Political giants and garden gnomes

Nehru to the Nineties - Lal Bahadur Shastri, Prime Minister of India 9 June 1964 - 11 January 1966 - India's Rise to Power in the Twentieth Century and Beyond
October 6, 1995

Readers of Indian news magazines will have seen the picture many times: a prime minister enclosed in a tight knot of security men, or surrounded by political lackeys with ingratiating smiles. Indian prime ministers are now far more remote than the primus inter pares of political theory, more remote even than Nehru, the first of their line, who brought to the job a lofty manner and a vast reputation, won in the struggle for independence. It is therefore appropriate to examine Indian politics from this perspective and James Manor's book does so with skill and authority, ranging widely across the prime minister's relationship with the various political parties and sources of constitutional power.

As Robin Jeffrey points out in his contribution, the imperial style of prime ministership with its attendant sycophancy was at its height under Indira Gandhi and her son, Rajiv, because of their name (which also came to imply a certain kind of policy), because they had secure majorities in parliament for most of the time, because of their ruthless use of the central government apparatus, and because they could reach the voters directly through modern means of communication, whereas their predecessors had had to work through the Congress party organisation.

A. G. Noorani contrasts Mrs Gandhi's packing of the supreme court with Nehru's championship of judicial independence. Other contributors show how parliaments and presidents have been controlled and bureaucrats bullied. All prime ministers have used central authority to remake state governments in the interests of their own party of faction, but Mrs Gandhi was particularly cynical in the way that she foisted chief ministers on to the states to promote her dynastic ambitions. As one such minister admitted: "I do not even know how I came hereINow I cannot say why I am going. All that I can say is that I want to remain close to her." Later prime ministers, especially those in coalition or minority governments, have been restrained by principle, political expediency or both. Morarji Desai deliberately reduced the size of the prime minister's staff after the excesses of the Emergency, V. P. Singh tried to give more autonomy to government departments and Narasimha Rao (the present incumbent) has chosen to interfere relatively little with state governments and to begin the restoration of democracy to his party's organisation.

Foreign affairs and, to a lesser extent, defence are subjects which have commonly attracted prime ministerial intervention, and yet, as Sandy Gordon shows in his very detailed and up-to-date account, it was the geopolitics of South Asia that necessitated a certain pro-Soviet tilt in India's nonalignment and then, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf war, required India to move closer to the United States. During the past 30 years India has bought armaments from both power blocs while at the same time developing a capacity to make sophisticated equipment for herself, the ultimate goal being complete autonomy in military supplies. This strategy has had its problems: expensive aircraft from France waited two years for locally produced weapons; Russian-built and British-built warships were so different that they required separate bases, dry-docks and training schedules; and purchases from the former Soviet Union, originally negotiated in soft currencies, now have to be paid for in hard. Nevertheless, India is clearly a formidable military power, something that may, perhaps, be more obvious from Gordon's Australian perspective than it is from Europe. The missing link in Gordon's argument is an assessment of military training: his book bristles with information about hardware, but says nothing about the quality of India's general staff. What if the well-equipped Indian lions are led by donkeys?

C. P. Srivastava's book, which is mainly about the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 and the Tashkent conference that followed it, shows that on that occasion they were not; the tactical brilliance of India's field commanders was matched by the resolve of the politician. Lal Bahadur Shastri may have seemed an unlikely war leader - with his diminutive stature and honest smile he appeared alongside Ayub and Kosygin like a garden gnome - but his apprenticeship in factional state politics had taught him to listen carefully, judge dispassionately and hold unflinchingly to his decisions. He was not above criticism - Manor's book reminds us of some questionable actions in domestic matters - and it is a pity that Srivastava, who was Shastri's private secretary, is neither critical nor particularly revealing about Shastri's way of handling official business, opting instead for a humdrum account of events. But his book reminds us, as does Manor's, that even some of India's more transient premiers, thrown up unexpectedly by the rough and tumble of politics, were men of character and ability.

Richard Newman is a lecturer in history, University of Wales, Swansea.

Nehru to the Nineties: The Changing Office of Prime Minister in India

Editor - James Manor
ISBN - 1 85065 131 0 and 180 9
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £37.50 and £12.95
Pages - 261

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