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Do India's Masses Support Manmohan Singh?

This provocative article suggests that Manmohan Singh's appointment as prime minister could easily be viewed as yet another instance of India's elite discarding the wishes of the electorate. Although Dr. Singh has been elected to the Rajya Sabha (the upper house, constituted via indirect election) on several occasions, he was unsuccessful in his lone bid (in 1999) to win a Lok Sabha (the lower house, constituted via direct election) seat from the South Delhi constituency (Dr. Singh got 46.25% of the votes and came in second to the B.J.P.'s Vijay Kumar Malhotra who got 52.25% of the votes).

The Daily Telegraph, May 21, 2004

If I had to draw up a list of jobs that I don't want, prime minister of India would be very close to the top of it. It would be up there with coal miner, North Sea trawlerman, lavatory cleaner and newspaper editor. This is not only because I am a coward, and prime ministers of India have a habit of being shot. It is also because I could not face the awful responsibility for more than a billion livelihoods, the constant abuse from my political opponents, the endless, achingly boring meetings and speeches, and the feeling that not a second of my day belonged to me.

The same sort of objections apply, of course, to being the prime minister of any country. I can see that it would be nice to be able to boast, at a cocktail party or a school reunion, of having an impressive sounding job:

"What are you up to these days, Smithers?"

"I'm the sales manager of an engineering firm in the Midlands. What about you, Utley?"

"Oh, I'm the prime minister of India, as a matter of fact." [Modest blush].

But the momentary pleasure of putting Smithers in his place, and impressing the girls, would be far outweighed by the misery of actually having to do the wretched job. I am far happier, sitting here in the smoking room at The Daily Telegraph, hurling custard pies at people in public life all over the world. I haven't the slightest desire to take on any of their responsibilities myself.

I look with a kind of bewilderment at all those M.P.s in the Commons, scurrying for the door or putting on a show of nonchalance as the purple powder showers from the Distinguished Strangers' Gallery. A great many of them actually want to be prime minister. Why?

Don't tell me, as they will themselves, that all they wish is to improve the lot of their fellow man. That may be a small part of it. But I have met many of these people. They are driven by something much stronger than a desire to do good. Not since Alec Douglas-Home have we had a prime minister who wasn't absolutely desperate to get the job - and that was 40 years ago. The rest have all been programmed with a driving-ambition gene, which seems to have been temporarily out of stock when God was dishing out my own D.N.A.

I therefore fully understand Sonia Gandhi's decision to refuse the premiership of India, after her Congress Party's unexpected victory in the recent elections. Let's face it, she has even stronger reasons than I have for turning down the job (although perhaps I ought to admit that nobody has offered it to me): both her husband and her mother-in-law were assassinated; her children were strongly against her accepting it; and apparently she was never particularly interested in politics anyway.

Add to these reasons the strong hostile reaction of the Bombay stock exchange to the election result, and all the vitriol poured on Mrs. Gandhi by her opponents, who hated the idea that India would be governed by the Roman Catholic daughter of an Italian building contractor, and you can see perfectly well why she pulled out.

But to understand and sympathise with her decision is not necessarily to approve of it. And the more that I think about it, the more strongly I disapprove.

The great difference between Mrs. Gandhi's refusal to accept the premiership of India and mine is that she stood for the Indian parliament, as the leader of her party, and I did not. I can see that she has done nothing technically unconstitutional or illegal. The Indian election system is based on our own. You don't vote for a prime minister. You vote for the candidate you fancy. Then it is up to the party to which he or she belongs, if it wins the election, to decide which of its members should try to form an administration. That is the theory, anyway. The reality is very different - in India, as it is here. The fact is that everybody who voted for the Congress Party in this week's elections did so in the belief that Mrs. Gandhi would become prime minister if Congress won the biggest share of the parliamentary seats.

I have no doubt that this was the very reason why so many Indian voters put their crosses in the box marked Congress: they liked the Gandhi dynasty - Rajiv, Indira and Indira's father, Pandit Nehru; they wanted another Gandhi to try to lead them out of their poverty.

I wonder how many of them would have voted Congress, had they known that they would thereby be giving the premiership of India to Manmohan Singh, the Sikh nominated by Mrs. Gandhi to take her place as party leader.

I hasten to say that I have nothing against Dr. Singh, who sounds great to me. All that I know about him is that he has a reputation for scholarship, and that he was educated at both Oxford and Cambridge. An English education is always a good sign, in my book, although by no means infallibly so. (It is salutary to remember that Bill Clinton was at Oxford, and Idi Amin at Sandhurst.)

Nor have I anything at all against Sikhs in general - although I know that a great many Indians have. Sikhs, who make up barely two per cent of the Indian population, were responsible for Indira Gandhi's assassination. Nearly 5,000 of them were killed in the blood-letting that followed her death. How many of those who voted Congress this week, believing that they were backing Sonia Gandhi for the premiership, would have done the same if they had known that they were giving the job to a Sikh?

No matter how much we may sympathise with Mrs. Gandhi, or approve of her choice of successor, she has a strong case to answer. There are many who will say that she has betrayed democracy. She led the Indian electorate to believe that, by voting for Congress, they would be voting for her as prime minister. She was the Trojan horse who smuggled Dr. Singh into office: the voters wanted her; we have no way of knowing whether or not they wanted him.

If I were an Indian voter, I would reckon that I had been cheated. I would feel the same if Tony Blair were suddenly to hand over the reins of power to Gordon Brown. But he wouldn't do that without consulting the electorate, would he? It is only female politicians, surely, who lack the ambition gene.