Tuesday, March 28th, 2023 03:57:22

Indian Prime Ministers Individuals and Institutions

Updated: June 7, 2014 4:16 pm

Public institutions drive governmental systems and are impacted by individuals who operate them. Individuals seeking high offices, or manoeuvring to get one and hold on to it and those who reach a high office, all shape the institution either consciously or inadvertently

Sanjaya Baru’s Accidental Prime Minister and P.C. Parakh’s Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths stirred up controversy during the sixteenth general election that reconfigured the two-decade-old post-Congress polity in India, with the Congress at its weakest. Beyond the exposé on power equations and dynamics behind the scams during a decade of the two United Progressive Alliance regimes, the books significantly question the binary between individuals and institutions. Public institutions drive governmental systems and are impacted by individuals who operate them. Individuals seeking high offices, or manoeuvring to get one and hold on to it and those who reach a high office, all shape the institution either consciously or inadvertently. The two books read with some of the earlier memoirs of leaders and bureaucrats reveal precisely this.

The Accidental Prime Minister?

Twenty-two prime ministerial appointments in India since 1947 have witnessed thirteen incumbents. Is Dr. Manmohan Singh The Accidental Prime Minister, while the rest were procedurally and politically designated? How has this impacted institutions?

Gandhi intervened in April 1946, when Nehru, Patel and Azad were in fray for Congress Presidentship that would decide the first Prime Minister of independent India. Azad withdrew learning about the Mahatma’s agin. When twelve Pradesh Congress Committees nominated Patel and three abstained, on J.B. Kripalani persuasion a few Congress Working Committee members proposed Nehru’s name on April 29 during the CWC meeting. Gandhi conveyed to Nehru that his nomination had missed the deadline, his ‘complete silence’ expressed his reluctance for a second place. Patel withdrew with grace and accepted Nehru as ‘the upholder of our faith and the leader of our legions’ on Gandhi’s request! Nehru had subsequently no rival as the Prime Minister (PM).

The politics of the ‘Syndicate’ were in operation in selections of Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964) and Indira Gandhi (1966) by the Congress party. In 1967, Morarji Desai was reconsidered, but lost out to Indira Gandhi’s threat of splitting the party. In 1971 and 1980, Indira Gandhi was the undisputed leader.

Despite an adamant Charan Singh having the numerical edge, Morarji Desai became PM in 1977 on Jayprakash Narayan’s persuasion. Charan Singh’s prime ministerial ambition was fructified only with Sanjay Gandhi’s manipulation. Bhabani Sen Gupta in Rajiv Gandhi: A Political Study (1989) describes him as ‘His Accidency’! V.P. Singh defeated Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, but became PM when Devi Lal after his election drama declared himself the Tau (a family elder) to neutralise Chandrashekhar, who became PM eleven months later due to the political accidents of the Kamandal-Mandal politics, Devi Lal switching side and Rajiv Gandhi emulating Sanjay Gandhi’s 1979 manoeuvres. P.V. Narasimha Rao was called back from retirement after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991! H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral represented bigger political accidents! Baru himself mentions cliques naming prime ministers leading to compromise candidates emerging from nowhere. Obviously, Dr. Manmohan Singh is only ‘An Accidental Prime Minister’.

The Central Point

Each of the above elections/selections to the apex leadership over sixty-eight years in national politics has impacted institutions—the government, the bureaucracy and the parties, as also the networks that are associated with them. For, the individuals and the circumstances that brought them to the helm have impacted institutions with their vision (or lack of it) as well as due to their survival games.

When the strong got weak or when a weak reached the summit, institutions were the first victims. Since a democratic government presupposes a party-government synergy, a leader with little control over his/her party is disadvantaged.

Baru and Parakh portray Dr. Manmohan Singh’s tenure as an eminent example of this. However, the PM appears attempting to salvage situations rather than deliberately or obtusely subverting the system for personal gains. Though having accepted the leadership for a decade, he cannot pass the buck, as he always had the option to resign; neither can the party leadership escape the blame for crafting situations that made the leader/PM it elected appear helplessly trapped in office! Given a strong party leader who anointed the PM because her assuming the post could have been problematic, was it not possible to arrange a better synergy? Naturally, the PM hoped in his farewell speech that history would judge him more kindly for his performance.

Dr. Manmohan Singh functioned with his uneven equation with ‘Sonia Gandhi as his Achilles’ Heel’; the party too faced the dilemma of relating to an outsider leader. Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh (2004-09) worked under him nursing prime ministerial ambitions. Whether getting a cabinet berth, or having a portfolio of choice, whether or not the PM had the first say, he certainly did not have the final say; obviously political loyalties were seldom going to be with him. He could not guide his Cabinet, as Nehru did; commanding it like Indira Gandhi was ruled out. Thus, he was not primus inter pares, collective responsibility was weak and political homogeneity, thin due to the coalition situation, was blurred further owing to internal contradictions.

