Recycling prime ministers

Indian leaders are loath to accept constitutionally lower posts

Could we imagine V.P. Singh serving in Deve Gowda’s cabinet or Gowda in I.K. Gujral’s? They belonged to the same party and so there shouldn’t have been a problem had they so willed. Or P.V. Narasimha Rao in Manmohan’s team, or A.B. Vajpayee in Narendra Modi’s?

The British, whose cabinet system and practices we have copied, don’t have any qualms about their prime ministers coming back as plain ministers. Look at David Cameron. The guy was prime minister from 2010 till the country voted to Brexit in 2016. One thought he had faded away to write his memoirs or go fishing, but here he is appearing in a lesser avatar in the Rishi Sunak cabinet—as foreign minister whom they call foreign secretary.

Indian leaders are loath to accept constitutionally lower posts than the ones they had held. Many of them return as MPs, but are averse to accepting ministerial or even gubernatorial posts. A notable exception was C. Rajagopalachari, who had held the office of the governor-general of India—the last one to hold it and the only Indian—yet went on to serve in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet and then as chief minister of Madras.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Then there was Gulzarilal Nanda who was prime minister twice, but had no qualms about joining the cabinets of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi after demitting office. One may say, he had been acting prime minister and had held the big office only for a few stop-gap days, and therefore there was nothing infra dig in working under persons who had worked under him.

Constitutionally, there is no post as acting prime minister. For all purposes and intent, Nanda was full prime minister during those few days, and if he had conveyed any advice to his president as originating from his cabinet which was enjoying the confidence of the lower house of Parliament, it would have been fully binding on the latter.

V.R. Nedunchezhiyan and O. Panneerselvam were chief ministers of Tamil Nadu thrice, yet VRN went on to serve in Karunanidhi’s, M.G. Ramachandran’s and J. Jayalalithaa’s cabinets and OPS in Jayalalithaa’s. Both were aware that they were serving as political proxies for others when they held those high offices, and therefore had no problem in accepting lesser ministerial jobs.

The British, on the other hand, have often retreaded their prime ministers into plain ministers. Alec Douglas-Home who was notoriously ignorant of domestic politics and economics (he told an interviewer that he read only the sports pages in newspapers, and that he used matchsticks to make economic calculations) lasted one year as prime minister, but later served in Edward Heath’s cabinet as a successful foreign secretary. Arthur Balfour, who had a three-year stint as PM from 1902, served in three cabinets for 11 years during and after World War I. That was when he re-promised the Jews their promised land in 1917, double-crossing the Arabs who had helped Britain win the war, and thus starting all the trouble that we are seeing in Palestine today.

The 18th and 19th centuries were an age of recycling prime ministers as cabinet minsters. Downing Street irregulars say, 14 of their premiers since Robert Walpole have ‘come back’ to serve in governments led by others. That means, every fourth prime minister has returned as a minister in another’s cabinet. The list includes the celebrated Duke of Wellington who, after two short stints as prime minister, served as a minister without portfolio in the lesser known Robert Peel’s (who lent the name ‘Bobby’ to the London cop) government, and also as commander-in-chief of the army.