Prime Ministers - Nehru to Vajpayee -- by Sreeram Sundar Chaulia. Back   Home 

The Prime Minister occupies a unique status in India's representative parliamentary democracy. He is simultaneously the leader of the ruling party, primus inter pares in the union cabinet, leader of the Lok Sabha and foreman of the country at large. Although unspecified in the Constitution, he has come to occupy the position of de facto ruler of India, wielding real power and exercising it in the name of the people and the chief executive, the President. Owing to the enormous responsibilities, challenges and authority vested in the hands of the Prime Minister, a study of his/her personality is one of the best means of understanding and assessing the achievements and failures of the post-colonial state. Janardan Thakur has carved a niche for himself in the realm of critical political analysis right since independence and it is befitting that the veteran journalist and author who professes ``a lifelong affair with Prime Ministers" has attempted a comprehensive Tour d' Horizon of the cavalcade from Nehru to Vajpayee.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-1964)   Top

``The last Englishman to rule India" was ironically a symbol of Swaraj and in this lies the secret of his unchallenged 17-year stint as Prime Minister. Thakur argues in the Lapierre-Collins line (Mountbatten and the Partition of India) that Nehru was under a charmed spell of the Mountbattens and connived in the latter's plan of partitioning the country for the lure of power. Putatively, the Viceroy used ``two Menons", Krishna and V.P, to induce in Nehru and Patel flat rejection of Gandhi's offer that Jinnah be made Prime Minister of united India. Freedom was thus 'aborted'. Nehru's record as PM was dominated till 1950 by a subterranean power struggle with the iron man, Patel, and generally with the Gandhian right (Rajendra Prasad and Kripalani). Although his courage, dignity and charisma were unparalleled, Nehru ``suffered fools and corrupt men around him", notoriously Pratap Singh Kairon in Punjab. Corruption and dynastic tendencies began clawing at the system in the later half of Nehru Raj. While he carved a bipartisan foreign policy championed by all and sundry, his brush with Socialism and obsession for Planning in a ``third way" offered no uplift to the economy. His decision to refer Afridi invasion of Kashmir in 1948 to the UN (also under Mountbatten's spell) was the worst legacy to later generations. The 1962 Chinese invasion revealed deep chinks in his panchsheel and caused a complete rejection of his pacifist worldview.

Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964-1966)   Top

Shastri was seen as a stopgap arrangement for Indira Priyadarshini to take over ultimately. The murky 'Kamraj Plan' was hatched in Nehru's last years to sustain the dynasty (Motilal had after all anointed Jawahar astride a horse as Congress President in the 1929 Lahore Congress and there seemed little doubt that Indira had to be next) and Shastri appeared a safe bet, ``the little sparrow" almost too self-effacing and dignified to refuse handing over the baton when Indira was ready. But while the Nehru coterie accumulated contempt and scorn for ``pathetically ineffectual Shastriji" (K.Hutheesingh), Lal roared Jai Jawan Jai Kisan in the 1965 war and negotiated with great mettle at Tashkent. Indira, chafing under the laurels this 'mediocre' disciple of her father was earning for his Spartan life, battle against corruption and resolute leadership in war, complained later that he was ``unnecessarily glorified" and a cover-up campaign was launched later to denigrate or whittle down Shastri's achievements. Thakur argues that he was a little colossus, a principled politician like no other, the ``most authentically Indian Prime Minster" who as a penurious student swam across the Ganga to visit his dying mother in Mughalsarai and who was still poor enough to buy woollens on the way to Uzbekistan as Prime Minister. To this day, Indians rate Shastri No.1 in popularity among all PMs (eg. Centre of Media Studies Opinion Poll,1991, 1995).

Indira Gandhi (1966-1977, 1980-1984)   Top

Phase II of the Kamaraj Plan was to hoist Indira into the chair so that the Syndicate could use the goongi gudiya as a marionette. With slow but assuring steps, Indira trounced all inner-party rivals to be labelled ``the only man in the cabinet", a ruthless politician of the finest calibre, one who would have fitted Churchill's top criterion for Prime Ministership- ``butchery". Her new pro-poor economic policies from 1969 were political strategies to discredit Morarji, Kamraj and Nijalingappa. They also earned her a firm constituency, the downtrodden who to this day swear by 'Indiramma' and the spiel, ``Garibi hatao". She also displayed, in Rafiq Zakaria's words, ``understanding of the real security needs of the country and the geo-politics of the subcontinent", severing Pakistan into two in a carefully calculated demarche that earned her the title 'Maha Durga' from Vajpayee. The apotheosis went to her head and from ``India is Indira", she stooped down to authoritarian ways, centralisation, nepotism, indulgence in black marketeers and rigged elections. Emergency (1975-77) undid the glory of Bangladesh's liberation, severely damaged democratic civil liberties and sowed seeds of criminalisation of politics with the rise of 'Son of India', Sanjay Gandhi. Her Dasharath-like dependence and blind love for a hoodlum of a son unfortunately survived the historic electoral defeat of 1977 till his death in 1980. Her second innings was a jump from ``mania to megalomania", as state governments were toyed with and Frankensteins like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (``just a spiritual leader", she used to call him!) were nurtured with catastrophic consequences. Blue Star and her own gory end were outcomes of her paranoia and arrogance.

