Prime ministers of India

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On January 26, 1950, India became a Republic – within two-and-a-half years after it got independence from the British.  Both in December 2008 and this month too, I have had many holidays which provided me time for musing and introspection.  I though about my childhood in the post-independent era, when I would hear a lot about the British rule from elders: some would speak highly about British rule and others would speak not that kindly.  However, the people on both side of the divide would agree that there was discipline those days and people would shudder at the sight of a policeman.  Imagine at no time there were more than 450,000 British civil servants, soldiers, businessmen, missionaries and their families in a landmass that consisted of present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan.  How did they manage to rule such a large, populated landmass is an amazing thing?  Then I realised that on 26/01/2009, India will be celebrating its 59th Republic Day and this gave me an inspiration to write something.


Since independence, India has had 14 Prime Ministers.  Of them, the present Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, is the most educated Prime Minister not only amongst Indians but also amongst the contemporary Prime Ministers in the world.  Moreover, one may wonder if, in the past, any country?s Prime Minister had such an impeccable CV.


Many Indians would say that Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi are the best or most popular Prime Ministers India ever had and then there are others who feel that Atal Beharee Vajpayee is the best.  Probably, most of them are swayed by these personalities? charisma or larger-than-life pictures.


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After Mahatma Gandhi, probably Nehru was amongst one of those high profile personalities who made immense sacrifices during India?s freedom struggle by actively and enthusiastically taking part in non-violent strikes, demonstrations, fasting, etc., resulting in frequent trips to jail.  Nehru deserves credit for his contributions to India?s freedom struggle.  However, both history and Indian National Congress should not discount the immense sacrifices made by countless of Indians in greater or lesser measures, including martyrdom, however lofty or lowly these people were. 


Both Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah were hankering for power and leadership of an independent India and their dreams would not materialise in a united India, but by dividing the pre-partition India into a post-independent India and provision of territories for the new State of Pakistan.  Further, Nehru was Mahatma Gandhi?s blue-eyed boy and naturally he became the Prime Minister when India got independence.  Another stalwart and freedom fighter, who could have been a very capable leader was Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the Iron Man of India.  Patel was an excellent administrator and had a "hands on" and "no nonsense" approach to problems.  It was Patel who convinced the Princes on the merits of ceding their Kingdoms to the Indian Union and, in return, they were assured of privy purses, the right to retain their titles and other privileges.  Due to Patel?s masterstroke, India is today the world?s seventh largest country in terms of territory.


At the time of independence in 1947, India was one of the poorest countries in the world – a situation that was much worse than what it is today.  However, when British left, they had developed an infrastructure and springboard which any intelligent Prime Minister could have taken full advantage of.  The British had set up one of the longest railway systems in the world, sound educational system, medical facilities, and postal system and had introduced many reforms like abolishment of Sati, etc., etc.  Even today, the buildings, bridges, dams and other edifices built during the British era are still intact, standing and functional.  Many District Collectors, Superintendents of Police and other senior officials have their official residences that were built during the British era.


Therefore, any leader with sagacity, foresight and acumen and with a carrot-and-stick policy would have taken decisions that would have far reaching and positive consequences in propelling the country in becoming a major economic, military, agricultural, industrial, cultural power in the world, besides making headway in other fields too.  Nehru had everything in his favour, especially the fact that Indian National Congress was the dominant political party with a total hold over the masses and the electorate, because parties in opposition were so feeble that they just could not put up a stiff fight against Congress.  Nehru could have checked India?s galloping population (which was 300 plus million at the time of independence), made education free to the poor and affordable to others to banish illiteracy, nipped the scourge of corruption in the bud, industrialised the country, promoted tourism, which is a money spinner for most countries and developed the countries in many other ways. 


Nehru, instead of opening the Indian economy for massive injection of foreign funds for development at an accelerated rate, where there would be a large, strong and competitive private sector offering quality goods at affordable prices, etc., sadly veered the country into socialism and created gigantic, public sector enterprises to serve as showpieces to the world.  In fact, these public sector enterprises became sick, unproductive and drained taxpayers? money just to keep them afloat and going.  Thanks to Nehru, the politicians and civil servants became a force unto them and earned bushels of money beyond their known sources of income.  This created the ills like the "licence raj" and "rationing".


Nehru could have cooperated with the major powers to wriggle out the best and maximum assistance in developing India and making it strong.  However, he was obsessed in being one of the world leaders and, therefore with Ghana?s Kwane Nkrumah, Egypt?s Abdel Gamel Nasser and Yugoslavia?s Broz Tito, he was the founding father of the Non-Aligned Movement, which consisted of many third world countries under the sun with differing ideologies, leaders and strange bed fellows.


It is sad that Nehru neglected the needs of the Defence Forces and would not listen to the problems aired by the top brass of the Services and assist them by allotting funds to arm, equip and modernise them.  Nehru used to brag that India needs Defence Forces only for ceremonial purposes.  Further, the matter was aggravated with V.K. Krishna Menon as the Defence Minister, a man who was totally arrogant and vain.


