Book Title: How Prime Ministers Decide
Author: Neerja Chowdhury
I, for one, could not put this book down once I started reading it. Read every page of it, and enjoyed all of it. The easy-going prose is full of interesting information that did not get into the newspapers when it was part of ‘news’. Most is also referenced to authentic sources. There is quite a bit which is being shared here for the first time. At the same time, the author takes great care not to take a hoity-toity stance, as is common among those who have been close to individuals who wield tremendous power. I would recommend that this book be read for the information that it shares, for the insights it provides into decision-making at the highest levels of the government and, for the humanness that marks such decision-taking. Above all, it is full of fascinating anecdotes that would be used by those who make an effort to understand Indian public life.
As with all well-crafted books, this one too can be read at many levels, depending on what a reader is looking for. For, here is a ringside view of the making of momentous events, as also the interpersonal dynamic that marks the creation of events that bring about dramatic transformations in the life of a nation.
Chowdhury confines her remarks to just six of the Prime Ministers that India has had since the 1980s, with VP Singh being given an inordinate amount of attention. I fully concur with the author’s judgment that Singh, in his brief tenure, transformed Indian polity in significant ways. By creating new institutional spaces for the growth of the Backward Classes, he cut at the roots of elitist politics that dominated India till then. Chowdhury notes that this paved the way for the destruction of the Congress ecosystem — the culmination of it is what we see in the changes that Narendra Modi’s two tenures have brought about.
Chowdhury is quite wary of commenting on Modi. In her rather wise judgment, these changes are too close to us for anyone to have a considered opinion. Of course, the readers of her regular newspaper columns know that in her everyday writings, she does not spare the Modi government one bit.
In a sense, two Prime Ministers who have not been discussed in the book, Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi, provide the foil for understanding the actions and inactions of the leaders discussed in this book. Nehru’s tenure as the longest-serving Prime Minister of India was marked by the creation of a strong command and control society in which the people were supposed to do as directed by the top leaders. It was almost as if the government in India had become the implementer of developmentalism, then fashionable in the kindly West that was trying to do good with its former colonies. Indira Gandhi, more assertive than Nehru and more clued into protecting the interests of the people of India, broke away from such developmentalism. But even she frequently sought the approval of those professing western liberal ideas. Modi upturned that entire structure by refusing to seek the approval of those trying to run down Indian traditions and culture in the name of promoting prosperity, equality and freedom. He complemented his efforts by turning the gaze of Indians towards indigenous culture and history. The remodelling of the institutional structures of the State now ensured that the benefits which an earlier socialist system had merely promised to the people actually started reaching them. Such institutional changes make Chowdhury quite uncomfortable. To her, they remind of the evolution of a strong Union government, something which she finds disagreeable.
The chaos — and the reversion to meanness — that results in the absence of a functional government is something that Chowdhury refuses to consider. I would say that there is nothing good about a set of governments that spent time monkey balancing, allowing a dispute such as the Babri Masjid to fester and poison the environment. As the Babri Masjid was pulled down, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, Chowdhury informs us, told Nikhil Chakravarty, the well-regarded leftist journalist, and three others who were with him in the PM’s house on December 6 1992, ‘Jo hua voh theek hua’ (What happened, happened for good). This may be callousness of the highest order on the part of the then Prime Minister, but also condemnable is the silence that the journalists maintained on it.