When a PM Retains Office by Learning From Leader of Opposition 

A PM who remembers his own mortality as leader of Opposition shall manage to stay on as the prime minister.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
PM Modi (left), The Quint’s Founder-Editor, Raghav Bahl (centre), Rahul Gandhi (R). Image used for representational purposes.
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I was aimlessly browsing through a few political events when I stumbled upon a surprising fact. India has had 14 (ok, 15 if you count Gulzarilal Nanda, who was sworn in as “acting PM” twice) major and minor prime ministers.

Here’s a quick count for millennials: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda, Inder Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.

Do PMs Return After Becoming Leader of Opposition?

Only one among them returned as prime minister after serving an interim stint as leader of the Opposition in parliament: Indira Gandhi! (Again, technically, Vajpayee could qualify, since he was PM for 13 days in 1996, then LOP, and then a “regular” PM from 1998-2004). Her son, Rajiv, almost repeated that feat, but was tragically assassinated in the middle of two phases of the 10th Lok Sabha campaign in 1991. In his place, Narasimha Rao was elected to head the Congress government.

Now my curiosity was tickled. Was it usual for prime ministers to enjoy only one linear, uninterrupted innings, and disappear into anonymity, or death, once they demitted office? Was India’s circumstance an outlier or the norm? I returned to my redoubtable browser and Google.

To my astonishment, the United Kingdom (UK), the other robust parliamentary democracy (whom we copied), mimicked our trend (or, to put the history in correct chronology, we cloned their pattern). Over the last 80 years in the UK, only two prime ministers lost, became leader of the Opposition, and won back the premier’s office: Winston Churchill (the more illustrious of the two) and Harold Wilson.

What Churchill & Indira Gandhi Have in Common

Indira Gandhi’s turbulent political journey is familiar to many in India – from the “goongi gudia” (speechless puppet) that the Congress ‘old guard’ thought she would be when they installed her as the prime minister in 1966, to the socialist crusader who nationalised banks and abolished privy purses, to Ma Durga (Goddess of War) who sliced Pakistan in two by liberating Bangladesh in 1971, to the dictatorial imposition of the Emergency in 1975, to her humiliating defeat in 1977, to her persecution by the Shah Commission, to her street instincts as she fought her way back to power in 1980 – that legend is known.

Even her horrific end, assassinated by Sikh guards in 1984 (in the angry aftermath of Operation Bluestar — the Indian Army’s assault on the terrorist-infested Golden Temple in Amritsar), added to her political fable.

But Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill’s story is equally compelling. He was to the manor born, an aristocrat; he was half-American, from his mother’s side. He was a real soldier, seeing action in British India, and then a war correspondent and writer. He held big political offices, from President of the Board of Trade to Home Secretary. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he returned the Sterling to the gold standard in 1925, which was widely thought to have triggered British deflation.

He spent the 1930s in relative political wilderness, but continued to warn the world about the dangers posed by Nazi Germany. He became prime minister in 1940, and led an aggressive military campaign against Hitler. Ironically, once Great Britain had won, he was painted as the “warmonger” and lost the 1945 election to Labour Party’s Clement Attlee.

He was a largely hands-off leader of the Opposition from 1945-51, preferring to spend time on his memoirs (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953). But he became prime minister again, before a stroke felled him, and he retired from the office in 1955 (although he continued as an MP until 1964).

Lessons for Modi & Rahul as They Square Off in 2019

So only two political colossuses of the last century, Winston Churchill and Indira Gandhi, had the opportunity, temerity, resilience, strategic savvy or plain luck, to hop-skip-and-jump across the parliamentary aisle, from the treasury-to-opposition-and-back-to-treasury benches.

Now, if this is such a rare political event, does it have a celestial message embedded in it? For India’s prime ministerial contenders in 2019, viz Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Opposition Leader Rahul Gandhi?

Yes, there is an akashvani (celestial broadcast) being beamed at both the warriors in the upcoming Mahabharata (epic battle): The politician who retains the DNA of an Opposition leader even as he ascends to the prime minister’s office, he need never become the leader of the Opposition again!

5 Reasons Why a PM Should Retain ‘DNA’ of Leader of Opposition

  1. As soon as the LOP becomes the PM, bureaucrats encircle him. The IAS performs a complete, efficient capture, cutting off the prime minister’s engagement with freethinkers and professionals. He is trapped within an impenetrable security blanket; the “threat perception” is credibly used to justify his isolation. He is tethered to Raisina Hill, lulled into a coma by ceremonial commitments which eat into critical time and attention. The PM begins to misread visibility for action, applause for endorsement, an echo chamber for diverse feedback. In fact, the once free-wheeling LOP becomes a lapdog of the deep, inscrutable State.
  • As the LOP, he enjoys meeting critics, because the bulk of the barbs are aimed at his opponent. He actively seeks innovative ideas to handle crises – for example, using sophisticated hybrid financial instruments to strengthen public sector banks, or adopting ultra-modern corporate structures to ensure that digital start-ups thrive under Indian entrepreneurs, instead of becoming colonial outposts for the American and Chinese “raiders”. These “new-gen ideas” then become fodder for the speeches in which the LOP castigates the government for being “clueless and hidebound”. He reads editorials and critiques directly, as opposed to the PM who waits for a second-hand, curated summary to be fed to him.
  • The LOP usually travels in commercial flights; his motorcade wades through normal traffic jams, encountering road rage and frustration. He lives in the real, imperfect world, while the PM is confined to a clean and orderly cocoon. The PM loses the power of native, tactile problem-solving abilities.
  • The LOP is virtually a “buddy” for political colleagues and workers, across hierarchies and geographies. He is a general who bonds with troops, because he needs them to win imminent battles. But the PM is a remote icon guarded within concentric circles. Neither colleagues nor ordinary workers can reach him. Worse, the PM begins to believe that he permanently owns the State’s humongous architecture and can dispense with political assets. Until a defeat reminds him of his mortality.
  • Finally, the LOP is forever short of cash and resources. He is bereft of State power. He has no option other than to empower colleagues and stretch each rupee. But the PM is awash in patronage. He can bust the bank even on tiny political campaigns. His answer to every defiance or rebuke is to unleash vindictive power. He can use State secrets, tap communication channels, subpoena the weak into sneaking or lying. That is destructively addictive. Instead of seeking compromise and kinship, he is tempted to browbeat into submission. He becomes stiff and arrogant, choosing to snap rather than bend.

And so he inevitably snaps — remember Winston Churchill and Indira Gandhi. But the PM who remembers his own mortality as the LOP shall manage to stay on as the prime minister – such is the irony of this supreme office in a parliamentary democracy.

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