The Congress, belatedly however, got back at the BJP for the latter’s hobby-horse that “Manmohan Singh is the country’s weakest prime minister ever”. The party spokesperson described the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee in similar terms and tried to buttress his points by picking a few events from his regime to “prove” his contention.
Here the first question that can be raised is why the Congress took so long to do this since the BJP, particularly LK Advani, has been at this game of attacking Mr Singh from at least 2008. The BJP did not bother to explain point by point what Mr Singh’s weaknesses were. The Congress, on its part, carefully avoided saying what it would have done in place of the things that showed Mr Vajpayee to be “weak”. Both the parties proved they were adept at complaining but left things just as they were.
To come to the crucial question as to what constitutes the strengths or weaknesses of a prime minister, it is a safe bet to say they are ‘statesmanship’ and ‘acceptability’. In the early days of our independence, India was fortunate in having such a leader in Jawaharlal Nehru, though he too faced opposition, though not of a screechy variety like we see today, from Vallabhbhai Patel. Patel is said to have reminded Nehru once in a meeting that the prime minister was the first among equals. After Nehru, Indira Gandhi’s power politics put the office of the prime minister in a zone of fear, sometimes to the detriment of the democracy that is intrinsic to the cabinet system and involving tampering with institutions.
Now, with coalition politics making an entry, democracy in government functioning has become a factor that has been generated from within the Indian polity. This means the prime minister has to listen to people not just of his or her own party but also outside.
It is curious characteristic of our times that when the office of the prime minister stands somewhat devalued in overall perception, the question as to who shall become PM assumes such primacy. Even if it is assumed hypothetically that a single party gets a majority in the Lok Sabha, the prime minister cannot leave his stamp of authority in the way he or she is understood to do because parties also are nothing but a conglomeration of their regional units. So there is a lot of difference between being chief minister and prime minister. In such circumstances calling a prime minister “weak” amounts to nothing except attacking an individual, which is old-style politics.