The legacies of Prime Ministers

Somewhere around the middle of their terms, all elected heads of government in proper democracies start to worry about their legacies. “What will I remembered for”, they wonder. 

Narendra Modi has reached that stage. Regardless of his conviction that the people will vote the BJP back in 2019, and the tireless efforts of his party president to ensure a victory, there are no guarantees in the electoral game.

Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi both had huge majorities but both were voted out. In 1989 Rajiv went from 415 seats to a mere 197, losing as many as 218 seats. In 1977, Indira Gandhi went from 352 seats to just 153 again losing almost 200 seats. 

Mr Modi has much less to play with – a majority of a mere 9 seats, which will go because the BJP cannot once again hope to win 100 per cent of the seats in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The only question now is how far below 272 will the BJP fall.

There is no real way of telling. But if you look at the elections since 1989, the people feel comfortable with giving between 180-220 seats to the single largest party.  

So the probability that India will be back to coalitions in 2019 is one ie, a certainty. The only question is about its size which will depend on the number of seats the BJP loses. 

It is too early to tell. But I’d bet on at least 100. That is why the BJP has started buttering up potential allies in different states.

For the moment, it looks certain that Mr Modi will be the prime minister once again. But remember: that is how it looked in 2004 also but Atal Behari Vajpayee was voted out.

Still, if we assume that Mr Modi will continue for another term, he will have a lot less political room. Mr Modi must surely know this and that could be one reason why he is in such a hurry to push through irreversible reforms.  
So what is he going to be remembered for?

The good and the bad

I conducted a little survey about past prime ministers to see what the past offers. It was the old association-of-ideas trick. 

You take a name and ask the respondent to say the first thing that comes to mind, a verbal Rorschach test, so to speak. It has the virtue of eliciting honest responses because no time is given.

I found that a clear pattern. Every prime minister who has served for five years or more is remembered for one good thing and one bad thing. That’s all. Everything else ceases to matter. Thus: 

  • Jawaharlal Nehru is remembered for socialist planning (good) and the military defeat in 1962 to China (bad).
  • Indira Gandhi is remembered for breaking up Pakistan (good) and the Emergency (bad).
  • Rajiv Gandhi is remembered for computerising India (good) and Bofors (bad).
  • P V Narasimha Rao is remembered for reforms (good) and the Babri Masjid demolition (bad).
  • Atal Behari Vajpayee is remembered for throwing the Pakistani army out of Kargil (good) and the India Shining campaign (bad).
  • Manmohan Singh, the only prime minister since Nehru to serve two consecutive terms, is remembered for the nuclear deal with the US (good) and the scams in his government (bad).

Then I looked up the standard books and it turns out that history writers choose their emphasis between these options of good or bad depending on their political leanings. Given human frailties, the bads tend to dominate.

Mr William Shakespeare summed it up best: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”   

So if he doesn’t want to be remembered solely for demonetisation (bad) and GST (good, eventually), Mr Modi still has 18 months to shape his legacy. What can he do? 

Or is the damage already done and there is nothing much that he can do?


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