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.
Narendra Modi adroitly seized upon Manmohan Singh's perceived as well as publicly proclaimed weakness. He himself had, he boasted, a 'chhappan inch ki chhati', a 56-inch chest. Unlike the incumbent, he was independent-minded, always his own man. He would be the strong, very strong, Prime Minister that India needed and deserved.
The contrast between a strong Narendra Modi and a weak Manmohan Singh was played up by the BJP during the election campaign of 2014. This presentation certainly helped win Modi and his party win a resounding victory. But has this image of strength subsequently helped him in his duties as a Prime Minister? Given the multiple crises facing the country at the moment, it appears not. For these crises are largely attributable to the way in which this government is run as a one-person show, with the cabinet, the bureaucracy, and the nation itself held hostage to the capricious decisions of a single individual.
In the cabinet system of governance, the Prime Minister is supposed to be first among equals. While they work under the overall direction of the Prime Minister, ministers have direct responsibility for matters that come under their designated domain. That is the theory. In practice, all through Narendra Modi's first term as Prime Minister, no cabinet minister enjoyed any sort of autonomy at all. Even the Finance Minister, a long-time Modi confidant, was kept in the dark about major economic policies decided upon uniltaterally by the Prime Minister. The Foreign Minister, an experienced and very intelligent politician, found her duties restricted to tweeting support to Indians in distress.
In Modi's second term as Prime Minister, the Home Minister enjoys a partial autonomy, but no one else. Otherwise all important policies are framed and directed from the Prime Minister's Office. If anything goes right, the Prime Minister must take the credit. However, if something goes wrong, then other people must take the blame (such as state governments run by opposition parties, the ghost of Jawaharlal Nehru, liberals, Urban Naxals, and, most recently, God himself).
Narendra Modi's centralizing and self-aggrandizing style of leadership is in marked contrast to the first BJP Prime Minister. In Atal Behari Vajpayee's cabinet, ministers such as LK Advani, Yashwant Sinha, MM Joshi, Jaswant Singh, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Shourie, and Sushma Swaraj all had considerable autonomy in their functioning. So did some ministers who did not belong to the BJP, such as George Fernandes and Mamata Banerjee. This consultative and collaborative style of leadership is surely a key reason why on some major counts-the economy, foreign policy, defence preparedness, our standing in the world - Vajpayee's India did so much better than Modi's India. This is not to say that the first NDA regime did not make mistakes; however, these mistakes would have been far more egregious if all decision-making had been concentrated in the Prime Minister himself.
That Prime Ministers who are consultative are better for the nation than Prime Ministers who act unilaterally is strikingly manifested in the career of our longest-serving PM, Jawaharlal Nehru. In his first few years in office, Nehru operated much like Vajpayee. His cabinet had great stalwarts from the Prime Minister's own Congress party - such as Vallabhbhai Patel, C Rajagopalachari, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Maulana Azad - as well as outstanding administrators from other parties, pre-eminently Dr BR Ambedkar. Nehru was the acknowledged leader, but by respecting his colleagues and largely allowing them free play in the exercise of their duties, he himself contributed enormously to healing the wounds of Partition, uniting the country around a new constitution, and laying the foundations of a multi-party democracy.
In 1952, Nehru won a second term in office. By now, Patel was dead. Ambedkar had left the government. However, Azad and Amrit Kaur were still around, while other powerful Congressmen, such as Rajaji, were in positions of power in the states. Nehru had high regard for these colleagues, some of whom had been in the freedom struggle longer than him, and who were all remarkable individuals in their own right.
Nehru's second term was not as impressive as the first; yet it was not without its achievements, such as the nurturing of institutions of higher education and of scientific research. It was Nehru's last years in office that were the most disappointing, for him and for India. By this time, the colleagues he regarded as equals had all either died or retired, or gone into Opposition. His cabinet was composed of people much younger than himself, who deferred to him entirely. He had no one to question or challenge him. Or even to advise him. This led inevitably to costly mistakes, such as the dismissal of the elected government in Kerala in 1959 and the humiliation at the hands of China in the border war of 1962.
Like Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi demands absolute deference from his ministers. They are happy to comply, hence the profusion of signed articles in the press by so many different cabinet ministers , proclaiming the Prime Minister's greatness and omniscience. Vajpayee never expected such public genuflection from his ministerial colleagues. Nor, to be fair, did Jawaharlal Nehru, even when he began to keep himself at an elevated distance from others in his cabinet.
Narendra Modi's self-image and public presentation of himself is as a strong and authoritative leader. Psychiatrists may wonder whether the private self in fact conforms to the public image. Why would a man with a 56-inch chest so fear an unscripted press conference that he has not held one in six years in office? Could it be that his inner conviction is somehow less robust than the outer projection? Be that as it may, in the context of his party, his cabinet, and his government, Modi is indeed a strongman-only his will must prevail.
Or, more precisely, his whim. Demonetization and a carelessly conceived GST were rushed through unilaterally by the Prime Minister. So was the harsh lockdown so early in the pandemic. Domain experts in these fields would have warned against these moves. In fact, they did, and were disregarded. Likewise, Modi's cosying up to Xi Jinping flew in the face of logic and rationality, and the country is now paying the price. And it was Modi who unilaterally abandoned India's traditional neutrality in an American presidential election, and the country may yet pay the price for that, too.
In the event, the policies decided upon by our strongman Prime Minister have wrecked the economy, further undermined our already fragile social fabric, and diminished India's standing in the world. Even before Covid-19 came to our shores, it was clear that the country was far worse off than when Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014.
In his second term, Manmohan Singh was undoubtedly weak and vacillating. The country paid a price for this. Those who hoped that the country would be redeemed by an authoritative leader now have their answer. For if Prime Ministers who are too weak can pose a threat to the nation's well-being, Prime Ministers who are too strong pose a greater threat still.
(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include 'Environmentalism: A Global History' and 'Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World'.)
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