Morarji Desai (1977-1979)   Top

A 'Gandhian' in personal life, Morarjibhai was an ambitious power-hungry politician gunning for Prime Ministership right since Nehru's death. As JP's nominee over Charan Sigh and Jagjivan Ram, as the mantle-carrier of the ``Second Freedom" that promised a moral renaissance from dynastic rut and as the country's first non-Congress PM, Morarji failed to live up to the euphoria of Janata Party triumph. While claiming to be a man of principles, he mimicked Mrs.Gandhi by overlooking the extra-constitutional power his son Kanti Desai accumulated over two years. While armed with an able foreign minister and an admirable catchphrase, ``genuine no-alignment", his government struggled under the mutual contradictions of an ad hoc coalition and debilitative infighting. Mounting industrial disorder, collapse of higher education and all-time-high corruption were his only legacies.

Chaudhary Charan Singh (1979-1980)   Top

Driven by the obsession of becoming Prime Minister at least once, no matter how long or how consequential, the doughty Jat was the most forgettable PM till date. His uniqueness lay in being the first provincial leader to don the spurs of national supremo as well as symbolising the rise of new upwardly mobile middle-caste dominant peasants such as Jats, Yadavs and Kurmis (later to be catapulted by VP Singh). A virtual puppet of Sanjay Gandhi, who supported from outside, Charan Singh's government completed the Janata burlesque and paved the way for Mrs. Gandhis' return.

Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1989)   Top

The new 'Son of India' was, according to Thakur, an ``anti-politician who failed". His record landslide victory (401 MPs) and clean technocratic image appealed greatly to urban middle classes and youth, who pinned hopes on the dawn of a 'brave new world' where managers and Computerised ``Baba-log" would clean up the hacks and corrupt souls of the Indira era, liberalise the economy and heal growing insurgencies in Punjab and Assam. Accords were signed, however specious, foreign dignitaries were impressed (Reagan, Gorbachev, Zia and Jayawardene were all infinitely charmed) and an in-house reform of Congress was also mooted in the 'Year of Hope', 1985. Yet, Rajiv floundered somewhere and returned to the regal and Caesarist style of his mother, gathering coteries of notoriously venal politicians around him (``a love fest of sycophancy"), peddling an overly-activist foreign policy that endangered hitherto existing foundations (Operation Brassstacks, IPKF, Afghanistan etc.) and flouting procedural norms by misinforming or non-informing the President of important national and international developments (according to Thakur, Zail Singh was so peeved at Rajiv's imperiousness that he repeatedly plotted to dismiss him). Then came Bofors and the downhill slide was complete. Rajiv returned into reckoning after the spoof of the National Front in 1991, but it is unlikely that the Congress would have come within reach of power had he not been tragically assassinated.

Vishwanath Pratap Singh (1989-1990)   Top

The Raja of Manda attempted another Janata-type ``master management of contradictions" and ended up as a bizarre experimenter, much ridiculed and bantered. His self-professed ``value-based politics" and anti-corruption (read Bofors) plank flew in the face of fractious squabbling within the National Front, a rag-tag assemblage of Communists, Casteists and Rightists joined together only to taste the crumbs of power. It was during his regime that the Kashmir popular insurgency was ignited, thanks to a most timorous exchange of terrorists for the Home Minster's daughter, a price we are paying to this day. The rise of Devi Lal and Sons overshadowed every other denouement under Singh, making a mockery of his claims of political morality (Thakur relates how the Tau and Singh stuck a deal to oust Chandra Shekhar in return for the Haryana strongman's Deputy Prime Ministership). While Meham electoral violations shocked the nation, Singh also failed to provide conclusive evidence of Rajiv's involvement in Bofors, the basis of his own rise. In an Indira-imitative move, Singh discovered a ``messiah of the Backwards" card, Mandal, late into his reign, to steal the thunder from a rampaging Devi Lal. 27 percent reservations for OBCs remained his only contribution to posterity, a socio-political revolution that had far-reaching impact in the nineties. Thakur posits that BJP devised Mandir as an antidote to Mandal. Advani's Rath Yatra followed, another revolutionary political change that drowned VP Singh.

Chandrashekhar (November 1990-June 1991)   Top

The 'Young Turk' finally got a ride! Just like Charan Singh, he was supported by Rajiv's Congress from outside and just like Charan Singh, he was pooh-poohed to an ignominious exit. For all his 'true socialist' motivations under JP, Chandrashekhar stood for no values or commitments whatsoever, a charlatan game enough to admit that ``you cannot avoid certain people" to rise in politics. India's economy reached the edge of the precipice under him, having to sell gold to bolster depleted foreign exchange reserves in 1991. His dalliances with conmen and notorious anti-national elements like Chandraswami and Adnan Khashoggi completed a tale of woe and made his government the ``second national disaster" after VP Singh's.

