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Tuesday , October 25 , 2011
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Pecking-order games PMs have played

New Delhi, Oct. 24: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has merely followed his predecessors by not designating a Number Two.

P.V. Narasimha Rao, Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee too mostly refused to have a No. 2 when they held the top job. If forced by circumstances to appoint one, they would try to get their senior colleagues to take turns.

So, when L.K. Advani today scoffed at Singh for leaving a question mark over who was No. 2 by placing Pranab Mukherjee on a par with P. Chidambaram, he was perhaps forgetting how Vajpayee had subtly done the same for years as NDA Prime Minister.

During his frequent trips abroad or to favourite holiday spot Manali, Vajpayee would never name a No. 2. This reluctance got highlighted in the public eye in October 2000, when he was wheeled into a Mumbai hospital for more than a fortnight’s stay to get a knee replacement.

Vajpayee’s aides had correctly argued that the Constitution was silent on a No. 2. The standard practice for a Prime Minister was to send a note to the cabinet secretary, naming the person authorised to call an emergency cabinet meeting in his absence. The cabinet secretary would then officially inform the ministers.

Instead, Vajpayee moved his secretariat to the seventh floor of Breach Candy Hospital, bringing in special phones, computers and fax machines.

Pramod Mahajan, then information technology minister, dismissed the speculation over the absence of an “officiating” Prime Minister. He pointed out that Vajpayee had never gone into a coma, and that this arrangement meant that if he wished to call a cabinet meeting, he could do it “within a second”.

Few in the BJP or the NDA bought Mahajan’s explanation. Those familiar with the fault lines running through the party and coalition claimed that Vajpayee had been unable to “make up his mind” on whom to appoint No. 2: home minister Advani or defence minister George Fernandes.

“It was about his own survival,” a Shiv Sena minister had then said, alluding to Vajpayee’s fear that if he anointed Advani, he might lose the leverage he had gained over the years to keep Advani and the RSS “in their places”.

Eight months later, when Vajpayee was admitted to hospital for a second knee job, there was again no Number Two.

The ambiguity was settled in June 2002, when Advani was formally designated Deputy Prime Minister at the Sangh’s behest. A weakened Vajpayee could do little but yield.

At that time, Vajpayee was under siege from within the BJP and outside on the Gujarat violence: he wanted to sack Narendra Modi as chief minister but was outvoted overwhelmingly within the party. The liberals were criticising him for his “pusillanimity” in taking the hawks on.

Vajpayee was forced to ride out the rest of his tenure with an increasingly aggressive Advani by his side.

Rajiv had three colleagues who could make the cut: Rao, R. Venkataraman and N.D. Tiwari. His “official” choice was Rao but behind the scenes, Rajiv’s home minister and man for all seasons, Buta Singh, called the shots.

Rao’s position as leader of the first non-Nehru-Gandhi Congress government, and the doubts over whether the party genuinely accepted him, made the choice of a Number Two tricky for him.

Old-timers say his personal choice would have been home minister S.B. Chavan or finance minister Manmohan Singh. Neither was acceptable to the rest.

At the beginning, Rao played by the book and nominated Arjun Singh, the senior-most cabinet member, as his deputy in his absence. Once Singh left the Congress, Rao decided not to have a No. 2.

Lal Bahadur Shastri too had headed a government minus any member of the Congress’s “first family” in its highest ranks. Unlike Rao, though, Shastri had to contend with Indira Gandhi’s presence as a junior minister. This made it impossible for him to select a No. 2.

Indira leveraged her legacy in 1965 to visit the Pakistan border after the war. In the process, she subtly secured her place in the top hierarchy.

Throughout her long and chequered career, Indira avoided having any Number Two. However, when she returned as Prime Minister in 1980, she had started posing faith in Pranab Mukherjee.

By 1983-84, Mukherjee, then finance minister, was asked to chair the cabinet committee on political affairs in her absence. But after Indira’s death, some people apparently spread canards about Mukherjee’s “ambitions” before Rajiv to try and create discord between them.

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