People, including prime ministers, rise to the level of their responsibilities. If that’s not one of Parkinson’s Laws, it should be. To suggest otherwise is to imply, first, that birth is the ultimate determinant of personality and achievement, and, second, that god in his infinite wisdom rates mankind according to profession and infuses in some human beings a special prime ministerial gene.
At least three Indian prime ministers flatly contradict that hypothesis — Lal Bahadur Shastri who towered above his diminutive stature; Indira Gandhi, the goongi gudiya who was said to “squeak” instead of speak; and Chandra Shekhar who might have been the prime minister that never was. All three were beneficiaries of accident; despite that, all three left a mark on Indian life. If they could hold the top job and guide this nation of then about 900 million people, anybody can. The myth of the best prime minister India never had vanishes.
No one would have said Chandra Shekhar, the ageing Young Turk, unconscious inventor of the designer bristle, whom New Delhi’s Americans called Darth Vader after the sombre-visaged character in Star Wars, was classic prime ministerial material. He was propelled into the job when V.P. Singh lost a vote of confidence after a heated 11-hour debate. His was one of the most wobbly coalitions ever; also one of the shortest lived — four months and another four as caretaker.
Yet, he made a vital difference to India’s destiny by turning round foreign policy and starting the process that has led the United States of America to single India out today among the ‘unauthorized’ nuclear weapons states for legitimization. Being without ideological sophistry, he never understood how Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait could liberate Palestine. He agreed during his brief stint to resume border trade with China, finalized a treaty with Pakistan not to attack each other’s nuclear installations, had a hot line installed for the Indian and Pakistani directors-general of military operations to talk regularly, and was about to follow up with a subcontinental equivalent of the US-Soviet agreement on incidents at sea when Rajiv Gandhi pulled the rug out from under his government.
By then he had already made history by allowing American warplanes to overfly, land, refuel and be serviced at airports throughout the country. It was the beginning of the end of India’s Cold War with the US. Pentagon and state department officials excluded him when they warned that the hostility of Indian politicians would be remembered when it came to taking crucial decisions regarding Pakistan.
Asked about his place in history, Chandra Shekhar replied with surprising literary dexterity, “Not even a semicolon!” He thought, perhaps, he might merit a comma.
Shastri was a lacklustre compromise candidate chosen precisely because he seemed so inconsequential. “Perhaps due to my being small in size and soft of tongue, people are apt to believe that I am not able to be very firm,” he said. “Though not physically strong, I think I am internally not so weak.” It sounded like Elizabeth Tudor’s defiant “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too!” Ayub Khan’s Operations Gibraltar and Grand Slam were Shastri’s Armadas.
Bracketing Mrs Gandhi with Shastri and Chandra Shekhar might surprise many. But hallowed lineage notwithstanding, think of what she was — failing her exams at Cambridge, selected for much the same reasons as Shastri, tongue-tied, fumbling at press conferences — and not the militant Durga she became. On one embarrassing occasion just after she had been to the Soviet Union during an American hostage crisis, hectoring American journalists demanded to know if she had asked her Kremlin hosts to have them released. She had, she pleaded. What did they say' They didn’t reply was the lame response.
That was in her early years. Mrs Gandhi matured into a resplendent leader, proud, confident, independent, dignified, a shade shrill perhaps — that probably came from speech therapy — but never to be put down by anybody. I am talking of personality, not politics. She grew in the job.
Prime ministers are made, not born. Yes, there might in some rare cases be a touch of pre-ordination. The young Harold Wilson, up from Huddersfield on a holiday photographed outside Number Ten, was obviously prescient. The Younger Pitt’s relief when his father became Earl of Chatham that he was not the elder son for he wanted to serve in the Commons was precocious. In contrast, Brij Mohan Kaul, the army officer who played such a disastrous part in India’s humiliation in 1962, was stupid and crude in claiming to the American writer, Welles Hangen, that his horoscope foretold he would “one day rule India” and allowing the weekly Current to call him the man to watch who “may one day even become prime minister of India”.
If anyone in India was marked out by destiny, it was Jawaharlal Nehru. But he deserves to be honoured more as a national inspiration than an administrator. “Nehru was undoubtedly one of the great statesmen of the world,” wrote Singapore’s first foreign minister, a Jaffna Tamil called Sinnathamby Rajaratnam. “But looking back, some people find that his achievements as a nation-builder do not measure up to his achievements as a freedom-fighter.”
Of course, like all notions, the one about prime ministers growing in the job must be tempered with realism. The offspring of a landless labourer, deprived and oppressed for generations, knowing nothing but the bleak margins of society, may not blossom into a heroic prime minister if some miracle suddenly catapults him into South Block. Whatever the fervent proponents of quotas may insist, comparison demands a level playing field and a similarity of background and opportunity. Talent has to be honed. There are no substitutes for exposure and experience. But if all that exists, the position will impose its own discipline on a raw incumbent, the government’s infrastructure taking care of the rest.
The concept of the best prime minister a country never had was probably inspired by R.A. Butler who twice missed the boat. It implies that prime ministers come ready packaged. If some packages are never opened, it may be a national victory instead of a “historic mistake” for, who knows, Jyoti Basu might have done to India what he did to West Bengal. This is one of history’s might-have-beens, ranking with Pascal’s “If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter the whole history of the world would have been different.”
There are many other ifs. Some think there would have been no Kashmir problem if Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had chosen Vallabhbhai Patel instead of Nehru. Others may wonder if Partition itself would have been avoided if Gandhi had taken on the prime ministerial mantle. Or would he have allowed the entire country to become Pakistan' For many, it was a national tragedy when Jayaprakash Narayan abandoned rajniti for lokniti.
Nearer our time and level, would Sanjay Gandhi have bulldozed away the problem of slum clearance and excised excess population' Would his widow put people in cages for animals to gawk at' The suicide rate could shoot up if Chandrababu Naidu lands the job. Mani Shankar Aiyar might transform India into a huge sports stadium.
Leaving aside such frivolities, think of how the catchment area has expanded. Manmohan Singh’s competence confirms that prime ministers need not be politicians. Sonia Gandhi’s “inner voice” means they don’t have to be India-born. If every French soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, and every American mother hopes her son will be president, there is no reason why every Indian should not aspire to sit in the main chamber of South Block. Nor is there any reason why they should be any better or worse than the prime ministers we have already had. It’s the luck of the draw.