since 1950, this is a recipe for disaster.

In the US, where the head of the government is also the Head of State, the party’s president is always a different person and never appointed by the country’s president. This system works very well except occasionally as when a maverick like Donald Trump becomes the head of the government and head of State both.

In the UK, they don’t have this problem. This is because they have a permanent sovereign in the form of the monarch. There the prime minister can’t fool about at all because the monarch is not bound by the Cabinet’s advice except by convention, which can be disregarded when needed or appropriate. Not just that the monarch can remove the prime minister as required.

In France the prime minister is constitutionally and politically a No 2 and in Germany there is no prime minister at all.

In all these countries the head of the government is subject to both constitutional and political checks. They make fewer major mistakes as a result. Small mistakes are always made when decisions are taken under uncertainty.

Modi’s method

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has as the country’s president, just as his predecessors did, a person who is unlikely to even offer advice. The two exceptions since 1998 were KR Narayanan and Abdul Kalam.

Both didn’t hesitate the government to reconsider. But they were bound down by Article 74.

The BJP has had two presidents since 2014. Modi listens to them on political matters but doesn’t seem to on governance issues. He may be well within his rights but it doesn’t seem like a particularly satisfactory way of governing.

There’s one more thing: until recently, the RSS, which has its ears to the ground in the key Hindi States, had a voice. Since 2019, it no longer seems to.

This had a strange consequence. On political matters the Prime Minister made very few mistakes but on economic matters he made far too many. That order seems to have been reversed since 2019.

Soon the RSS is going to get a very grounded and forward looking man as its head. His name is Dattatreya Hosabale. He is from Karnataka. He is expected to modernise the RSS’s overall approach to be in consonance with the 21st century.

It will be interesting to watch how he and the Prime Minister manage the politics and governance of India till 2024 when the next general election is due.

But well before that, there are 16 Assembly elections coming up. Seven are in 2022 and nine in 2023.

The big daddy of them all is next year in UP. There are already stories that the Chief Minister of UP and the Prime Minister are not on the same page.

Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, Hosabale had gone to Lucknow. He must surely have discussed political matters along with the handling of the Corona virus. No further reports have emerged from that visit but it doesn’t seem to have been a great success.

Published on June 06, 2021

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