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Who will be prime minister, Sonia?
December 31, 2003
The New Year is a time for making resolutions in the Western tradition. Sonia Gandhi seems to have taken this dictum to heart; her resolve for 2004 seems to be to take lessons in humility. She has certainly begun on the right note by announcing, at a press conference in Mumbai, that it is the right of the people of India to say who shall be prime minister.
The sheer banality of this statement is breathtaking! India has successfully conducted 13 general elections. (Even if the current guardian of the electoral process, our beloved Chief Election Commissioner seems to believe we have been running a sham democracy for over fifty years!) Has it really taken the prospect of the 14th such looming up for the boss of the Congress (I) to realise that this is the fundamental right of the electorate in any democracy worth the name?
However, let us give Sonia Gandhi the benefit of the doubt and accept that she may just have a point. There has been a shadow over the Congress procedure of anointing a prime minister ever since Jawaharlal Nehru's day.
Let me take you back to the year 1946. Everyone knew that Independence was around the corner (though the precise date remained undecided). The choice of Congress president became crucial since it was certain that the Viceroy would invite him or her to head the interim government. Twelve of the 15 Pradesh Congress Committees proposed the name of Sardar Patel; not one of them sent up the name of Jawaharlal Nehru -- not even his native United Provinces (as Uttar Pradesh was then titled). It was at this point that Mahatma Gandhi made his last decisive intervention in the affairs of the nation.
He asked Acharya Kripalani -- who, if I remember correctly was the choice of the United Provinces Pradesh Congress Committee -- to circulate a note to the Congress Working Committee asking that body to nominate Nehru. From this distance in time, the Mahatmašs reasons seem less than convincing. 'He, a Harrow boy, a Cambridge graduate and a barrister, is wanted to carry on the negotiations with Englishmen.' Again, the Mahatma believed that Nehru could 'make India play a role in international affairs.' More realistically, 'Jawahar will not take second place.' Whatever the rationale -- and the last suggests that our much-worshipped first prime minister was a spoiled brat in the Mahatma's estimation -- the fact remains that Bapušs suggestion carried the day, and Sardar Patel, the choice of the people, failed to become prime minister through a palace coup.
Jawaharlal Nehru's legion of sympathisers will argue that his accession was legitimised in subsequent elections. But the point is that a precedent had been set; future Congress prime ministers would face the people only after they were firmly in the chair. That was true of Indira Gandhi in 1967 (prime minister as of 1966), of Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, and of Narasimha Rao in 1991. The exception to that rule was Indira Gandhi in 1980.
(In any case, by the winter of 1951-1952, when the first general election was held, there was no other real challenge to Nehru. Netajišs voice had not been heard since 1945, the Sardar had died in 1950, and Rajaji -- 11 years older than Nehru and far more scrupulous -- was too tired. But to read the dying Sardaršs warning about Chinese intentions or Rajajišs fulmination against the 'license-permit-quota Raj' makes me wonder what might have been had one of these giants become prime minister.)
The Congress continued to defy the popular will long after Independence. It set up Charan Singh in 1979 and Chandra Shekhar in 1990 though both men lacked legitimacy. And please donšt tell me that either H D Deve Gowda or I K Gujral was the Indian peoplešs choice as prime minister when the Congress (I) propped them up!
There have been few exceptions to the long list. Other than Indira Gandhi in 1980, the only names that come to mind as men who won a mandate before assuming the prime ministeršs chair are V P Singh in 1989 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998. (And the former lacked a majority in the Lok Sabha!)
It is also hypocritical to pretend that people donšt vote for a prime minister in the parliamentary system. Didnšt Britain know that Tony Blair would become prime minister when it voted out John Major in 1997? Or were the Germans ignorant when they preferred Gerhard Schroeder to Helmut Kohl?
I am happy Sonia Gandhi has finally admitted the truth -- that the Congress has a poor tradition when it comes to choosing leaders. But I suspect she is simply trying to fool us; can the 'secular' alliance proposed by her go to the people under the leadership of a single leader? If not, her talk of leaving the choice to the people is just another stone in the grand edifice of untruth erected by the Congress.
T V R Shenoy