History, as any student will tell, can be very cruel. The story of Dr Manmohan Singh will amply testify to it. He is the only Prime Minister, next to Jawaharlal Nehru who served non-stop for two decades as Prime Minister. Jawaharlal Nehru stayed as head of government for 16 years and 286 days. Indira Gandhi, too, held the post for 11 years and 59 days but there was an interregnum between two terms. Dr Singh’s two decades in the top post were anything but glorious. He must have deeply rued the second half of his term from 2009 to 2014. But things might have been wholly different if Rajiv Gandhi, for example had married a politically sophisticated Indian lady. As a widow she would have become the first choice as President of the Congress Party and as a widow she would, following elections, have become Prime Minister as well. Her Italian background came in the way of Sonia Gandhi taking over the Prime Ministerial role. She had to choose some one else. He or she had to have three ‘virtues’. One, he or she had to deserve the post by sheer talent. Two, the person had to be fully subservient to the Party President and three, the person should not be of a complaining kind. Dr Manmohan Singh had all these virtues and therefore was fully qualified.
Some one like Pranab Mukherjee would have been a pain in the neck and had to be kept out. In that sense Dr Manmohan Singh was not an “accidental Prime Minister, even if he claimed to be one. Destiny had made him an inevitable choice. He was, and Sonia Gandhi was fully aware of it, an ideal puppet Prime Minister. The general rule in politics is that if elected, the head of a political party in India by general consensus automatically took over the Prime Ministership. This was clearly laid down as an un-exceptional rule when Jawaharlal Nehru became Independent India’s first Prime Minister. The Congress President then was Acharya JB Kripalani.
Kripalani demanded that as Congress President he be taken into confidence on the making of governmental policies. Nehru said it couldn’t be done. If Kripalani wanted to be involved in decision-making Nehru was willing to take him into the Cabinet. But Kripalani had to maintain his self-respect. He resigned as Party president. Inevitably Nehru took over the party chieftainship. This lasted until 1954 when UN Dhebar was, with Nehru’s blessings, elected to the party post. He and Nehru got along famously. Indira Gandhi, similarly got along well with three party presidents when she was Prime Minister and it was only when she was retuned to Prime Ministership that she decided to take over the party presidentship. Rajiv Gandhi, too, followed in his mother’s footsteps and held the posts of party president and Prime Ministership simultaneously.
On Rajiv’s death PV Narasimha Rao took over as Congress President and he too retained the post after he was elected Prime Minister in 1991. In other words there was a precedent. Sonia Gandhi because of circumstances beyond her control could only stay on as party president but she wanted to wield unlimited power with no one to question her. This she could achieve only by having a subservient man. And she got one in the person of Dr Manmohan Singh. Things could still have gone well if Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh could work together amicably, which, it would appear, took place during UPA-I. At the same time there were people who were disturbed.
According to Sanjaya Baru, his Press Adviser, “notwithstanding Dr Singh’s discomfort with the National Advisory Council (NAC), intellectual differences between Sonia and him were never as sharp as projected by both her supporters and critics” and “such projection when it came from her supporters was part of her image and brand-building”; apparently somewhere down the line, Sonia failed miserably and so did Dr Singh. Sonia should have sent word to every minister of an allied party not to treat Dr Singh lightly but to see that every issue of whatever importance was conveyed to her not directly but through Dr Singh. This, it is apparent, she failed to do. The result was that Dr Singh came to be marginalised.
(The writer is a Senior Journalist and Editor of Illustrated Weekly)