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The best PMs India never had

Since last week’s ‘what if’ column (on what would have happened if Rajiv Gandhi had not been assassinated) evoked such a robust response, here is another ‘what if’.

As we know, the best men and women do not always get to be Prime Minister (PM). Getting the top job is often just a matter of luck. (As HD Deve Gowda will tell you.)


So what about those who lost out? Who are the best PMs India never had? I don’t have the historical perspective to tell you how good Sardar Patel would have been (though my guess is: very good), but here are some I watched closely while covering politics over the last few decades.


Sharad Pawar: There is talk of Sharad Pawar being pushed as the Opposition candidate for PM at the next election. I don’t think anything will come of this move, but it does tell us how long Pawar has been around for.


   In 1991, after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, Pawar declared his candidacy for PM and pushed for an election for the post. At that time, Pawar’s image was that of a real estate-obsessed, crooked billionaire-politician who was surrounded by businessmen cronies. So the Congress panicked. Sonia Gandhi was asked to put her weight behind Narasimha Rao and Pawar only backed down when it became clear that he would lose an election to the post.


   If Sonia had not backed Rao and Pawar had won an election, what kind of PM would he have made?


   Oddly enough, I think he might have been very good.


   Two big events took place during the Narasimha Rao era. The first was liberalisation. If Pawar had been in charge, he would have followed the process through to its logical conclusion (unlike Rao who chickened out eventually) because he believed in the market unlike Rao who had spent his life devoted to socialist objectives.


   The second was the fall of the Babri Masjid. Unlike Rao, I don’t think Pawar would have accepted the mealy-mouthed assertions of Kalyan Singh that no harm would come to the structure and would have acted to prevent the demolition. Pawar, unlike Rao, was always respected for his strong, decisive streak.


   Of course if Pawar had remained PM for five years, he would have left behind a very different Congress.  But I doubt if he would have left it in the unelectable mess that Rao did in 1996.


Arjun Singh: Throughout the Narasimha Rao regime there were always suggestions that Arjun Singh would topple him. And Arjun Singh did have his big chance. If he had resigned on the day that the Babri Masjid came down, he would have emerged as an alternative to Rao and got the top job.


   But he did not because in many ways, he was a lot like Rao: Devious, laconic, conspiratorial and indecisive. Plotters don’t always make leaders. For that you need courage and openness. Sadly, Arjun Singh had neither.


"But for better or worse, I do believe if Pranab Mukherjee had been PM during UPA-II, history could have been very different."

Jyoti Basu: Few people can have been as frustrated by their failure to become PM as Basu was. The CPM regularly refused to join any government at the Centre, preferring to offer support from outside (which Basu called ‘a historic blunder’) thus denying an eager Jyoti Basu the chance to become PM even though many Third Front chieftains (such as Mulayam Singh) enthusiastically endorsed his candidacy.


   In my view, he would have been an utter and complete disaster as PM. I saw, firsthand, how the CPM, under Basu, destroyed Bengal, driving out industry while promoting the interests of a coterie of industrialists and encouraging a lazy, union-led work culture.


   India is lucky that Basu never got the top job.


LK Advani: He probably came closer to the top job than anyone else. Advani was Vajpayee’s deputy PM when the BJP called the 2004 election which it thought it would win easily. The plan then was for Vajpayee to serve out a year or so before handing the keys to Race Course Road to Advani.


   It did not work because Sonia Gandhi surprised everyone by defeating the BJP and a United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was formed. When Advani tried again, on his own, five years later, the Congress was too strong for him.


   If it had all worked out, what kind of PM would he have made?


   I think he might have been rather good. He knew what the job entailed having been deputy PM and had demonstrated, while he was in office, a capacity to deliver steady governance.


   The only thing that was held against him in those days was his role as a Hindutva proponent compared to the moderate Vajpayee. In retrospect, that now seems like a joke. In today’s BJP, he is regarded as a dangerous, secular radical.


Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj: In the days before Narendra Modi emerged as the unquestioned leader of the BJP, it was widely believed that the Vajpayee-Advani generation would give way to a Jaitley-Swaraj dispensation and that one of them would become PM.


   Of the two, Swaraj had the advantage of being a mass politician who had fought elections in difficult circumstances and had pulled off electoral upsets.


   Jaitley, on the other hand, was basically a Rajya Sabha politician (no bad thing; so was Manmohan Singh) whose great strengths were his formidable intellect and his ability to win friends across the political spectrum.


   Both would, I think, have made good PMs though Swaraj, because of her mass base, may have been more daring. On the other hand, the BJP would probably not have won an overall majority under either leader, so Jaitley's skills at winning over allies and the Opposition may have been more relevant.


Pranab Mukherjee: If the Congress had needed the support of the Left in 2009, then Pranab would have become PM. The Left would not have accepted Manmohan Singh as PM again, (after the nuclear deal) while Pranab would have been acceptable to all parties.


   As PM, he would have had the advantage of being a far better administrator than Manmohan Singh. He would have surrounded himself with better civil servants. He would not have let the CAG run riot and he would have been a visible, aggressive presence unlike Manmohan Singh who hid himself away when things began to go wrong.


   On the minus side, he would have been stubborn and unreasonable on matters of policy (his baffling, if not suspicious, insistence on retrospective tax is just one example) and would not have embraced the reforms process with Manmohan Singh’s passion and skill.


   So it is a toss-up. But for better or worse, I do believe if Pranab Mukherjee had been PM during UPA-II, history could have been very different.




  • Vijay 05 Sep 2021

    Sharad Pawar, despite his well earned reputation for corruption, was also known as a very good administrator and pro business politician. In a way, he is similar to the Clintons - not married to any ideology and able to get things done no matter what.

Posted On: 05 Sep 2021 11:10 AM
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