The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A political background is not essential for a good president

Next month India chooses a new president and within two years a new prime minister. What has characterized the better ones in the past' We need to have some perspective to judge them.

Venality, family nepotism, a strong political base, preparedness for the job, a clear vision of what is sought to be achieved, manipulative skills — these positive and negative qualities jostle in the nature of a prime minister. Presidents have gravitas, are better educated and have clear ideas of their constitutional responsibility. There have been many exceptions. Fortunately, at the time of Independence, India had great leadership, unlike Russia after the Soviet Union. Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, had no vision of where he wanted to take the Soviet Union. He was drunkenly playful and garrulous at the most inappropriate times, almost destroyed the Russian economy, handed over huge chunks of state assets to gangster ‘oligarchs’, was responsible for the premature deaths of many because of malnutrition and lack of medical care, and did not prepare Russians and Russia for a democratic polity.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had the vision while P.V. Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi had vision but lacked the leadership skills. Nehru’s vision for India was that of a progressive, plural, modern democracy. If India has defied prophets of doom to survive as a democracy with many pluralities in its population, it is due to his vision.

Lal Bahadur Shastri was a Gandhian, close to Nehru and a life-long politician. He seemed to have a vision but war with Pakistan and premature death prevented him from giving it shape. Narasimha Rao was also a lifelong politician, and a scholar. He had to run a minority government and the fractious Congress with little popular backing. But he initiated the transformation of the Indian economy and gave foreign policy a global vision. He could not prevent the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya.

Rajiv Gandhi’s education was limited to living with his prime minister mother. Familiar with technology, he wanted a modern India and improved ties with the West. His lack of political experience prevented any major accomplishment after his first two years.

Vajpayee was a founder of one of India’s major parties, a sensitive poet and a charismatic speaker. He was the first non-Congress leader to last a full term. He changed the world’s view of India and gave it global respect with the nuclear bomb tests, continuing economic liberalization and softening the anti-American stance in vogue. He changed India’s direction. His successors have to follow his lead. He surely has a place in history. The aberration of not rushing in Central forces to protect Muslims in Gujarat will remain a black mark against him and his party.

Other prime ministers, including Indira Gandhi, may not always have placed the country above their interests. Indira Gandhi’s political education happened through her being her father’s hostess. He did not teach her the liberalism and tolerance of dissent that he practised. Her economic illiteracy put India’s development back by 20 years. Her paranoia, her desire to keep all power in her hands and her converting the Congress into a family heritage, bereft of alternative leaders, are known. The positive thing about her reign was her leadership in dealing with East Pakistan and her helping it to become Bangladesh. Her grandson tactlessly called it her plan to break Pakistan.

Morarji Desai was a rigid Gandhian. But he allowed his son to misuse his position. He did not seem to have a vision or the political skills to achieve a purpose. The men around him, like Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar, ensured that he was ineffective. The major initiative of his regime was taken by the then home minister, Charan Singh, who hounded Indira Gandhi, gave her a martyr’s halo and the determination to come back to power. They thus lost India the opportunity to rid itself of this dynasty. And as prime minister, Charan Singh, despite a lifetime in politics, never overcame the loyalty to his Jat community and his rural background.

V.P. Singh was an accidental politician. As finance minister, he was credited by many with the early moves to liberalize the economy. But liberalization owes to Rajiv Gandhi’s vision. V.P. Singh’s caste-oriented policies were a crime against a pluralistic Indian democracy. His reign was devoid of any vision or action for development; he brought discord and was unable to handle the economic crises that occurred when oil prices rose.

There were prime ministers who held the job for short periods at a time because of political compromises. This includes that noble Gandhian, Gulzarilal Nanda, who was once interim prime minister. Others include the devious Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar — who was entirely at Rajiv Gandhi’s mercy, H.D. Deve Gowda — having his strings pulled by Sitaram Kesri, and that acceptable political face for all parties, I.K Gujral. None made any mark on India or initiated policies to improve its future. Except for Nanda and Gujral, they were all ambitious beyond their competence, manipulative without conscience and brought benefit to only themselves and their coteries.

Rajendra Prasad (a leader during the independence movement) as president tried unsuccessfully to define greater powers for the presidency. S. Radhakrishnan (a philosopher) spoke out against the growing influence of the military and industry. Zakir Hussein (a nationalist, an educationist and institution builder) was pained by the allegations whispered against him during the Pakistan war. R. Venkatraman (an able minister and politician) was an impeccable president. The remaining presidents had ideologies and agendas that intruded on their role as president.

V.V. Giri (a labour leader), an unremarkable president, was Indira Gandhi’s creature, so situated as to break the syndicate of old men in her party. Fakruddin Ali Ahmed (a lawyer and politician) will always be remembered for meekly signing the declaration of Emergency. Zail Singh ( a politician and ineffective minister) said after he was sworn in as president that he would take a broom and sweep the floor if Indira Gandhi asked him to do so. His Rashtrapati Bhavan became a den of intrigue, with the president taking an active interest in the unstable Punjab situation. Later, when he fell out with Rajiv Gandhi, he is said to have conspired against him for his dismissal. The claim of Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy (a towering politician from Andhra Pradesh) to fame as president was his invitation to Charan Singh to form the government without a floor vote for Morarji Desai. Charan Singh had deserted with some Janata Party members.

K.R. Narayanan ( a foreign service bureaucrat and pretentious intellectual with strong leftist ideology) allowed his leftist sympathies to put him at odds with the National Democratic Alliance government. He is said to have prevented the government from talking to Myanmarese generals about refusing refuge to militants from the North-East. His family connections with Aung San Su Kyi who, with her mother, stayed with his family after Aung San was assassinated, are said to be responsible.

Prime ministers with a strong political base and vast political experience have a greater chance of success. The ideal prime minister is one who has courage to act without fear of allies or the opposition, has political experience, a clear vision, the ability to listen and learn without disclosing intentions till the ground is prepared, and without making permanent enemies.

Neither presence nor absence of political background seems to guarantee a good president, who will be neutral towards ideology and between people. A president with political experience may have the advantage of knowing the limits but might also interfere. A good education, integrity, objectivity and a willingness to live within the limits of the job are essential.

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