Tridivesh Singh Maini' Blog

Indian politics: Why dark horses perform better

June 11, 2013

 As India braces up for the upcoming general elections, speculation with regard to the likely outcome of the elections and the likely Prime Minister is expectedly increasing by the day. Irrespective of the verdict of 2014, one thing is clear that Indian politics has always revolved around dynasties and individuals. Apart from dynastic politics, oratorial skills and charisma play a large part in the rise of an individual. The only individual outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who could claim to have a pan-India presence was the charismatic former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who with some bold initiatives in the economic and foreign policy realm played a pivotal role in raising India’s stature on the global stage. Yet, it would be crucial to remember that two of Vajpayee’s predecessors played a pivotal role in building a sound platform for him to build on.


If one were to look at economic reforms, it was the late PV Narasimha Rao who gave Dr Manmohan Singh the requisite political backing to liberalize the economy, and end the licence raj -- which had been detrimental to India’s economic growth. In the realm of foreign policy, it was the astute Rao who opened channels of communications with Israel, when it was considered anathema. In doing so, he ensured that India’s ties with the Islamic world were not affected. Similarly, Rao also reached out to Washington DC, without compromising on India’s interests. Closer home, he was the architect of the Look East policy, which is yielding dividends today. Thus Rao played a stellar role in infusing realism in India’s economic policy, and external relations with countries like Israel and the US and ushering India into the post cold war world.


In the crucial realm of India’s relations with other South Asian countries, it was the late IK Gujral, first as external affairs minister and then more decisively as Prime Minister, who played a crucial role in carving out a visionary policy towards India’s neighbors. Gujral stressed on the need for New Delhi to exhibit magnanimity in its dealings with SAARC countries and not expect mutual reciprocity. This approach was later dubbed as the Gujral doctrine, and has guided India’s engagement with its immediate neighbours.


Today, when we look back at India’s rise globally both these individuals have made critical contributions. While the strategic community mocks Gujral, and Rao’s own party has tried its hardest to wipe out his legacy. The greatest tribute to both these individuals is the fact that successive governments have carried on with their policies. Gujral's successor Vajpayee even consulted the former on issues pertaining to Indo-Pak relations.


While it may not be fair to compare the two individuals, since Rao ran a Congress government for 5 years as Prime Minister and had the onerous responsibility of taming a section of myopic Congressmen opposed to economic reforms, they both were similar in many ways. Both lacked a mass base, with Gujral having none at all, and were men of letters. Most importantly, both came to office with low expectations. Finally off course, both were unexpected choices. While Rao was thinking of retiring, but emerged as a consensus in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the non-controversial Gujral emerged as an unexpected choice of the third front coalition in 1997.


The question thus arises whether a pragmatic dark horse like either Gujral or Rao may be a better bet then any of the high profile leaders being projected for the post of PM. While many would argue, that Dr Manmohan Singh’s failure as PM clearly contradicts this assertion. Dr Singh was never really a dark horse, and his obedience, bordering on obsequiousness, to Sonia Gandhi which made him the natural choice for PM has been largely responsible for his failure. Seldom has he shown the tenacity exhibited by his mentor PV Narasimha Rao.


So an unknown leader who comes with low expectations, but a pragmatic vision and some back bone may be in a better position to take India forward. It remains to be seen whether either of the combinations, or even the so called third front can throw up any such leader who has a clear vision for the country, and is willing to bite the bullet.


Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based columnist and policy analyst.

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