Political System: Prime Minister

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Political System: Prime Minister

The prime minister of India, as in London's Westminster, is the linchpin of India's system of government. In Britain, the convention is firmly established that the prime minister must be a member of the lower house of Parliament. By contrast, at the time of her selection as prime minister in 1966, Indira Gandhi was a member of the upper house of India's parliament, the Rajya Sabha. In order to deflect criticism and to consolidate her family's political power base, Gandhi was subsequently elected to the Lok Sabha from Rae Bareilly, which had been her father's constituency in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Rajiv Gandhi maintained the Nehru-Gandhi family tradition of representing Rae Bareilly in the Lok Sabha, as would his widow Sonia Gandhi.

India's Constitution defines the duties of the prime minister in Article 78. Sources of prime ministerial power include: leadership of the council of ministers, leadership of party, control of parliamentary activities, control of intelligence agencies, control of the bureaucracy, control of foreign policy, emergency powers, and personal charisma.

The prime minister has almost total freedom in appointing members of Parliament (MPs) to ministerial posts. In making the selections, nevertheless, the party leader must ensure adequate representation to India's regional and sectarian interests, and also to the various factions within the ruling party. For example, in 1977, regardless of personal likes and dislikes, Prime Minister Morarji Desai had to include Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram in his Cabinet and give them powerful portfolios (finance and defense, respectively). Sometimes public opinion may force certain changes even on the most powerful prime ministers. After the debacle of the war with China in 1962, for example, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to remove Defence Minister V. K. Krishna Menon from the cabinet, since Krishna Menon had become identified in the public mind with the disasters of India's China policy. India has learned to live with coalition governments ruling in New Delhi for over two decades, and its prime ministers have had to manage fractious coalition allies with large egos. Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sometimes used the threat of resignation to force recalcitrant allies to fall in line behind government policy. At other times he allowed some members of the coalition to resign from his Cabinet rather than meet their demands.

Still, in general a prime minister can exercise considerable influence on parliamentary colleagues, and therefore on the destiny of the country, by constituting, reconstituting, and reshuffling the cabinet and chairing cabinet meetings. Prime Minister Gandhi began to assert herself against party elders almost from the start by inducting her own people into the cabinet, such as Ashoka Mehta, G. S. Pathak, and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

In parliamentary governments in the West, there is a tendency to leave particular individuals in charge of particular portfolios for a period of time so that they may develop and use specialized expertise. Confident of his stature in the country and his authority over his Cabinet, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru kept some Cabinet colleagues in charge of the same ministry for considerable lengths of time, allowing them to acquire expertise in their respective fields. Prime Minister Gandhi, on the other hand, was notorious for the continual reshuffling of the ministries. She did this in part to demonstrate her power, and in part to prevent potential rivals from developing independent power bases by keeping them all off balance. The net result was to disrupt the efficient functioning of government. Rajiv Gandhi maintained his mother's tradition of frequent reassignment of Cabinet posts.

Shifting Cabinet portfolios enlarges the room for maneuver of a prime minister who wishes to control the agenda of government. The prime minister is the head of government by virtue of being the leader of the majority party in parliament. A party is elected to office on the basis of a policy platform spelled out in an election manifesto. The party leader is exceptionally well placed to influence and shape the translation of the party manifesto into government policy. The extreme example of prime ministerial control of parliamentary activities was probably the period of "National Emergency" rule by Indira Gandhi (1975–1977), when Parliament was in effect converted into her personal rubber stamp. All constitutional fetters were removed from the de facto exercise of power by the prime minister, and opposition leaders were, for the most part, in jail.

In parliamentary systems in the West, the functions and the functionaries of the leader of the party as an organization and the leader of the party in Parliament are usually separate. India is unusual among mature parliamentary democracies in having largely fused the offices of head of party organization and leader of the parliamentary wing of a political party; that was not the case after the 2004 elections, however, when Sonia Gandhi led the Congress Party and Manhohan Singh led Parliament as prime minister. In the early years after independence, Prime Minister Nehru had to learn to live with another person as Congress Party president—Purushottam Das Tandon. But Tandon, the protégé of the powerful Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was outmaneuvered by Nehru soon after Patel's death. Nehru became Congress Party president in September 1951, thereby ending the so-called duumvirate, even though in later years he was to relinquish the party post, first to a weak and relatively unknown U. N. Dhebar, and then to his daughter, Indira Gandhi. The latter also acted as Nehru's social hostess, often accompanying him on many of his travels around India and abroad.

Indira Gandhi was minister of information and broadcasting under Nehru's successor, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. When Shastri died after India and Pakistan signed a peace treaty in Tashkent in 1966, she was catapulted into power by the Congress Party bosses, who considered her a pliant woman, young in years and lacking in political experience. Her fierce independence was quickly demonstrated by her devaluation of the rupee in June 1966, a decision taken without prior consultation with such senior party colleagues as Morarji Desai and Congress Party president Kamaraj Nadar. The 1967 general election saw the defeat of many of the old party stalwarts, including Kamaraj, Atulya Ghosh, S. Nijalingappa, and S. K. Patil. When the ruling Congress Party split in 1969, Indira Gandhi turned to the many small parties of India's left wing for her political survival.

