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LEAVE IT TO HISTORY
- India’s best and worst prime ministers

In his recent press conference, Manmohan Singh said he would leave it to history and historians to judge his tenure as prime minister. This column provides an interim verdict, by assessing his record against that of other men and women who have held the post.

Let’s begin with our first and longest-serving prime minister. Jawaharlal Nehru’s time in office falls neatly into three segments: 1947-52, 1952-7, 1957-64. His government faced enormous challenges; bringing about social and religious peace after the horrors of Partition, resettling refugees, beginning the process of economic development, creating a sense of national unity in a diverse and divided land. Nehru rose ably to the task, aided by an outstanding group of colleagues, among them Vallabhbhai Patel and B.R. Ambedkar.

Patel died in 1950. Ambedkar left the cabinet in 1951. Nehru fought the general elections of 1952 on four major issues. Two distinguished him from the hard Left, namely, the importance of multi-party democracy, and the building of a more just society through incremental means (as he put it, “we can build the edifice of Socialism, brick-by-brick only”). Two others distinguished him from the hard Right. These were equal rights for minorities (his first election speech, in Ludhiana, declared “an all-out war against communalism”), and the reform of the archaic personal laws of the majority community to give Hindu women greater dignity and autonomy.

Nehru’s best years in office were 1952 to 1957. The foundations of a democratic, plural, modern, society were laid. An independent foreign policy was forged. Economic development based on science and technology was promoted.

Had Nehru left office after his second term, we would remember him as the finest prime minister in our history. In 1958, he took a holiday in Kashmir, where he came round to the view that he should retire. However, after he returned to Delhi he was persuaded to stay on. Now his problems began. His last few years as prime minister were distinguished by growing corruption (the Mundhra affair), the arbitrary use of Central power (the dismissal of the Kerala government), and humiliation on the battle-field (against China, in 1962).

In terms of length of tenure, Indira Gandhi ranks second only to Nehru, serving as prime minister between 1966 and 1977, and again from 1980 to 1984. What were her achievements? The continuing encouragement to science and technology was one (our space programme owes a great deal to her early support). Her brave and focused leadership during the Bangladesh crisis was another. Again, like her father, she had a broad, inclusive understanding of India. She did not discriminate on religious lines, nor on the basis of language (one reason she enjoyed such high regard in South India).

Indira Gandhi was a thoroughgoing patriot, yet an uncertain democrat. In Nehru’s time, the autonomy of the civil service and the judiciary was carefully maintained. Mrs Gandhi, on the other hand, introduced the idea of the ‘committed’ bureaucrat and judge. She also converted the Congress, which until 1969 had vigorous provincial units and a culture of inner-party democracy, into a family firm. Her authoritarian tendencies led to the Emergency of 1975-7, when Opposition politicians were jailed, the press censored, and civil liberties of ordinary citizens held in abeyance.

Indira Gandhi’s other great failure was her unwillingness to undertake economic reforms. In the 1950s, even major Indian industrialists were in favour of the State assuming a commanding role in economic development. By the late 1960s, a solid industrial base had been built; the time had come to undo the license raj and encourage exports. Mrs Gandhi instead embarked on a further round of nationalization.

Between Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, three prime ministers served out their terms. Rajiv Gandhi began promisingly, seeking out young talent, promoting cutting-edge technology (especially in the IT sector), slowly opening out the economy, putting in place peace deals with Mizo and Punjabi rebels. Midway through his term, he faltered. The architects of personal law reforms, Ambedkar and Nehru, had intended that these be extended to Muslims when the climate was ripe. The Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano case provided the perfect opportunity. Unfortunately, despite having 400 MP’s at his command, as well as an articulate and progressive Muslim minister (Arif Mohammad Khan), Rajiv Gandhi gave in to the mullahs and had the judgement overturned. At the same time, he opened the locks to the Ayodhya temple. With some help from Lal Krishna Advani and his Ramjanmabhoomi movement, Nehru’s grandson thereby condemned India to two decades of religious rioting.

