The BJP’s claim that Manmohan Singh is a weak Prime Minister who’s unlikely to get any stronger in the event of the UPA retaining power could be valid, but not in the context that LK Advani would have us believe. Such are the compulsions of coalition politics that the country hasn’t seen a genuinely ‘strong’ and popular PM since the 1984-89 tenure of Rajiv Gandhi.
Rajiv Gandhi’s was the last single-party majority government, which was replaced by Congress renegade VP Singh’s 1989-90 National Front whose life the BJP cut short in less than a year to bolster its Ram temple campaign. In that limited sense, the blame for giving India its first ‘weak’ PM — barring the 1979 Charan Singh aberration — rests at the doorsteps of Advani and the Left who lent VP Singh the other crutch to stand upon. Advani’s rath yatra thereafter in response to the Janata Dal’s caste (Mandal) card laid the foundation of the third anti-BJP, anti-Congress pole in the polity. The Chandrashekhar regime born out of a Janata Dal split was even weaker, the incumbent PM barely salvaging his honour by stepping down at the first hint of a possible withdrawal of support by the Congress.
The quid pro quo character of multi-party governance is antithetical to the constitutional scheme envisaging the PM as a ‘first among equals’. It starts with the disbanding of the prime ministerial prerogative of setting up the Cabinet. Ministers are chosen from among nominees of partners, not to mention the backroom bargaining for key portfolios.
Coalitions mainly are about consensual rule, not dictation by PMs who, at times, make the grade when stronger candidates cancel each other out of the race. Take the 1996-98 prime ministerial stints of HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. They were acceptable because Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad weren’t. In the bygone era of single-party rule, the Deputy PM’s slot came in handy to accommodate strong leaders with less popular appeal. That yardstick applied to Sardar Patel vis-à-vis Jawaharlal Nehru and to a lesser degree to Morarji Desai, made Deputy PM on being defeated by Indira Gandhi in the 1967 Congress parliamentary party election. Over the years, the office that has no constitutional sanctity has come to symbolise the PM’s limitations in a coalition set-up. Since Morarji Desai, the country has had five such appointments, Advani’s the last in the chain. The elevations were driven either by political expediency or the urgency to manage internal contradictions.
But in no case was the arrangement durable: Charan Singh plotted Morarji Desai’s fall in 1979 rather than lending stability to the Janata regime in which his rival, Jagjivan Ram, was the other Deputy PM. The successor government he headed with Congress support and YB Chavan as his deputy fell before facing Parliament. Likewise, PMs with whom Devi Lal served as Deputy PM — VP Singh and Chandrashekhar — never inspired confidence.
Advani’s bid to brand Manmohan Singh as weak is linked to his electoral promise of a decisive government with strong leadership. Without denying Sonia Gandhi’s de facto powers in the UPA set-up, Singh has, in relative terms, been luckier not having a Deputy PM with the Home portfolio breathing down his neck. The credit for containing Congressmen ambitious of the role goes to Sonia Gandhi, who discounted designating anybody as Singh’s No 2.
In contrast, Advani’s 2002 elevation as Deputy PM was central to his ambition to appropriate the legacy of the ‘original Sardar’ while positioning himself as AB Vajpayee’s undisputed successor. The appointment diminished the Vajpayee PMO in popular perception and that of the bureaucracy whose cadre management was transferred to the ‘lauh purush’ (iron man) alongside the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT). Much to the PMO’s chagrin, Advani also sought jurisdiction over the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as part of the DoPT portfolio. But he was reminded he cannot control the agency probing the Ayodhya cases against him.
In the UPA, the DoPT was always with the PM. The writ of Sonia Gandhi’s handpicked Home Minister Shivraj Patil was subservient to Singh’s even in the appointment of a new Home Secretary. So much so that when the PM skipped the Republic Day parade, his ceremonial and administrative duties were divided between External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Defence Minister AK Antony. It’s anybody’s guess how the BJP-NDA with a designated Deputy PM would have handled such an exigency. Vajpayee was in the line of saffron fire for most parts of his six-year-rule. He managed not one, but three coalitions: the National Democratic Alliance, the hyperactive Advani camp, and sister organisations within the Sangh.
Vajpayee got a taste of this difficult juggling job in his 13-month stint as PM in 1998-99: the AIADMK’s J Jayalalithaa played hard to get before government formation; the RSS blocked Jaswant Singh’s appointment as Finance Minister. Even as he spent agonising moments awaiting Jayalalithaa’s letter of support, VP Singh dismissed the politically stranded Vajpayee as ‘Atak Bihari’ (Stuck Bihari). The support came but did not last. The government fell by one vote.
The Congress’s failure to provide an alternative helped the NDA to return to power in 1999. That was when Kandahar happened, Gujarat erupted in communal frenzy, Advani became Deputy PM and the RSS top brass engaged in public criticism of the PM. It was hard to miss Vajpayee’s isolation within the BJP on Gujarat as also his choice of Krishan Kant for the presidential office that went to APJ Abdul Kalam whose candidature was first mooted by the Telugu Desam Party and the Samajwadi Party.
In this backdrop, Advani’s ‘mazboot neta’ (strong leader) pitch lacks the force of history. Sagacity is what keeps coalitions afloat. Not boasts of individual strength.