By Raghav Bahl
Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.
I was aimlessly browsing a few political events when I stumbled upon a surprising fact. India has had 14 (okay, 15 if you count Gulzari Lal Nanda, who was sworn in as ‘acting PM’ twice) major and minor prime ministers. Here’s a quick count for millennials: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, PV Narasimha Rao, HD Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.
Do prime ministers return after becoming the leader of the opposition?
(Again, technically, Vajpayee could qualify, since he was PM for 13 days in 1996, then Leader of the Opposition, and then a ‘regular’ PM from 1998-2004). Her son, Rajiv, almost repeated that feat but was tragically assassinated in the middle of two phases of the 10th Lok Sabha campaign in 1991. In his place, Narasimha Rao was elected to head the Congress government.
Now my curiosity was tickled. Was it usual for prime ministers to enjoy only one linear, uninterrupted innings, and disappear into anonymity, or death, once they demitted office? Was India’s circumstance an outlier or the norm? I returned to my redoubtable browser and Google.
To my astonishment, the United Kingdom, the other robust parliamentary democracy (who we copied), mimicked our trend (or, to put the history in the correct chronology, we cloned their pattern). Over the last 80 years in the U.K., only two prime ministers lost, became Leader of the Opposition, and won back the premier’s office: Winston Churchill (the more illustrious of the two) and Harold Wilson!
What’s common between Winston Churchill and Indira Gandhi?
Indira Gandhi’s turbulent political journey is familiar to many in India – from the “goongi gudia” (mute puppet) that the Congress old guard thought she would be when they installed her as the prime minister in 1966, to the socialist crusader who nationalized banks and abolished privy purses, to Maa Durga (Goddess of War) who sliced Pakistan in two by liberating Bangladesh in 1971, to the dictatorial imposition of Emergency in 1975, to her humiliating defeat in 1977, to her persecution by the Shah Commission, to her street instincts as she fought her way back to power in 1980 – that legend is known. Even her horrific end, assassinated by Sikh guards in 1984 (in the angry aftermath of Operation Bluestar, the Indian Army’s assault on the terrorist-infested Golden Temple in Amritsar), added to her political fable.
But Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill’s story is equally compelling. He was To The Manor Born, an aristocrat; he was half-American, from his mother’s side. He was a real soldier, seeing action in British India, and then a war correspondent and writer. He held big political offices, from President of the Board of Trade to Home Secretary; as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he returned the Sterling to the gold standard in 1925, which was widely thought to have triggered British deflation. He spent the 1930s in relative political wilderness, but continued to warn the world about the dangers posed by Nazi Germany. He became prime minister in 1940, and led an aggressive military campaign against Hitler. Ironically, once Great Britain had won, he was painted the ‘war monger’ and lost the 1945 election to Labour’s Clement Attlee. He was a largely hands-off leader of the opposition from 1945-51, preferring to spend time on his memoirs (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953). But he became prime minister again, before a stroke felled him, and he retired from the office in 1955 (although he continued as an MP until 1964).
What’s the lesson for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi as they square off for 2019?
So only two political colossuses of the last century, Winston Churchill and Indira Gandhi, had the opportunity, temerity, resilience, strategic savvy or plain luck, to hop-skip-and-jump across the parliamentary aisle, from the treasury-to-opposition-and-back-to-treasury benches.
Now if this is such a rare political event, does it have a celestial message embedded in it for India’s prime ministerial contenders in 2019 – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi?
Yes, there is an aakaashvani (celestial broadcast) being beamed at both the warriors in the upcoming Mahabharata (epic battle).
The politician who retains the DNA of an opposition leader even as he ascends to the Prime Minister’s Office, need never become the leader of the opposition again!
Five reasons why a Prime Minister should remain like the leader of the opposition
One, as soon as the Leader of the Opposition becomes the Prime Minister, bureaucrats encircle him. The Indian Administrative Service performs a complete, efficient capture, cutting off the prime minister’s engagement with free thinkers and professionals.
He is trapped within an impenetrable security blanket; the ‘threat perception’ is credibly used to justify his isolation. He is tethered to Raisina Hill, lulled into a coma by ceremonial commitments which eat into critical time and attention.
The PM begins to misread visibility for action, applause for endorsement, an echo chamber for diverse feedback.
In fact, the once free-wheeling leader of the opposition becomes a lapdog of the deep, inscrutable state.
Two, as the leader of the opposition, he enjoys meeting critics, because the bulk of the barbs are aimed at his opponent. He actively seeks innovative ideas to handle crises – for example, using sophisticated hybrid financial instruments to strengthen public sector banks, or adopting ultra-modern corporate structures to ensure that digital startups thrive under Indian entrepreneurs, instead of becoming colonial outposts for the American and Chinese ‘raiders’. These ‘new-gen ideas’ then become fodder for the speeches in which the leader of the opposition castigates the government for being ‘clueless and hidebound’. He reads editorials and critiques directly, as opposed to the prime minister who waits for a second-hand, curated summary to be fed to him.
Three, the leader of the opposition usually travels in commercial flights; his motorcade wades through normal traffic jams, encountering road rage and frustration. He lives in the real, imperfect world, while the prime minister is confined to a clean and orderly cocoon.
Four, the leader of the opposition is virtually a ‘buddy’ for political colleagues and workers, across hierarchies and geographies. He is a general who bonds with troops because he needs them to win imminent battles. But the prime minister is a remote icon guarded within concentric circles. Neither colleagues nor ordinary workers can reach him.
Worse, the prime minister begins to believe that he permanently owns the state’s humongous architecture and can dispense with political assets.
Until a defeat reminds him of his mortality.
Finally, the leader of the opposition is forever short of cash and resources. He is bereft of state power. He has no option other than to empower colleagues and stretch each rupee. But the prime minister is awash in patronage. He can bust the bank even on tiny political campaigns. His answer to every defiance or rebuke is to unleash vindictive power. He can use state secrets, tap communication channels, subpoena the weak into sneaking or lying.
That is destructively addictive.
He becomes stiff and arrogant, choosing to snap rather than bend…
And so he inevitably snaps – remember Winston Churchill and Indira Gandhi.
But the prime minister who remembers his own mortality as the leader of the opposition shall manage to stay on as the prime minister – such is the irony of this supreme office in a parliamentary democracy.
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