The Problem With ‘Strong’ Prime Ministers – Ramachandra GuhaSeptember 15, 2020
On the eve of Indira Gandhi’s first visit to Washington as Prime Minister, our Ambassador was asked by the American President, Lyndon Johnson, how he should address her. Should he call her ‘Mrs Gandhi’, or ‘Madame Prime Minister’? The Ambassador referred the query back to New Delhi. The Prime Minister laconically replied that her own Cabinet Ministers usually called her ‘Sir’.
I was reminded of this story last week when a rare TV channel organized a rare programme on the disastrous GDP numbers. At one stage in the debate, a spokesman of the Samajwadi Party asked the spokesman of the Bharatiya Janata Party who the incumbent Agriculture Minister was. This sector employed the most citizens; surely the ruling party’s spokesman would know which minister was in charge? The BJP hack did not. The tragic truth is that he was not supposed to know anyway. For all that matters in the presentation of this government is ‘Modi! Modi! Modi!’, much as all that mattered to Congressmen in the 1970s was ‘Indira! Indira! Indira’.
When in the winter of 2013-4, Narendra Modi launched his Prime Ministerial bid, a core part of his appeal was that he would be ‘strong’ whereas the then incumbent was ‘weak’. The latter charge was accurate; especially in his second term, Dr Manmohan Singh was uncertain and indecisive as well as increasingly deferential towards the Congress’s First Family. His weakness was amply demonstrated in September 2013, when Dr Singh said in public that Rahul Gandhi was an ‘ideal choice’ for PM, adding that he would be ‘happy’ to work under his leadership. The remark demeaned his office. Dr Singh had been Prime Minister for more than nine years at the time, and was a former Finance Minister and Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Whereas Rahul Gandhi’s only qualifications for the Prime Minister’s post was the fact that he was Sonia Gandhi’s son.