Debating India

No deputy prime minister, please

Monday 4 December 2006, by MALHOTRA*Inder

There was a note of finality and a trace of vehemence in Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s remark to the media after the Nainital conclave of Congress chief ministers, that there would "not be a deputy prime minister, and this is categorical." It must be added, even though the point has been laboured to pulp already, that this was a pre-emptive strike of sorts because the question was addressed specifically to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Obviously she knows more about the overweening ambitions, unending machinations and ineradicable intrigue of senior Congress leaders, including Cabinet ministers, than do most of us. Indeed, a joke doing the rounds is that the lady’s sleep is disturbed sometimes because of the noise made by Congressmen grinding their axes throughout the night. In any case, the Prime Minister gets more trouble from his Congress colleagues than from his coalition partners who are content with being able to run their ministries as their fiefdoms. Whether Sonia’s sharp rebuke to the troublemakers would have the desired result is a moot point.

However, it is to be welcomed that the idea of providing the Prime Minister - who the Congress president praised elaborately - with a doughty deputy has been trashed. Too many politicos, under all dispensations, have aspired to be DPM. Several have succeeded in achieving their goal. But this has done little good to the country, the party or the combination in power, or even the individual concerned, as India’s political evolution over the last 60 years underscores.

In fact, of more than half a dozen men who made it to the post, there has been only one deputy prime minister worth the name. He was the first of the line, the incomparable Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who never asked for the exalted designation, but was so designated by the towering Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, without consulting anyone. This was a tribute to Sardar’s stature even within the glittering galaxy the first Nehru Cabinet was. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that from August 15, 1947 to December 15, 1950, the day of Patel’s death, India was ruled by two men, Nehru and Patel. Vallabhbhai was the only "near-equal" Jawaharlal ever had.

Ironically, in outlook, temperament, ideological predilection and style, no two men could have been more different. Often they had serious differences and misunderstandings. Sometimes, they bickered over petty administrative matters. But, in the country’s service they were totally at one. In all accounts of that period, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the Nehru-Patel rivalry and differences. The prodigious productiveness of their unique partnership is usually ignored. The balance needs to be restored.

With Sardar’s death, the post of deputy prime minister was abolished. It was revived 17 long years later, in 1967, only because of a sharp slump in the Congress Party’s majority in the Lok Sabha in the general election that year, and Morarji Desai’s insistence on a fresh contest for the party leadership. However, even in its shaken state, the party’s survival instinct was intact; it forced a compromise under which Indira Gandhi was re-elected Prime Minister unanimously and Morarjibhai was made deputy prime minister. The arrangement was utterly fragile from the word go, and collapsed two years later when she "relieved" him of the finance portfolio as a prelude to the 1969 Congress split.

As Prime Minister in the government of the Janata Party - hurriedly cobbled before the post-Emergency elections in 1977 - Desai had no DPM for most of his 28-month innings but found it expedient to have not one deputy but two barely six months before his government’s fall. He had sacked Charan Singh in the summer of 1978. But other constituents of the Janata were adamant that the Chaudhry should be brought back. Charan Singh demanded, as part of his terms for returning to the Cabinet, elevation to the rank of deputy prime minister. Thereupon Morarji made both Charan Singh and the senior Harijan leader, Jagjivan Ram, DPMs.

Yeshwantrao Chavan, leader of the traditional Congressmen that had parted company with the Indira Congress, became deputy prime minister in the government Charan Singh formed after overthrowing Desai. But none of this meant anything because it was the only government so far not to have faced Parliament even for a day. In the election that followed Indira Gandhi staged a spectacular comeback, after which she first and then Rajiv Gandhi ruled the country for a whole decade during which there wasn’t even a whisper that the party needed a DPM.

It was with V.P. Singh’s ascension to the office of Prime Minister in December 1989 that an apparently formidable deputy prime minister, in the person of Devi Lal, appeared on the scene. It was he who brought down V.P. and helped install Chandra Shekhar, retaining for himself the position of the DPM. The arrangement lasted precisely 120 days.

Thereafter, it took another decade before the country had a deputy prime minister a good three years after the BJP-led alliance had first come to power. When L.K. Advani finally made it to the post it was clear that his elevation had much to do with RSS pressure and inner-party stirrings. Equally clear was Advani’s yearning to be PM. No wonder came the day when Venkaiah Naidu, more voluble than sensible, floated the idea of the BJP contesting the 2004 election under the "joint leadership" of "Vikas Purush" (Development Man), Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the "Loh Purush" (Iron Man), Advani. Atalji, who had compromised with the Advani camp whenever necessary, was abroad at that time. On return home, he squashed Venkaiah’s idea with such Brahminical subtlety that the entire Advani crowd ran for cover. This should have been lesson enough for the Congress Bourbons, but apparently wasn’t.

Incidentally, no deputy prime minister in any party has ever risen to the office of Prime Minister within it. Morarji’s example does not negate this truth a whit. He had left the Congress to join a party bitterly opposed to it. His rise was justly described as a "revolution by the ballot box." Sadly, it was also a revolution that was quickly devoured by its children.

See online : Asian Age

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