- India’s best and worst prime ministers
Politics and Play - Ramachandra Guha
In his recent press conference, Manmohan Singh said he would leave it to history and historians to judge his tenure as prime minister. This column provides an interim verdict, by assessing his record against that of other men and women who have held the post.
Let’s begin with our first and longest-serving prime minister. Jawaharlal Nehru’s time in office falls neatly into three segments: 1947-52, 1952-7, 1957-64. His government faced enormous challenges; bringing about social and religious peace after the horrors of Partition, resettling refugees, beginning the process of economic development, creating a sense of national unity in a diverse and divided land. Nehru rose ably to the task, aided by an outstanding group of colleagues, among them Vallabhbhai Patel and B.R. Ambedkar.
Patel died in 1950. Ambedkar left the cabinet in 1951. Nehru fought the general elections of 1952 on four major issues. Two distinguished him from the hard Left, namely, the importance of multi-party democracy, and the building of a more just society through incremental means (as he put it, “we can build the edifice of Socialism, brick-by-brick only”). Two others distinguished him from the hard Right. These were equal rights for minorities (his first election speech, in Ludhiana, declared “an all-out war against communalism”), and the reform of the archaic personal laws of the majority community to give Hindu women greater dignity and autonomy.
Nehru’s best years in office were 1952 to 1957. The foundations of a democratic, plural, modern, society were laid. An independent foreign policy was forged. Economic development based on science and technology was promoted.
Had Nehru left office after his second term, we would remember him as the finest prime minister in our history. In 1958, he took a holiday in Kashmir, where he came round to the view that he should retire. However, after he returned to Delhi he was persuaded to stay on. Now his problems began. His last few years as prime minister were distinguished by growing corruption (the Mundhra affair), the arbitrary use of Central power (the dismissal of the Kerala government), and humiliation on the battle-field (against China, in 1962).