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In 1948, one cannot understand Nehru?s reasoning for agreeing to a U.N. brokered ceasefire when Indians forces were advancing and pushing back the aggressors, after Pakistan had invaded Jammu & Kashmir to grab and annex the mountainous State.  India could have continued fighting for some more time till the enemy was completely pushed out of the State and with that there would not have been the Jammu & Kashmir problem which has been festering till today.


Though the Chinese encroachments into Indian territories were going on from 1950s and they annexed Tibet in 1959, nevertheless Nehru was in a state of slumber or stupor.  Therefore, when China invaded India in 1962, the ill-prepared and ill-equipped Army was no match for the specially trained and equipped mountain divisions of the Chinese People?s Liberation Army.  Surprisingly, as per informed sources, only some part of the Army was committed to fight the enemy and the Air Force was not at all used, though India had superior combat aircrafts compared to the enemy?s primitive ones.  If the Indian Air Force would have been fully and totally committed in this war, things would have definitely gone much, much better for India.


Finally, it was Nehru that carved out States on linguistic basis.


Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister for just a year-and-a-half, a too short a time to make any judgements.  Shastri was of small stature, simple, frugal and totally honest and scrupulous.


India Gandhi not only followed the socialistic policies of her illustrious father, but overdid his socialistic gimmicks by nationalising banks, taking over Air India which, till then, was one of the ten topmost airlines in the world under Tatas and abolishing the privy purposes of the Princes.  However, in facing crises of national or international proportions, she was far tougher material than her father, Nehru, which she proved by leading the country to a major victory over Pakistan in 1971.  However, Field Marshal Maneckshaw deserves all credits for not succumbing to the pressures of politicians and standing firm that his Army was not ready for war and the country should go to war only at the right time and right conditions. 


When India went to war, it was victorious and led to the creation of Bangladesh and the surrender of nearly 93,000 enemy?s soldiers, civilians, including Gen. Niazi and other Generals.  Again, in 1984 she showed her mettle by ordering the assault on the Golden Temple to flush out Jarnail Singh Bindranwale and other terrorists who had holed up there and created fortifications with artillery, machine gun nests, guns, rockets, etc.


Rajiv Gandhi was relatively young and had a clean image when he was forced to become Prime Minister after Indira Gandhi?s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.  However, Chitra Subramanian in her very interesting, captivating and gripping exposure "Bofors" has given ample indications about the culprits in this scandal.  Till date, one cannot realise why, when the Swedish Government was ready to disclose the names, bank account numbers and the amounts held in individual accounts, did the Government of the day dither, rather than making a formal request for release of all documents, as requested by the Swedish authorities?  It is quite obvious that there were many skeletons in the cupboard and disclosures in the Bofors scandals would have had many heads rolling and would have been catastrophic.  Bofors scandal will remain a conundrum.


P.V. Narasimha Rao is the architect of modern India, because it was he who handpicked Dr. Manmohan Singh to be the Finance Minister of the country and gave him the carte blanche to act in the best interests of the country.  This resulted in India?s economy transforming from a socialist to an open market economy, thus attracting massive foreign aids and investments in core sectors, development of indigenous and software industries, liberal and easier imports. 


Though Narasimha Rao himself was indecisive, however he earns credit for completely backing and giving freedom to Dr. Manmohan Singh, an internationally acclaimed economist to introduce fiscal reforms, etc. that has resulted in transformation of India in the last sixteen or seventeen years.  None of the other Prime Ministers, some of whom were both charismatic and illustrious, could do what Narasimha Rao achieved during his tenure with Dr. Manmohan Singh?s tremendous wisdom and foresight. 


However, in spite of his deceptive and unconvincing looks, the very fact that Narasimha Rao could speak 13 languages, including English, Spanish, Arabic, French, Persian, and was an expert on computers and laptops goes to prove that he was not a dumb kid, but a highly intelligent man.


Due to the liberalised policies introduced by Narasimha Rao and Dr. Manmohan Singh, Indians returning from abroad are not spending normally more than an hour in Immigration and Customs, whereas in the earlier days people have been stuck up at the international airports for as long as 12 hours and have been fleeced by Customs and Police by being forced to pay heavy Custom duties and bribes.  In bygone days, Customs and Police officials used to pay heavy bribes to powers-that-be for getting postings at the international airports, but today no one is interested and considers it as a punishment posting.


As said earlier, Narasimha Rao was indecisive and due to his inaction rather than taking tough decisions, the fanatical elements were able to raze down the Babri Masjid.


Though, A.B. Vajpayee was the Prime Minister right from 19th March 1998 to 22nd May 2004, it is debatable whether he was an able Prime Minister performing on his own steam.  One got the impression that Vajpayee was a mere rubber stamp and the country was run by Lal Krishna Advani.  Vajpayee would make one statement to the press at one time and then completely retract after a few hours or matter of days.  On many occasions, he would deflect reporters? questions by reciting verses of poetry from his repertoire.


Then there were other Prime Ministers like Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, and H.D. Deve Gowda, who either ruled the country for short durations and there was nothing to be raved about.  I.K. Gujral was Prime Minister for a few months and it is very difficult to judge him, rather than say that he was a very decent, soft spoken and a well dressed person.

Author: Nelson Lewis- Bahrain