Indira Gandhi's fortunes revived with the general election of 1971 and the state elections of 1972, which together gave her a commanding position in New Delhi, with 352 seats for the Congress Paty in the Lok Sabha, and with Congress majorities in fifteen states and one union territory. Thereafter, she began to dominate every party organ: the All-India Congress Committee (AICC), the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB), and the Central Election Committee. Even in defeat in 1977, when the organizational sections of the Congress Party deserted her, she abandoned them and effectively took the Congress Party majority with her, as was only too vividly demonstrated by her electoral triumph in 1980. It may not have been entirely accurate to say, as her many sycophants did, that "India is Indira, and Indira is India," but she certainly proved that "Indira is Congress, and Congress is Indira."

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was the final arbiter in the choice of Congress Party candidates for election from all constituencies throughout India. The party organization became an instrument for the prime minister of India to control, and thus to dominate state politics as well. In 1975, for example, in the context of factional infighting within the state unit of the Congress Party, Uttar Pradesh chief minister H. N. Bahuguna declared that "Mrs. Gandhi is our Supreme Court."

Heads of government can also abuse their control of intelligence services for personal and party political purposes. Intelligence agencies traditionally come under prime ministerial oversight, not least because heads of government would mistrust potential rivals in charge of such key operations. The size and complexity of India, as well as its colonial past, account for the emergence of several intelligence agencies, the most important of which are: the Intelligence Bureau, including a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW); the Central Bureau of Investigation; the Criminal Investigation Department (Special Branch); and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence.

Established in 1968 as an external intelligence agency, RAW was separated from the Intelligence Bureau in 1969 and placed under the cabinet secretariat, with the prime minister in the chair. Indira Gandhi expanded the powers and activities of RAW during the 1975–1977 "emergency" period and gave it an internal surveillance role, with the director of RAW reporting directly to her. The Shah Commission report (withdrawn from sale and circulation by government order on 7 March 1980 after Gandhi's return to power) documented how the various branches of intelligence succumbed to political pressure and were used to harass, intimidate, and imprison political opponents during the two years of "emergency" rule. RAW was stripped of its internal surveillance functions by the Janata government (1977–1979). But Indira Gandhi was not the first nor the last prime minister of India to use the intelligence agencies to keep abreast of moves and countermoves by potential challengers and to harass political opponents. Similar allegations were also leveled against the Vajpayee government.

In addition to using intelligence agencies for maintaining a watching brief over opponents and potential rivals, the prime minister can exercise political control through the regular channels of bureaucracy (including the police). This is especially so in India, where the centralization of the elite administrative and police services facilitates vertical control of their activities. Early in her tenure, Indira Gandhi introduced such phrases as "committed bureaucracy" into her political vocabulary. Personal loyalty to the prime minister became the most important criterion in determining promotions and assignments of senior officials.

The greatest opportunity for a prime minister of India to exercise total power within the constitution comes during the declaration of a national emergency. It is not an exaggeration to say that the 1975–1977 experience was a period of prime ministerial dictatorship. The period of "emergency" rule was an aberration, even by Indian standards. Increasingly in the modern world, heads of governments of all countries have begun to play the most visible role in determining their countries' foreign policies. India is no exception to the rule. Nehru was a founding father of nonalignment and the chief architect of independent India's foreign policy. Prime ministerial dominance of foreign policy did not diminish under his successors. No one in India or abroad was in any doubt that the country's foreign policy during Indira Gandhi's premiership was determined first and foremost by her, regardless of who may have been foreign minister. The same remained true of Rajiv Gandhi. The chief spokesman for India's place in the world since the nuclear test of 1998 has been the prime minister.

An international role in turn enhances the domestic status and stature of the prime minister. Nehru profited from his image as a world statesman, and Rajiv Gandhi tried to carve out a niche by such means as the Gandhi-Gorbachev Delhi Declaration of 27 November 1986. All major international conferences, for example the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting, are attended by the prime minister personally. Visits abroad to other countries and to such forums as the United Nations are treated as major political events, where the prime minister is on show. Prime Minister Vajpayee was a regular participant in the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, and he used the sidelines of the event to meet with any number of counterparts from around the world (as well as to interact with the increasingly influential expatriate Indian community in the United States).

The final source of prime ministerial authority is the individual attributes and charisma of the person occupying the office. As one would expect, some are more charismatic than others.

Ramesh Thakur

See alsoGandhi, Indira ; Gandhi, Rajiv ; Nehru, Jawaharlal ; Vajpayee, Atal Bihari


Manor, James, ed. Nehru to the Nineties: The Changing Office of Prime Minister in India. London: C. Hurst, 1995.

Thakur, Janardhan. Prime Ministers: Nehru to Vajpayee. New Delhi: BPI, 2002.

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