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December 10, 1997


T V R Shenoy

If the UF and the Congress can't decide on a leader, can we expect them to provide a decisive government?

Of the people, by the people, for the people..." That is Abraham Lincoln's famous description of a democratic government. But is India, supposedly the world's largest democracy, destined to enjoy such an administration?

Not under certain circumstances, not if the United Front and/or the Congress singly or collectively cross the magic figure of 271 in the Lok Sabha. That sounds harsh but I can prove it.

Just ask the Congress and the UF to name their candidates for prime minister. They will immediately state they shall do so only after the polls. I know I have said this before, but I am forced to repeat it again -- India is the only democracy where parties get away with this fraud on the voters.

When Britain went to the polls, the rival candidates for prime minister were John Major and Tony Blair. When Israel elected a new Knesset it was treated as a one-on-one battle between Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu. There is a year to go for the German elections, but the Opposition is already looking for a single man to lead the campaign against Chancellor Kohl.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand... There is no, repeat no, parliamentary democracy that doesn't insist on knowing who the chief executive is going to be. The only exceptions to that rule are Italy and Japan. By no coincidence, these are the two nations that are cursed with revolving-door governments.

(Nor is the record any better in India. Whenever the leadership question wasn't settled before the polls the government fell before its time. Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral are merely following in the footsteps of Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V P Singh, etc.)

Why is the prime minister so important? Let me quote Winston Churchill: "An accepted leader has only to be sure of what is best to do, or at least to have made up his mind about it. The loyalties which centre upon Number One are enormous. If he trips he must be sustained. If he sleeps he must not be wantonly disturbed. If he is no good he must be pole-axed."

Well, as far as the BJP and its allies are concerned Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the 'accepted leader.' If they win a majority he becomes the prime minister of India. It is just that simple.

But the 13 (or 14, or 15, or 16) parties of the UF find themselves utterly unable to combine behind a single man. Quizzed upon the subject, CPI general secretary A B Bardhan huffed that programmes are more important than persons.

Fine, how has the UF fared with its precious programme over the past 18 months? What has happened to the much-ballyhooed Common Minimum Programme?

By the evidence of the Left Front itself, that famous document wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. And just one month ago, the CPI-M's Harkishen Singh Surjeet specifically blamed Gujral's weakness as a root cause for the UF's problems.

Can't the comrades in the CPI and the CPI-M try to sing the same tune? Bardhan says individuals are not important, but Surjeet suggests precisely the opposite!

Getting different parties to agree is admittedly a difficult task. But why is the Congress too shying away from naming a single leader? Sitaram Kesri insists he shall lead the election campaign, but adds that the question of prime minister can be settled only after the general election!

The Congress boasts of being a party that takes an international perspective, but it is quite clearly blind to the examples I cited earlier. But forget all that, why is the Congress ignoring its own proud history?

The Congress has always had the guts to name its leader in every general election. Jawaharlal Nehru carried the banner in 1952, 1957, and 1962. Indira Gandhi did so in 1967, 1971, 1977, and 1980. Rajiv Gandhi was the undisputed leader in 1984, 1989, and 1991. And the mantle fell on Narasimha Rao in 1996. What compulsion has led to the Congress throwing its own tradition in the dustbin?

Democracies, I reiterate, are systems where people choose their leaders. People, not party bosses sitting behind closed doors. India has suffered enough thanks to puppets posing as prime ministers. If the UF and the Congress can't decide on a leader, can we expect them to provide a decisive government?

T V R Shenoy

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