A look at the evolution of the cabinet system in India, particularly the way it was nurtured in initial years, stresses the above argument. Since the creation of the interim government (Viceroy’s Executive Council) prior to the transfer of power on 2 September 1946, Nehru (Vice President of the Executive Council) wrote to Viceroy Lord Wavell: ‘This government will function as a Cabinet and will be jointly responsible for its decisions’, who reported to King George VI on 22 October 1946 that ‘my’ Executive Council prefer to call themselves ‘Cabinet’ and Nehru ‘tries to adopt the role of premier as far as possible’. Obviously, the effort continued following independence too and despite their differences, Nehru and Patel discussed the roles of PM under cabinet government and sought institutional resolution. Nehru did not opt for a Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and managed with a small secretariat, attaching significance to the cabinet secretariat, which was institutionalised through the Transaction of Business Rules framed under Article 77 of the Constitution.

A Prime Minister leading a coalition cabinet has a complex task leading party representatives who would not consider him their leader. Despite the creation of Janata Party, Morarji Desai had to accommodate representatives of various constituent parties, who continued interacting as separate groups informally. V.P. Singh faced similar challenges. I.K. Gujral narrated this writer in an interview that he was woken up at 2 AM (April 1997) and informed that he would succeed H.D. Deve Gowda, who too was selected under similar circumstances; naturally he reappointed Deve Gowda’s cabinet. The way West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sacked/replaced her party’s nominee Union Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi for proposing a hike in passenger fare in the midst of debate on railway budget on 14 March 2014 indicated how tough it gets in India for a coalition PM when the partners trash institutional norms.

An open letter to Modi for ushering in transformation


Dear Modiji

Nation has given you unprecedented mandate and blessings for your agenda of change and transformation. I have been in Varanasi in our management college and interacted with hundreds of students and teachers who also worked for you. Every one of the young minds is looking forward to “achhe din aane wale hai”. The overwhelming support I have seen in the eyes of youth and they have fervent hope for the new era of good governance and economic transformation that will create more manufacturing output and more agricultural-related productivity generating jobs and growth. When I wrote much before your results of election, “Time to reclaim honour and economy of India”, I had forecasted 290-303 seats for you. You have exceeded my expectations. It is emotional response of the whole nation and it is surging love for you and your work that has enabled such metamorphosis. You have already achieved a few landmark results that are not being fully appreciated. You have generated a new humanism that has care and sensitivity for all human beings. I mooted this in my book Mantras for Managers that capitalism and socialism are indistinguishable in rat race of materialism and what we need is new humanism about which our shastras said sarve bhavantu sukhina or Ghalib alluded when he wrote ham muvahid hain hamara kaish he tarke rasoom. Militen jab mit gayen ajza e iman ho gayen (I believe in one faith and do not care about rituals, when petty castes disappear great faith emerges). This is so close to Vedantic one-force concept. Secularism is dead notion as even when the Constitution of India was drawn equal treatment underlined this. To garner votes from minorities this word of secularism was introduced later through amendment in the Constitution. All talk about secularism and communalism was aimed at capturing vote bank. You refused to do this politics and said in the name of religion you will not seek votes. You also said my religion is the Constitution of India. What more can be affirmed to set at rest the anxiety of minorities? If you have got such a massive mandate even minorities have voted for you. You did one more landmark thing that you abolished the domain of caste politics, by wiping out Mulayam Singhs, Mayawatis and Lalu Yadavs. It is a pity that Kejriwal too indulged in this politics. First time, India rejected such divisionists. Let it be our credo that we are one India. Some foggy-headed old leaders are the greatest stumbling blocks to the unifying of country and letting your party grow with urgent development agenda. They must not be allowed to prevail and at least in UP where these fundamentalists or communalists who had throttled true democracy have been shown the door. After ten years of rot in the government we will have in you a true leader and a real Prime Minister. World is already stirred with this massive change and is recognising the power of leadership. I hope you will in future also give this nation the power and direction which only a leader is capable of. First time India has a face that can be seen decisively. While you will stand with the ideal of sarvadharma sambhava you will protect the national pride. I am sure you will wipe out corruption and unclogging the machinery of government is on your agenda but in my view the most urgent thing is to retune the structure of central and state governments. We have plethora of ministries created due to political needs and not in the interest of efficient work. Your immediate task is to restructure the government and train the civil service to serve the objectives of growth and development. You must bring back meritocracy lost in this country due to compromises for vote banks. From a tea boy to the Prime Minister is a long journey and you proved your mettle. You are not a product of a dynasty but of hard work and gift of leadership. Let it be the charter for all the young seeking to achieve the heights of glory in science, industry, trade and management. History is written by winners and you are writing hopefully a golden era of India.



