Friday, May 15, 2009

Who's been India's best and worst PM?

In a few days, India will have a new Prime Minister. It's as good a time as any to take stock of the men -- and one woman -- who have served us. Who's been the best PM India's had, and who's done the most damage?

Jawaharlal Nehru: India suffered heavily because of his misplaced sense of idealism over Kashmir, resulting in a problem that troubles us to this day, and his naivete over China. But the fact is that much that is good about India today, including world-class institutes of higher learning, our space programme and the widespread use of English that gives India a competitive advantage in a globalised world, are the result of his vision. Unlike many other colonised countries that got freedom at the same time as India and promptly become tinpot dictatorships, India is still a vibrant democracy – and that is surely Nehru’s biggest achievement. It has been rightly observed that if Nehru had been a different kind of man, India would have been a different kind of country. For helping make it a rare success story in South Asia, I think he deserves the title of our best PM ever.

Indira Gandhi: A poll conducted by a leading Indian magazine some years ago rated her as India's all-time best Prime Minister. I'm afraid I don't share that opinion. The Emergency was arguably the worst assault ever on Indian democracy. Much of the ills that plague our politics, including corruption, criminalisation and the degradation of institutions like the Presidency, first flourished in her tenure. She effectively killed inner-party democracy in the Congress, and set the stage for the kind of cliques that are today the bane of Indian political parties. And she encouraged cynical misuse of religion -- the rise of Bhindranwale was originally encouraged by the Congress in a bid to embarrass the Akali Dal.

On the positive side, though, she did lead India to one of its finest hours -- victory in the 1971 war. She was also in charge when India conducted the Pokhran tests. And she held India together during a deeply turbulent time.

Rajiv Gandhi: The 1984 Sikh riots and the Bofors scam will always remain blots on his record. So will his clumsy efforts to woo Muslim fundamentalists through the Shah Bano case while courting the Hindu right wing through his decision to open the locked Ayodhya gates. But he has been proved right on many things, which were scoffed at during his lifetime, including his belief in computers and economic liberalisation.

Rajiv was the first to talk of taking India into the 21st century, and he did a fair bit to help us get there. His contribution in triggering the country’s IT and communications revolution has not got the credit it deserved. Nor have his other worthy initiatives, like panchayati raj. His tragically early death left many wondering what might have been.

Narasimha Rao: Slumbered through the demolition of the Babri mosque and was plagued with charges of graft and buying support in Parliament. But played an important role as the godfather of India's much-needed economic reforms. Had the sense to induct Manmohan Singh as finance minister and back him to a large extent. Is also significant as the first non-Gandhi to complete a five-year term.

A B Vajpayee: The first non-Congress PM to complete at least one full tenure, which marked an important landmark in Indian politics. His failure to do anything as Gujarat burned is a negative mark against him. Also, even though the BJP flaunts its anti-terror credentials, the fact remains that Vajpayee presided over one of the most humiliating moments in Indian history: the escorting of three terrorists to Kandahar by Jaswant Singh in exchange for hostages.

But Vajpayee's tenure also saw India turn an initial setback into a proud victory at Kargil. He finally took India openly nuclear. And despite gloomy predictions to the contrary, the economy didn't collapse under the weight of the sanctions that followed. Ultimately, the US came around to India's N-programme and the economy boomed during Vajpayee's last years. The irony is, the BJP's proud claim of India Shining boomeranged on it in the 2004 elections.

Manmohan Singh: His critics deride him as India's weakest PM ever. But the way he pushed through the N-deal with the US in the face of overwhelming political opposition would seem to belie that charge. The economy didn't do as spectacularly under him as his past record as finance minister had led one to hope. But it stayed on an even keel till it hit the speedbreaker of the global recession. His biggest failure, perhaps, was that his government seemed to be a mute spectator as India reeled under a string of terror serial blasts, and it finally took a 26/11 to shake it out of its stupor.

As you might have noticed, I've only looked at the PMs who completed at least one, or more, full terms in office. The others hardly did anything of significance, though Chandrashekhar's decision to mortgage India's gold was a much-needed wake-up call that we could no longer continue with our misguided economic policies. However, there was one man among this bunch who, I believe, did the most damage to India.

V P Singh wrecked efforts made over decades to turn caste into an irrelevant relic of medieval times, and brought it to the front and centre of Indian politics. Call me naive, but I made it all the way to college without ever knowing -- or caring -- what my caste was. It was enough for me to be an Indian. I'd like to believe it was the same way for many other young Indians. Idealistically, we believed that caste was an evil that had been made redundant in major Indian cities, and would one day be banished from small towns and villages too.

VP's cynical use of the Mandal Report to try and counter the rise of the BJP shattered that hope forever. Worse, it led to the rise of many small parties based on identity politics, which have no vision for India beyond their narrow vested interests. Today, sub-castes actually agitate to be declared backward. India has, thankfully, managed to avoid full-blown caste conflict but that's no thanks to VP. Rarely could a person who spent so little time in office have done so much damage to a country.

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