India has had seven prime ministers in the last 25 years i.e. VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, PV Narsimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, HD Devegowda, IK Gujral and Manmohan Singh since 1989. Of these seven PMs no one except Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM candidate before elections for the next ruling party/coalition. It means people had no clue about whom they were voting as Prime Minister when they voted for the ruling party in the respective Lok Sabha elections.
The circumstances in which VP Singh became Prime Minister sowed the seeds of his dethronement within a year. After the 1989 Lok Sabha election, both Chandrashekhar and VP Singh wanted to become Prime Minister. Apparently a compromise was reached and they both agreed on Devilal’s name. In the Parliamentary Board meeting that was convened to elect the leader of the Janata Dal, VP Singh proposed the name of Devilal and it was seconded by Chandrashekhar. However Devilal proposed the name of VP Singh which was then accepted by the Parliamentary board. Chandrashekhar felt that this was a conspiracy hatched by VP Singh and he deserved to be the Prime Minister. This, despite the fact that VP Singh had become a bigger mass leader than Chandrashekhar, because of Bofors issue. VP Singh could not even complete one year of his term when Chandrashekhar split Janata Dal and became Prime Minister with outside support of the same Congress Party, against which he had won elections. All this probably could have been avoided if the Janata Dal had gone with a Prime Ministerial candidate in the elections and there would have been no confusion within the ranks of the party and common voters.
After 1991 election results, when Congress emerged as single largest party and Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, the party chose P V Narsimha Rao to become Prime Minister. Again, people of India had absolutely no say in who would become their Prime Minister. It was decided after the election results by the Congress Party. In 1995, BJP declared that Atal Bihari Vajpayee would be its Prime Ministerial candidate. This decision was actually taken unilaterally by Lal Krishna Advani without even discussing with top leaders of BJP. Even Atal Bihari Vajpayee was shocked to hear LK Advani’s announcement from stage in the party’s Mumbai adhiveshan. Till then it was widely believed inside and outside the party that if BJP ever comes to power, LK Advani would be the Prime Minister. LK Advani could take such a decision and announce it without discussing it with anyone as he was at the peak of his power within BJP. Since then no other leader, not even Vajpayee, has enjoyed so much power and confidence within the party.
The announcement was a positive milestone in Indian democracy. Though the decision of nominating Atal Bihari as PM candidate was not a result of any democratic exercise and Vajpayee was probably not even among the top two most popular leaders within BJP, at least the voters had a clear idea who would be India’s Prime Minister if BJP comes to power. After the elections which were held less than a year after the announcement of Vajpayee’s PM candidature, BJP came into power for the first time, though only for thirteen days, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was made the Prime Minister.
After BJP could not prove its majority as no other party apart from Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and Samta Party supported it, H D Devegowda became Prime Minister with the outside support of Congress. Other leaders who were in fray after the elections to become Prime Minister were Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Yadav, Biju Patnaik etc. Again, H D Devegowda was not a Prime Ministerial candidate before the elections and he could become PM because there was least resistance to his name among top Third Front leaders and CPI (M) had committed the ‘historical blunder’ of not making Jyoti Basu as Prime Minister. H D Devegowda’s main opponent in Karnataka was Congress and he found nothing wrong in becoming Prime Minister with Congress support. Sitaram Kesari who became Congress president after PV Narsimha Rao withdrew support from the third front government led by HD Devegowda and made it clear that he would support third front only if they replace Devegowda with someone else. The third front meekly agreed and chose IK Gujral as their leader. The reason for Devegowda’s replacement is still a mystery today. Sitartam Kesari did not bother to give any strong valid reason for his withdrawal of support. After 1998 election Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was NDA’s PM candidate before the election, became Prime Minister. By now he had become the most popular leader in the country not only among BJP supporters but was also rated as top PM choice across all parties.
In 2004, when UPA came into power Manmohan Singh was made Prime Minister just because he enjoyed confidence of Congress President. There was no discussion about his name even among top Congress leaders let alone UPA. Sonia Gandhi just decided on his name and the rest meekly accepted. Before 2009 elections, Sonia Gandhi announced that Manmohan would continue to be Prime Minister if the party comes back to power. However there were also talks that there would be a smooth transition and Manmohan would be replaced by Rahul Gandhi.
Circumstances other than popular public support have made six of India’s last seven Prime Ministers. In a mature democracy, people should know who all could become Prime Minister as a result of their votes. The argument that India is a Parliamentary democracy does not hold water any more. Britain too is a parliamentary democracy and India has adopted its West Minister model but in the last British general elections not only the three major parties announced their PM candidates but also had pre election debates among them.
Narendra Modi has emerged as the most popular candidate for the post of Prime Minister in every Opinion Poll conducted in the last few months. He is not only the most popular BJP leader but the most popular leader across all political parties. This despite the fact that he has been a state Chief Minister since last ten years and has not held any national position within the party or the government since 2002. In 1996 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was declared the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, he was not even the most popular leader in the party (forget being the most popular leader across all parties). Lal Krishna Advani was the most popular leader at that time and one can argue that Murli Manohar Joshi was not less popular than Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It took three years, a disastrous performance by a third front government and most importantly projection by BJP as PM candidate for Vajpayee to become the most popular leader in the country. Narendra Modi has achieved almost the same level of popularity as Vajpayee had in 1998 & 1999 despite the fact that he has not yet been named as party’s official PM candidate. One can only imagine his support when he is officially declared so.
If that happens, it would be another milestone for Indian democracy. For the first time, a national party would have to appoint someone its PM candidate who has risen from grass roots and is not a Delhi based leader, someone who has earned this position not because of circumstances but because Delhi based leaders had no choice but to adhere to popular public choice. It would be better than what BJP did in 1995 by declaring Vajpayee as PM candidate because this time BJP would be backing someone who is already the most popular choice in the country.
If India’s next Prime Minister is someone who is the most popular leader in the country and does not owe his position to circumstances and palace intrigues, it would be a great leap forward for Indian Democracy.