T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: A paradox for Mr Modi

Narendra Modi's political, economic and administrative performance has been less than stellar so far. So he is probably concerned about his prospects in 2019. What should be his biggest worry?

He should hark back to his predecessors who had the same worry. They fall into two categories: those who had majorities in the Lok Sabha and those who didn't.

If you count the odd days, weeks and months, prime ministers who ruled without a majority account for only about 23 of the 68 years since 1947. For the remaining years, India has had remarkably stable governments.

The minority governments were Indira Gandhi (1969-71); Charan Singh (six months in 1979); V P Singh (1990); Chandra Shekhar (four months in 1991); P V Narasimha Rao (1991-96); Atal Bihari Vajapyee (13 days in 1996); H D Deve Gowda (1996-97); Inder Gujral (1998); Atal Behari Vajapyee (1998-2004); and Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi (2004-2014).

In contrast, Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister with four huge majorities (1947-64); Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964-67); Indira Gandhi (1971-77); Morarji Desai (1977-79); Indira Gandhi (1980-84); and Rajiv Gandhi (1984-89).

When you look at their first or only terms, you will find an extraordinary thing. The biggest headaches for prime ministers with majorities came from within their own parties. In contrast, the minority government PMs had less to worry about. Their days were numbered from the start.

Majorities should not, therefore, be taken to mean that PMs are unchallenged leaders, at least in their first terms. They get into that happy position only when they manage to win a majority a second time.

The evidence

Nehru won independent India's first election in 1952. He had a huge majority and there was no serious opposition at the time from non-Congress parties.

But from within the Congress he faced a lot of resistance to his progressive legislation on social issues. But he gradually managed to sideline his opponents, who included the then President Rajendra Prasad.

After 1957, when Nehru won his second term, the opposition from within vanished. The Cabinet and the party filled up with yes-men and -women.

The same thing happened with Indira Gandhi. During 1967-69, the Congress again had a comfortable majority. Nevertheless, she faced a huge threat from within.

But she firmly believed that none but the descendants of Nehru should be in power. So she was utterly ruthless in dealing with opponents and rivals. She even split the party in 1969 to run a minority government with, yes, Communist support and won the 1971 election hands down on a Left platform.

Even then, the headache, if not threat, from within did not go away. She faced constant, if well-disguised, sniping from senior party colleagues. These people, when the time came in 1978 after her massive defeat in the 1977 election, expelled her from the party.

She formed a new Congress party with her own name on it, the Congress (Indira). In 1980, she came back to power. This time there were no murmurs against her.

Meanwhile, the Janata Party which ruled India from March 1977 to July 1979 had a huge majority, too. It was of no use. Prime minister Morarji Desai was brought down by his own deputy prime minister, Charan Singh.

In 1985 Rajiv Gandhi, after his mother's assassination a month earlier in October 1984, won with a record majority of over 400 seats. He seemed unassailable, just as Narendra Modi does now.

But by January 1987, a full revolt broke out led by V P Singh and Arun Nehru, two of his closest colleagues. Even President Zail Singh turned against him in March 1987 because he felt Rajiv didn't show enough respect to the office of the President.

Mr Modi could suffer a similar fate if he doesn't control the Sangh Parivar agenda. Contrary to myth, the President is very, very powerful, as Rajiv found out.

Between 1998 and 2001, Atal Bihari Vajpayee faced a formidable rival, L K Advani. True, the Bharatiya Janata Party didn't have a majority. But, since 1991 that was the largest number of seats a single party had won and as such it came closest to being a majority government.

Mr Modi's predicament

Manmohan Singh headed the government because someone had to. He was picked for his unquestioning loyalty to the family. But he was prime minister only in name. Sonia Gandhi wouldn't let him be a proper one.

Mr Modi swept them both into the dustbin of history with 281 Members of Parliament behind him. If he reads this article, he will have to ask: Which one of them supported by which group will seek to show him the door?

That seems unlikely, but one thing is for sure: From the day he lost Bihar, he is a wounded prime minister. Why, even a Kirti Azad - who would like nothing more than to be made minister for sports - has lit a little match under him.

Well might he say one day: et tu, Brute?


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