Listening to the address of our latest prime minister, Narendra Modi, to the nation from Red Fort on Independence Day, I was struck by the fact that in terms of content, oratory and identification of specific target areas, it was totally different from what I have heard from his predecessors on many previous occasions. One does not have to be a fan or a critic of Modi to acknowledge the fact that the speech was ‘different’ — even if one heard a few hours later Ghulam Nabi Azad’s comment to the effect that Modi showed what a good salesman he is by merely repackaging all the things that the United Progressive Alliance governments gave or wanted to give to the poor of this country.
An octogenarian now, I was already an adult when, in a completely different environment, one was thrilled with the lectures of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and later admired the oratory, if not the content, of his daughter’s speeches. I think I have not heard anything like Modi’s speech in its totality.
I then thought it would be a good idea — while memory can still turn to live facts — if somebody started on, say a first volume, of the masterpiece that Harold Wilson (picture by PHC Harold Wise) wrote soon after his retirement and that Weidenfeld & Nicolson published in 1977. It was entitled A Prime Minister on Prime Ministers. It began with Robert Walpole, who was the first to be called a Prime Minister (although he liked to present himself as the Sole Minister) from 1721, to Harold Macmillan, who retired in 1963, and was followed for a brief spell of 12 months by Alexander Douglas-Home before Wilson took over.
Harold Wilson’s book lists the career of twelve prime ministers of the United Kingdom and examines them very impartially, with a historian’s advantage of hindsight, which enables each prime ministerial action to be judged by its consequences. Only one who has for many years held the office himself can estimate the pressures, the conflicting considerations — whether of policy and political, electoral or international repercussions — which bear on a prime minister. Wilson puts himself in the place of the 12 other prime ministers and, in each case, estimates the precise factors that governed the decision-making process.
I thought to myself how wonderful it would be if Manmohan Singh can be persuaded to write a book like this. I know he is not a historian but nobody can doubt his scholarship and the depth of his capacity to do a lot of analytical research. He would cover the entire period of 57 years from the time of Nehru to that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and he should have no problem in gathering the relevant data. He would have no difficulty in assessing his immediate predecessor (who is now rated so highly); he himself had an unusually long and unbroken spell for an Indian prime minister. By the time Singh completes the job, he is unlikely to carry the trace of any unwarranted partisanship of which he has been accused in recent years, as then he will hopefully be, in mind at least, detached from the heat of contemporary politics.
I have no other means of getting through to Singh other than through this article. I hope it will generate some interest in this proposition so that it reaches him.