Isn't it time we stopped choosing our prime ministers on the basis of their inoffensiveness?
There was a time when you only became prime minister
of India if you were dynamic, charismatic, nationally popular
and competent. The Nehru-Gandhis had charisma on their side. Lal
Bahadur Shastri was competent. Morarji Desai was one of India's
best-known politicians and a former deputy prime minister when
he moved into South Block in 1977. And Vishwanath Pratap Singh
had led the crusade for cleanliness in public life that drove
the Congress from office in 1989.
All this changed in 1991. The Congress had no succession-planning.
When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, a panicky party turned to
Sonia Gandhi and begged her to take over. She did the sensible
thing and told them to go away.
That vacuum led to a syndrome that still endures:
the emergence of a leader by manufactured consensus.
The logic of democracy is that the people elect their
representatives. In such countries as the United States where
there is a presidential system, the president is directly elected.
In the UK, both major parties have a complicated method of electing
a parliamentary leader who becomes either prime minister or leader
of the opposition.
This is how it should be because ultimately, democracy
is about choice. But in India, our political parties incline
to the bizarre view that democracy involves elections only when
the general public have to be included in the exercise. Within
the party, elections are a very bad thing because they cause people
to oppose each other.
This extraordinary view was first trotted out in
1991 when a small coterie of has-beens and no-hoppers installed
Narasimha Rao as Rajiv Gandhi's successor.
The arguments against Rao's selection were formidable.
This was a man who had difficulty winning elections.
He may have spoken ten languages but he was unable
to make up his mind in any of them. He had not even contested
the 1991 election on the grounds that he was an old man and wanted
There was only one argument in his favour: he was
so inoffensive that he posed no threat to anyone.
Naturally, he got the job.
It is of course another matter that Narasimha Rao
turned out to be a piranha masquerading as a gold fish. Within
six months he had disposed of the coterie and seized control of
the party. God may have gifted him with the charisma of a comatose
sheep but despite his inability to win elections, he was able
to transform India and history will probably remember him as one
of our better prime ministers.
In a sense, Rao's success probably did disservice
in the long run because political parties decided that it was
okay to kidnap a man on the verge of retirement and throw him
into 7, Race Course Road. When the United Front met to choose a leader
last year, nobody bothered about charisma, competence or leadership
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