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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

Isn't it time we stopped choosing our prime ministers on the basis of their inoffensiveness?

Rajiv Gandhi 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 to retire.

There was only one argument in his favour: he was so inoffensive that he posed no threat to anyone.

Naturally, he got the job.

P V Narasimha Rao 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 ability.

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