Had Rajiv Gandhi not been assassinated in 1991, he might have had a second term as prime minister. How he would have fared we cannot say. In the event, his replacement, P.V. Narasimha Rao, exceeded all expectations (perhaps including his own). He encouraged entrepreneurship, opened out the economy to foreign competition, and promoted exports. At the same time, he corrected India’s traditional westward bias in foreign policy by seeking better relations with Asian countries. On the negative side, Narasimha Rao appeased Hindu fundamentalists, and permitted the buying and selling of votes in Parliament.

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister in 1999, it was the ninth time someone from outside the Congress had assumed that office. He had two previous cracks at the job himself. His greatest political achievement, therefore, was that at his third try, he completed a full five-year term as prime minister. This signalled a wider reorientation in Indian politics, which had hitherto been a one-party-dominant system. Vajpayee managed his coalition partners skilfully, and encouraged further economic liberalization. However, he failed to intervene when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh hardliners infiltrated the education system and contaminated it with their antediluvian ideas. Moreover, had he dismissed the Gujarat chief minister in 2002 (he was talked out of it by his partymen), he would have more firmly consolidated our Constitutional commitment to the rights of religious minorities.

Of the many prime ministers who have served less than a full term, one stands out: Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri laid the foundations of the Green Revolution (although his successor was to garner the fruits, and appropriate the credit), and provided outstanding leadership in the 1965 war against Pakistan. Had he lived another five years, the history of India would have been very different. (For one thing, there would have been no Nehru-Gandhi dynasty).

How does Manmohan Singh’s record compare with that of his predecessors? In his press conference, he thought history would judge his term more kindly than the media have (or the voter soon shall). This is unlikely. It is hard to think of a real, substantial achievement of his term in office. The jury is still out on populist schemes such as NREGA and the Food Security Act; in any case, the credit for these programmes is claimed by the party president.The nuclear deal, which Singh himself regards as his greatest contribution, has done nothing to augment our energy security, while the “special relationship” it was supposed to herald has turned distinctly cool.

What stands out more starkly are the failures. Singh has presided over what is perhaps the most corrupt government in the history of independent India. He has undermined the institution of prime minister by not seeking direct election to the Lok Sabha, and by genuflecting so abjectly to the Congress’s First Family.

The pink press and pro-CII editors complain that the prime minister has not done enough to favour the private sector. In truth, far more damaging to the country’s long-term prospects has been the lack of attention paid to the renewal of public institutions. India’s greatest challenge today is to improve the institutional capacity of the State. As an experienced administrator himself, Singh surely understood the importance of insulating the civil service from political interference, of getting more professionals into government, of rewarding efficiency and capability rather than loyalty and sycophancy. And yet, with full knowledge of the consequences, he has allowed the system to further atrophy.

When Singh took office in 2004, political insiders knew how weak he was; a prime minister who had no say in the appointment of his own cabinet ministers. Yet, to the outside world he presented a calm, even reassuring facade; a decent man, beyond the sectarian polarities of the National Democratic Alliance years, and a professional economist to boot. Over time, the distance between these two perspectives diminished, and finally collapsed. In his second term, it became clear to everyone that here was a status-quoist prime minister, with no desire to stem official (and political) corruption, no will to begin the reform of our corroding public institutions.

There have been other weak prime ministers in the past. But none served a full term, still less two full terms. The judgement of history must take into account length of service. Singh’s term has been so disappointing because he has done so little, and over such a long period in office.

It is true that, with the passage of time, historical judgements can be revised or reversed. The excesses of Indira Gandhi made some hardline Hindutvawadis view Jawaharlal Nehru in a more sympathetic light. Rahul Gandhi has made long-time critics of the dynasty nostalgic for Indira Gandhi. It is entirely possible that a future Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister may make left-wing secularists feel more warmly towards the memory of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Yet, it is hard to see how Singh’s reputation can or will rise in the years to come.