P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-1996)   Top

A PM by accident, he displayed the uncanny shrewdness of a ``Machiavelli and Chanakya rolled into one" to survive for five years with a razor-thin majority. He neutralised rivals like Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar, pulverised the shadow of No.10 Janpath and also retained the confidence of the Lok Sabha by splintering opposition groups with a chess player's consummate skill. Coming at a time when stability was becoming scarce, he also breathed relief to an election-weary country, although by devious methods. PV was the first south Indian to rule from Delhi, thus breaking the cow belt's monopoly over central power. He oversaw economic liberalisation and reform that have changed the face of India for the better and will earn him a place in the firmament. The impetus for a post-Cold War foreign policy by remoulding India's interests was also given shape to in these years. On the flip side, ``Scamomania" gripped India- Harshad Mehta, Hawala, Sugar, Fertilisers, Chandra Swami etc.- and an unholy precedent of a sitting PM being indicted directly for corruption took seat. That the Congress found itself emasculated by the end of Rao's term was largely a result of his unscrupulous survival tactics.

Atal Behari Vajpayee (May 16th -June 1st 1996, March 1998 onward)   Top

Had it not been for the Hawala diaries naming Advani as a recipient, the Sangh Parivar may have chosen him as PM for the fleeting 13 days. Others maintain that Vajpayee was chosen specifically because the government could not last the travails of a hung parliament. Whatever the case, BJP began a trend towards claiming the political centre from Congress by refusing to horse-trade for MPs in 1996. Vajpayee ``left a deep niche in the hearts and minds of the people" and left them wanting for more of him. Thakur feels that Vajpayee comes nearest to Indira Gandhi as ``Prime Minister material", imbued with charisma, idealism and rhetoric that can concretise the aspirations of the people and emote with them. However, he is hampered by all kinds of coalitional and ideological divisions. His first coalition was rocked repeatedly by one of modern India's most mendacious politicians, Jayalalitha. His second coalition is stabler, but one only needs to ask how long! His relations with Advani are subject to intense speculation, although whatever rivalry is evident to pressmen seems largely overestimated. The parallel of Nehru-Patel rivalry appears tantalising yet far fetched. Vajpayee's liberal ``mask" is seen by many as sheltering the BJP's ``hidden agenda", one of majoritarianism and intolerance of non-Hindus. His long stewardship of foreign policy may yet be his lasting contribution.

H.D.Deve Gowda (1996-1997)   Top

Another accidental PM, the ``humble farmer" from Karnataka left little impact on Indian polity. His ``singular point of reference was Ramakrishna Hegde", archrival of yore, whom he sought to downsize and humiliate using the Prime Ministership and a much discredited Subramaniam Swami. RK Laxman's famous cartoon depicting Gowda in office with a bloated map of his home state in the background and a tiny speck of an Indian map tells it all! Gowda had no vision beyond his home battlegrounds (He once asked, ``Does a Prime Minister need to know what CTBT is?") Perhaps this was a reflection of his shady creation by regional parties (TDP, DMK, AGP, NC). His problems with Laloo's Casteists, the ``angry old Communists" led by Indrajit Gupta, and the ghoulish Sitaram Kesri reverberated the travesty of coalition politics and did him in.

Inder Kumar Gujral (1997-1998)   Top

Suave diplomat (the 'Gujral Doctrine' remains a viable foreign policy option) and academic who owed his entire career to the Gandhi family, Gujral became PM thanks to a most unlikely 'mentor', Laloo Yadav who was bent on stopping fellow OBC Mulayam Yadav from grabbing the top job. A principled man whose only weakness had been loyalty to Indira, Gujral hung on for 11 months, a creditable job considering the circumstances. Hemmed in by contradictory pressures from the UF (read Karunanidhi) and from a Congress insistent on publicising the Jain Commission report on Rajiv's assassination, he was living testimony of the complete moribundity of the ``third force" idea in Indian politics.

Epilogue   Top

Indira Gandhi at times was the only PM that ever made us proud of being Indian. It was a pity that her immense abilities and energy were qualified by utterly despicable and horrifying tendencies. It is equally a pity that Shastri died untimely or that a man of Vajpayee's calibre wallows in an 'instability complex' to be of much eventuality. Of course, one cannot but get a mixed bag in politics, some greatness and some foibles. This is the story of Indian politics over five decades, using reportage and clinical analysis- a collector's item for all who are fascinated and troubled by India's democratic journey from Midnight to Millennium.


This article is a review of Janardan Thakur's "Prime Ministers - Nehru to Vajpayee" (Eeshwar Publications, 1999) by Sreeram Sundar Chaulia. Sreeram Sundar Chaulia studied Indian History at St.Stephen's College, Delhi, and took a second BA in Modern History from University College, Oxford. He is currently analysing BJP's Foreign Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This article was published in IndiaServer's August 2000 issue.