A question by a distinguished former diplomat — do chief ministers necessarily make good prime ministers? — provoked a think, and a look back at all Indian PMs from 1947 till now.
India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, had never served as the chief minister of any province in British India though the Congress had formed governments in eight out of 11 provinces after winning the winter 1936-37 provincial polls convincingly. The only executive post Pandit Nehru held before becoming PM was mayor of Allahabad.
Not having been a CM was never a handicap or liability to the man whose vision laid the foundations of both, the idea of India and the modern Indian republic as it stands today.
Our second PM, Lal Bahadur Shastri, again didn’t serve as a chief minister though he did serve as a minister in Uttar Pradesh right after Independence. Though his tenure was short-lived, cut short by his tragic death in Tashkent in January 1966, he left an indelible imprint.
The third Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, undoubtedly the most powerful personality since Independence, again didn’t serve as a chief minister in any state. She led India as Prime Minister for 15 long years and changed the map of South Asia forever. After the wave of nations attained freedom from colonial rule in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, her tenure was the first instance of a new cartographic dynamic — the birth of Bangladesh.
India’s fourth PM, and the first from Gujarat, Morarji Desai, had ser-ved as chief minister 7of the erstwhile Bombay state. He had long years of administrative experience both in the state and Central governments before becoming PM. However, he was not able to hold the disparate elements of a hastily-constructed Janata Party together, and he lasted a bare 28 months.
His home minister, Charan Singh, succeeded Desai as our fifth PM. Charan Singh was chief minister of UP twice between 1967 and 1970, had rich administrative experience in the state prior to becoming CM. But his tenure as PM was just a five-and-a-half month footnote in history.
Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother in October 1984 as India’s sixth PM (his mother Indira, the third PM, did three tenures). He had no administrative experience whatever, and was a pilot with Indian Airlines who got drafted into politics by another accident of history — a plane accident that killed his brother Sanjay, Indira Gandhi’s chosen heir.
This lack of administrative experience didn’t stop Rajiv Gandhi from becoming India’s most forward-looking and progressive PM, who laid the foundations of many initiatives, particularly in science and technology, that shaped modern India ever since his 1984-1989 tenure.
Vishwanath Pratap Singh, was UP chief minister in 1980-82, succeeded him as PM. V.P. Singh’s 11-month tenure as PM was an unmitigated disaster that saw a wave of self-immolations sweep university and college campuses across India.
After him came Chandra Shekhar, a grassroots politician who held no administrative office before becoming our eighth PM. A socialist by conviction, he might have been a successful PM had a misunderstanding not felled his fledgling government within months.
India’s ninth PM, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was undoubtedly an intellectual and a profound thinker. He is the one possible exception to the rule that CMs don’t usually make good Prime Ministers. But therein lies the twist in the tale — for PVNR was a not a successful chief minister. He wasn’t able to steer through the turbulent waters of Andhra Pradesh’s factionalised politics and finally the state, despite having a Congress majority, had to be put under President’s Rule. This early setback didn’t stand in the way of Narasimha Rao successfully piloting India’s trajectory in a world that changed dramatically in 1990 with the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union. He also presided over the reset of India’s higher economic direction.
H.D. Deve Gowda, who followed PVNR as India’s 10th PM, was the first to be directly elevated from the chief ministership of a state — Karnataka — to the PM’s post. Unfortunately, that administrative experience as CM did not stand him in good stead. His differences with the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri led to his resignation after just over 10 months, having failed to handle the coalition that supported him.
The 11th PM, Inder Kumar Gujral, who served for 11 months, is best known for the “Gujral Doctrine”, that remains the fundamental rational template of India’s relations with its neighbors even now. He never served in any state government except for a stint in the New Delhi Municipal Committee in the early 1950s.
India’s 12th PM and the first from the BJP, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had a distinguished career as a parliamentarian. He was external affairs minister in the Morarji Desai government, but had never held any administrative office in a state. That didn’t stand in the way of his having a fruitful tenure from 1998 to 2004.
The 13th PM, Dr Manmohan Singh (2004-14), whom history will judge far more kindly than the contemporary narrative, was a technocrat and accomplished economist before becoming Prime Minister. Though he had a solid track record and had held high positions, including RBI governor and finance minister, he again had never served in any state government in a political capacity, much less as a chief minister.
Finally, incumbent PM Narendra Modi brought to his job as PM 13 long years of experience as chief minister of Gujarat. However, his tenure till now has been marked more by disruption than any modicum of stability. The experiments with demonetisation and the poor implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, coupled with social disharmony, sent the Indian economy into a tailspin if not a free fall.
The short point is that the job of a chief minister is vastly different from that of Prime Minister in scale, content and even gravitas. Today, as the country searches for a safe pair of hands, experience as steward of a state proudly touted as a USP before the 2014 elections may not necessarily be a qualification, as the sweep of history bears it out....