The price a prime minister pays for giving up his authority

The price a prime minister pays for giving up his authority

Sanjaya Baru’s book -- The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh — has once again brought into public debate the creation of a dual power centre in 2004, with authority shared between Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

In a recent television interview, Baru who was Media Adviser to the Prime Minister from 2004 to 2008, further said the mandate of 2009 was also a vote for the policies of Singh’s first government and he should have used his strengthened authority (over 10 Janpath).

Instead, in his second-tenure, Singh was the “weakest” Prime Minister India has ever had among those who completed a full term of office.

The rights and wrongs of the allegation and the timing of the book in the midst of a crucial general election is one issue.

Without going into that, it is pertinent to examine the charge that the creation of a dual power centre was detrimental to government authority and the implication that this was unethical, if not unconstitutional.

After all, the charge predates Baru’s book and has been repeatedly hurled by the BJP at the Singh government since 2004.

To imply, as the BJP’s position did, that a prime minister must be independent of his party in the matter of policy making is quite plainly ridiculous.

A prime minister completely “independent” of his party can only be a dictator. In fact, the BJP’s situation is that the remote control is not even with it, but outside with the RSS.

After all, elections are fought and won -— or lost — by political parties, not by individuals. Votes are cast for the party symbol.

And it is the party that appeals to the people on the basis of its programme publicised through its manifesto.

A Jawaharlal Nehru or an Indira Gandhi or a Narendra Modi may appear bigger than their parties, but the truth is that a ruling party with a clear majority in Parliament, with or without the support of allies, remains always free to change its leader, that is, the prime minister at any time through the tenure.

Even in a presidential form of government with a president elected directly by the people, as in the United States, it would be foolhardy to argue that a George W Bush was above or independent of the Republican Party or that a Barack Obama can say “boo” to his party.

In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party split and one faction voted for his expulsion from the Senate forcing his exit. And in Britain, Tony Blair had to quit as prime minister when his party sent out a clear message it was time for him to pack and leave.

In India this has not happened at the Centre except when the ruling coalition had support from the outside and that support was withdrawn, but in the states chief ministers elected with huge mandates (for example Uma Bharati) have been routinely sacked by their party high commands.

Jawaharlal Nehru had complete authority within his government and his party, and yet, after the 1962 debacle on the border with China, his party virtually gave him an ultimatum to sack Krishna Menon or resign himself.

A party system is all about checks and balances.

It is another matter that Indira Gandhi went about splitting her party when the old guard came in her way.

It is also not a secret that Indira Gandhi relied more on advise from a coterie known as her ‘kitchen cabinet’ rather than her party.

Atal Behari Vajpayee had to quietly bow to the wishes of his bosses in the RSS forcing him to drop Jaswant Singh as his finance minister in favour of Yashwant Sinha, the nominee of the ‘swadeshi economics’ lobby in the sangh parivar.

If Sonia Gandhi was the undisputed leader of her party after winning the 2004 election but preferred to get her party to accept Manmohan Singh as prime minister, in 1996 when Vajpayee was first sworn-in as prime minister, the party’s allegiance was to LK Advani, who announced ahead of the election that Vajpayee and not he would be the party’s prime ministerial choice.

In the years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, Vajpayee (who had not participated in the event) had said he felt “marginalised” within the party.

But by 1995 as part of strategy to attract allies, the sangh parivar chose to make Vajpayee with his moderate image the public face of the BJP. 

 When the BJP emerged as the single largest party in 1996 and took office with Vajpayee as prime Minister (for 13 days), Advani was the undisputed party boss having secured that position as a result of his success at communal polarising on the Ram temple issue that yielded a rich electoral harvest.

Some of us were witness to the anger Advani displayed when Vajpayee appointed his foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya as an officer on special duty in the PMO.

Advani made sure that did not happen again in 1998 and 1999.

That the BJP’s “remote control” lies in Nagpur with the RSS is well known, despite the pretension that the RSS is only a “cultural organisation. Any doubts were dispelled when the RSS forced the exit of Advani as party president after his laudatory remarks about Mohammad Ali Jinnah post the 2004 election.

Allegiance to the RSS above the government was on full public display when the Janata Party government collapsed on the issue of dual membership.

Let no one be fooled. Even a muscular Modi can only be as “independent” as the RSS allows him to be.

Party ideologue K R Malkani had said when the RSS wants it can deftly take out the biggest leader like a fly that has fallen into a glass of milk.

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