Books | The Need to Survive And Triumph Politically, to Wrest Power or to Retain it, Have Been Strong Driving Forces of Decision-Making at the Top

Neerja ChowdhuryNeerja Chowdhury, author of How Prime Ministers Decide


What prompted this book? Did you visualize it as a record of India’s contemporary history?

During the years when I was writing on Indian politics, which included writing about prime ministers, I realised that the real story about how they made decisions did not come out—the pulls and pressures they were subjected to, the machinations and manipulations that went on behind the scenes, the backstabbing—though often there were also flashes of wisdom. This was a story that needed to be told.


What was the process of conceptualization? Since the book is based on not only your own observations/ interactions, but interviews with others, how did you decide which aspects to include and what to exclude?

I decided to scrutinize specific decisions by six prime ministers—decisions whose impact had lasted beyond the term of the prime ministers. In the case of Indira Gandhi, for instance, I decided not to look at the creation of Bangladesh or the Emergency for a lot had been written about them. I decided to look at why Indira Gandhi went in for elections in 1977—when there was no compelling reasons for her to do so, for she seemed to be on top of the situation. This is a subject which continues to tantalise analysts even today. Did Nehru’s daughter overpower Sanjay (Gandhi’s) mother? Or were there other factors at play—which I have looked at.

I was also fascinated by how Indira Gandhi bounced back to power only after 33 months after the rout of the Congress party in 1977—winning over her arch opponent Raj Narain to her side, neutralising Jayaprakash Narayan, who led the Bihar movement for total revolution and who had called for her resignation, marginalising Babu Jagjivan Ram who could have stopped her march back to power. And how she Hinduised her persona and politics (even reaching out to the RSS)—to offset the loss of support of the minorities to the Congress during the Emergency.

As I have said, I chose to look at decisions which had a long-term impact on society and the country’s politics.


Since you have written with the benefit of hindsight, were your personal opinions already formed before you approached the subject, or did you make new discoveries when you commenced work on the book?

Of course, I had my personal opinions. But I tried not to let those influence my exploration into what happened, why it happened and the complex situations the prime ministers were often confronted with. I also looked at their distinctive style of functioning, their political trajectory which took them to the pinnacle of power. As I looked deeper, I found myself getting a greater understanding of why they may have done what they did. Without doubt, each prime minister was a survivor—without that s/he would not have made it to the top.


Your book shows that many Indian prime ministers took critical decisions with far-reaching impact on nation’s internal and external security for their immediate political interests, instead of long-term national interest. What does it say about India’s political leadership?

Overall, adhocism has marked decision-making in India. The need to survive and triumph politically, to wrest power or to retain it, have been strong driving forces of decision-making at the top. Short termism rather long-term thinking and planning have tended to dominate the decision-making processes—though there have been situations where PMs have acted keeping the larger interests in mind.


Given this, is it fair to say that Indian political leadership has always lacked a long-term strategic vision, which is why our policymaking has been faulty?

It would be less than fair to say that the PMs did not have a vision. But as I said, shorter term considerations tended to overwhelm long term planning. That is bound to affect policy decisions.


How Prime Ministers DecideWhat is your personal (biased) view on each of the prime ministers that you have written about? Whose tenure was the most difficult to write about? Whose was the simplest?

Actually, I found new revelations scrutinising decisions by every prime minister. I was not writing only about my direct experience of them; I was tapping into the experience of their cabinet colleagues, bureaucrats, colleagues in the media who had written about them, those in industry who had access to them, their aides and hangers on who often had hourly access to them and were a repository of rich information—and those in their coterie. It was easier to get people to speak about them after the PM had demitted office. There was also the benefit of hindsight.

As I delved deeper into the prime ministerial decisions, I found every prime minister fascinating. How the ‘goongi gudiya’, ‘chokri’, ‘old witch’ Indira Gandhi got the better of her opponents inside and outside the country and touched new heights as well as plumbed new depths, with power for the sake of power gaining currency during her tenure, and her methods of ‘Saam, Daam, Dand, Bhed’ were emulated by generations of politicians, across party who came after her.

How Rajiv Gandhi, the new hope of India in 1984, fell between the two stools of caste and community (with his response to the Shah Bano judgement). He failed to comprehend its grip on the Indian psyche. How Vishwanath Pratap Singh, feudal and subaltern at the same time, upright and a hypocrite, changed the face of India by tapping into the aspirational revolution that was taking place in the OBCs and he empowered them with his move to reserve jobs for them in government—a process that has turned out to be irreversible. He lost his government. But as he put it, ‘some run governments, I ran history.’

How the erudite and experienced PV Narasimha Rao who liberalised the economy, calmed the inflamed temperatures in the country caused by ‘Mandal’ and ‘Mandir’, and by the turmoil in Punjab and in Jammu and Kashmir. But he deliberately allowed the Babri Masjid to be demolished—letting the BJP taste blood and the Muslims left with the feeling that the Indian constitution and the Indian state had failed to protect them and their rights.

The importance of being Atal Behari Vajpayee lay not in what he did—it lay in what he was, a moderate in a right-wing party, a believer in dialogue and in walking the middle path. And Dr Manmohan Singh, amongst the weak prime ministers India has had, showed that he could be his own man. In pushing through the Indo US nuclear deal, which he pursued relentlessly for 39 months despite many a hurdle, including the opposition of Sonia Gandhi and the Left parties which supported his government, Manmohan Singh showed a politically savvy few thought he was capable of.


Of all the decisions that you have chronicled, which are the ones you most fervently wish were taken differently for a better outcome for the nation’s future?

All could have been differently handled. But as I said earlier, no prime minister wrote on a clean slate. Narasimha Rao used to often lament that the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi problem he inherited was not of his making. But then, these are the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of history.


With the benefit of the past knowledge, if you were asked to advice, what would you tell the future prime minister of India?

One of my key takeways doing this book was that India is a coalition—a kaleidoscope of colour, variety, languages and religions, castes and ethnic groups, representing a diversity which possibly does not exist anywhere else in the world. Therefore, India also has to be run like a coalition, whether it is by a government with a brute majority, or a simple majority, or by a coalition of parties at the helm—and where the voice of the weakest is given its due. India is a country best run by a consensus.



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