PM, who?

The race for Race Course Road is well and truly on. The parade of wannabe PMs cuts across parties, ideologies, age, gender and, not the least, stature and ambition. Clearly, the PM’s gaddi looks to be the easiest to aspire for, even though the path to it may be littered with political potholes, thorns, hurdles and even minefields. And once there, it is no smooth sitting either for that chair has been rocked no end in recent times and is now as shaky as a drunken duck. So, what does it take to become the PM? Here’s a scan of the gallery of PMs, past, present, and particularly prospective. Aspirants not in this list can send in their CVs. The arena is wide open!

Constitutionally, the PM is selected by the President (after the latter is satisfied that the person commands or will command within a prescribed time, the majority support in Parliament) and continues in office at the pleasure of the President. In reality, the PM is the de facto ruler of the nation. Again, although all ministers are deemed equal, the PM is sort of first among equals. The PM is often described as the ‘keystone of the arch of the Cabinet’. The PMs prerogatives, inter alia, include choosing ministerial colleagues, taking executive decisions, presiding over cabinet meetings with the overriding right to have his or her way and most vitally, advising the ‘ornamental’ President on what and what not to do. That in a nutshell is what the Book says.

Nehru and Indira were copybook PMs, though by virtue of their hold over the party and people, they also often went way beyond it. And they ruled long and hard. Rajiv too was all-powerful, but he fizzled out owing to lack of stature and strength, that were present aplenty in his mother and grandfather. His slide from over 400 MPs to a paltry 195 in just five years was the fastest and steepest. PVN by far would rank as the best and boldest, given the circumstances of his ascension and the state of the country. Though a multi-lingual scholar of repute, his silence was actually the most eloquent. He survived by making the stiff upper lip a potent weapon in politics and diplomacy. He too fell in five years but only after proving that there could be life beyond the dynasty. After him, however, it’s family business as usual in the Cong and by extension, the country whenever that party rules.

The rest in the roster were always on leash, thanks to coalitions. PM Morarji Desai headed a geriatric club whose members nevertheless were rife with Prime Ministerial ambitions. His regime was one foot from the grave from day one and took the fatal step into it in quick time. Charan Singh was an apparition that vanished as fast as it visualised, courtesy Indira. It’s doubtful if his fingerprints were ever found in the PMO. A little over a decade later, Chandra Shekar met the same fate, after Rajiv found him unworthy of his support within just four months in office. Weepy Singh, who preceded C.Shekar had lasted eleven months. But that was time enough for the demented Raja of Manda to bring the nation to the brink. And after being torn asunder by the Left and Right, he eventually succumbed to an inside job. The devious Devi Lal did him in. The UF of 1996 vintage gave two PMs to the national archives: Gowda, the unlikeliest candidate ever, slept through most of the eleven months in office. His successor Gujral lasted another nine months before the supporting Congress developed its customary itch and pulled the rug. For the record, there was one Gulzarilal Nanda, a permanent temporary PM in the sixties, who officiated whenever an incumbent died without notice.

Vajpayee’s first term lasted 13 days. He improved his record by staying put for thirteen months in his second stint before a storm in a teacup felled him. Third time around, he lasted his full term, though troublesome allies kept causing turbulence. The poetic PM persevered and prevailed, providing a stable government that till then was the sole boast of the Cong. But the stars stopped shining on him in 2004, handing out an unexpected poetic justice that put the poet on pathos mode. M Singh suddenly was the chosen one, thanks to a self-serving sacrifice by a spurious saint. So while the desi Sardar filled the PMO, all power and prerogatives were wielded by the imported prima donna. This puppet show has gone on for five years now with M Singh holding on to office at the pleasure of the Cong President. Well not always, because, the last few months of the ‘Clean’ PM’s reign is owed to the murky wheelings and dealings of another benefactor answering to the name Amar Singh. But M Singh can take due credit for ‘elevating’ the PM’s post to that of the President; the country now has two rubber stamps!

There were quite a few PMs who never were. Vallabhai Patel was a noteworthy leader who was PM material but succumbed to Nehru’s overlordship. But since Patel died in 1950, Jawaharlal was in a way fated to rule. As we said, the Janata express was throbbing with me-too-PMs but the likes of Jagjivan Ram and Raj Narain to name a few, were not lucky. Dr Swamy is on record saying that he would be PM if only he had ten MPs! Devi Lal, till the end remained a PM-maker, and sometimes, breaker. Sanjay Gandhi’s prime ministerial dreams were short circuited, catapulting Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul on path to the prized post. Our own GK Moopanar had a near miss in 1996, ceding to Deve Gowda. The reigning rumour then was that it was a fellow Tamil leader, a rational one at that, who played spoilsport on the sly.

Cut to the present and it’s prime time for Prime ministerial prospects. L K Advani, well past his prime is BJP’s prime minister-in-waiting with Narendra Modi breathing down his neck. Cong has not been so upfront, just in case: It could be M Singh again, Pranab or Rahul depending on the number of seats the party wins. But what’s certain is that the saint will remain on her comfortable perch, content being the super PM. The umpteenth Third Front that has again materialised has one too many. From Maya up north to Jaya down south, the terrain is littered with aspirants. Pawar, Mulayam, Lalu, Naidu and sundry other local satraps are there too. It is also possible, if rational fate intervenes, that our own Kalaignar K may want one of his own progenies, if not himself, in that seat, albeit, for the sake of Tamil. And who knows, even Deve Gowda may wake up for an encore. And with the Left promising to enter Government in a Third Front regime, many Red Indians too are in the ring.

Aah, it looks there’s already an absolute majority in Parliament: Over half of the MPs belong to the Party of Possible PMs, the largest group of all! Doubters can stand up in the House and shout: ‘Who wants to be PM?’ The ‘aye’s will have it! And come May, we have had it! q

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Jawahar T R