A servant of the nation

By NK Singh

Institutions of the Cabinet

While adapting the Westminster system, India has invented and innovated institutional structures in the long run—Prime Minister’s Office, National Security Council, National Advisory Council, etc. These have resulted in conflict of interest, rival centres of power, deinstitutionalisation of established institutions and practices. The practice in the UK and India has been that the party recedes into the background once PM is elected and government assumes power. Tussles if any tilt in favour of a Prime Minister, party functions only as an organisational guiding forum.

The PMO was enlarged with Lal Bahadur Shastri and acquired a larger role with Indira Gandhi leading to the decline of the cabinet secretariat. After a brief lease of life to the cabinet secretariat during the Janata rule, the PMO gained in strength government after government, sometimes credited with controversial roles and decisions. Have the additions of National Security Council, National Security Advisory Board, National Advisory Council and Group of Ministers as well as Group of Empowered Ministers curtailed the primacy of the cabinet and cabinet secretariat? The answers emerge in Baru’s account. He refers to each of the bodies mentioned above and their impact on functioning of the cabinet. Like the PMO, GoMs and GoEMs (94-95) are convenience based arrangements created as committees of the cabinet, they are not mandated Cabinet Committees; not even ad hoc committees. Interestingly, while Baru discusses these two, the absence of existence or functioning of CCs shows how the mandated bodies are out of business. The creation of the NSC and NSAB, which are executive creations, also appear to have chipped into the significance of the cabinet. The NAC under the chairperson of the UPA Sonia Gandhi was alleged to be a super cabinet and no member of the cabinet, not even the PM, could ignore it (64-65, 74-75). Should institutional innovations by individual at the helms be viewed ignoring long-term perspective of their impact on the existing institutions, particularly if individuals work at cross purposes rather than with expected synergy.

Going by earlier accounts penned by superannuated civil servants, the dynamics emerging from Baru and Parakh indicate that Manmohan Singh inherited distorted processes that he was not politically well-situated to correct. Coalition situations since 1989 created survival compulsions limiting political initiatives of most leaders. Under the circumstances, an elected one would have been better situated to handle it than an anointed one. Recall I.K. Gujral’s uncomfortable moves on Lalu Yadav’s conviction in the fodder scam in 1997! This is further confirmed by Parakh’s account where, Shibu Soren and Dasari Narayana Rao (MoS), not the PM, emerge as the key individuals tinkering with the system. Indeed, the PM does not emerge as the primus to intervene and reportedly tells Parakh when he resigns to withdraw as he faced such situations every day (chapters 14-18). Obviously, collective responsibility and prime ministerial leadership were at the lowest during the period.

If Sanjaya Baru as Media Advisor was as close to Manmohan Singh and as instrumental in critical decisions as he describes, then questions arise on this official but informal arrangement too. For, no Media Advisor to the PM has ever claimed such proximity and decisively advisory say on policies as Baru claims.


The books raise some candid issues regarding shaping of institutions in India, about how individuals have used and abused them. Parakh’s first part is about the misuses of bureaucracy at the district level by politicians; concede or pack up. Read it with B.G. Deshmukh’s reference to every chief minister having his own chief secretary, which led to such a glut that they could form a chief secretary’s association (A Cabinet Secretary Thinks Aloud, p. 9). The discussion in second part on coal block auction and points out the misuse of office by Union Ministers and the PM emerges as a helpless bystander, unable to take action against his colleagues. But Madhav Godbole has referred to such pressures at the top in the 1990s (Unfinished Innings: Recollections and Reflections of a Civil Servant). What followed in 2004-14 is only a progressive degeneration, with every individual a party to it. Indira Gandhi referred to ‘committed bureaucracy’ in 1973-74, modified it to commitment to development, leading to unceasing discussions. Today transfers in days and persecution of bureaucrats attracts little attention. Deshmukh discusses the significance of cabinet secretariat and the norms for appointing a cabinet secretary (earlier discussed in V.A. Pai Panandiker and Ajay K. Mehra, The Indian Cabinet), they are not observed even in exception.

The emergence of the cabinet government is in the British politics when ministers of the Crown sit in a ‘cabinet’ and strategize ‘collectively’ before meeting the Monarch; the norms evolved to institutionalize its functioning. Evolution and innovations have happened in London too and in the 1950s Bagehot referred to the politics sliding to prime ministerial government; in the 1970s Richard Crossman (The Crossman Diaries) wondered why Harold Wilson does not have a kitchen cabinet. Yet the rapid deinstitutionalization of this transplant of the Westminster model in India has been obvious since the mid 1970s. Baru’s account of The (An) Accidental Prime Minister only confirms depths of despair in an ongoing trend. Dr. Manmohan Singh may have contributed to it, but he certainly was not politically placed to arrest it, let alone reverse it. Yet, the discussion must focus on individuals and institutions rather than mean-ingless mudslinging.



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