This weekend, as we’re poised not just for a sweeping but a potentially seismic political change, there are a few proprieties we could usefully learn from the British. These are to do with the speed and manner in which an outgoing prime minister hands over to his successor. It may seem secondary but it is important.
It’s part of doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.
In India the change in the ownership of the office is swift and prompt. Straight after his swearing-in the new PM goes to South Block and takes charge. But what happens to the prime minister’s official residence is very different. The defeated PM stays on for weeks, if not months, whilst the incoming one has to fend for himself till 7 Race Course Road is vacated.
Now consider what happens in Britain. By tradition, elections are held on Thursdays. The polls close at 10 pm and by 2.00 or 3.00 am the outcome is known. In the event of a clear and decisive mandate, which has usually been the case, the defeated prime minister drives to Buckingham Palace around noon to hand back the seals of office.
He leaves his official residence at Downing Street in the prime minister’s car. That’s because he is still PM. But when he departs the palace it’s in a courtesy car offered by the Queen.
Shortly thereafter the leader of the opposition (LOP) arrives at the Palace in the LOP’s car. That’s because he’s still LOP. But after the formal kissing of hands he departs in the prime minister’s car and heads straight for 10 Downing Street, his official residence.
Guess what’s happened in the interim? Whilst the departing prime minister was at Buckingham Palace the packers moved in and removed his belongings. Hours later, when the new man arrives, the official residence is ready and waiting to welcome him.
Britain carries out this surgical procedure in hours. Everyone knows it will happen. Absolutely no one objects. In fact, there would be cries of despair if it were altered. On the two occasions when prime ministers lingered, hoping to create a coalition (Edward Heath in 1974 and Gordon Brown in 2010), there was anger at their wrongful continuation at No. 10, though it was only for three days.
Contrast this with what we do. With one solitary exception, our defeated prime ministers continue in the official residence until another is ready for them. The exception was Inder Kumar Gujral. In 1998, after attending Mr Vajpayee’s swearing-in, he drove straight to his own home in Maharani Bagh. I’m told Dr Manmohan Singh could repeat the Gujral precedent tomorrow. I hope he does.
There is, however, a second lesson we should learn from the British. Why are our former prime ministers given accommodation? None of them is so poor he can’t afford his own home. In our democracy, where at least 33% live in abject poverty, it’s morally abhorrent that a politician should get free accommodation for life. A prime minister is no different from his peon, in this regard.
Let me add security is not a valid consideration. If former British prime ministers are safe in small flats or country cottages, so too would be an Indian, whether he lives in a jhuggi or Antilia.
The problem lies in the way we think of ourselves. I suspect we’re a bit like George Orwell’s pigs: some are more equal than others!
The views expressed by the author are personal