Yesterday the PM is reported to have been asked by someone travelling on his aeroplane from Moscow “whether he had forgiven Advani for calling him a ‘weak Prime Minister’”.
The question was absurd, almost ridiculous, typical of our docile ingratiating rather juvenile English-language press and media, as if any issue of forgiveness arises at all about what one politician says during an election campaign about another politician’s performance in office.
Dr Manmohan Singh’s answer was surprising too: “I was compelled to reply to what Advani said…On May 16 when (Advani) telephoned me, he told me that he was hurt by some of my statements. He said he was hurt and regretted his statements… I apologised to him if I have hurt him. I am looking forward to a close relationship with the Leader of the Opposition.”
So LK Advani appears to have apologised to Manmohan Singh and Manmohan Singh to LK Advani for what they said about each other during the recent general election campaign! What is going on? Were they schoolboys exchanging fisticuffs in a school playground or elderly men battling over power and policy in modern Indian politics?
What would we have done if there was a Churchill in Indian politics today – hurling sarcastic insults at domestic opponents and foreign leaders while guiding a nation on its right course during turbulent times?
Churchill once famously said his parents had not shown him “The Boneless Wonder” in PT Barnum’s circus because it was too horrible a sight but now he had finally seen such a “Boneless Wonder” in his opponent on the Treasury Benches, namely, Ramsay MacDonald. Of the same opponent he said later “He has the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought”.
When accused of being drunk by a woman MP he replied “And you are very ugly, but tomorrow I’ll be sober”. Today’s politically correct world would scream at far less. Field Marshall Montgomery told Churchill, “I neither drink nor smoke and am 100% fit,” to which Churchill replied, “I drink and smoke and I am 200% fit”. That too would be politically incorrect today.
Churchill described Prime Minister Clement Attlee as “a modest man with much to be modest about”; also about Attlee: “If any grub is fed on Royal Jelly it turns into a Queen Bee”. Yet Attlee had enough dignity and self-knowledge and self-confidence to brush it all off and instead respect and praise him. In the 1954 volume Winston Spencer Churchill Servant of Crown and Commonwealth Attlee added his own tribute to his great opponent: “I recall…the period when he was at odds with his own party and took a seat on the Bench below the Gangway on the Government side. Here he was well placed to fire on both parties. I remember describing him as a heavily armed tank cruising in No Man’s Land. Very impressive were the speeches he delivered as the international horizon grew darker. He became very unpopular with the predominant group in his own party, but he never minded fighting a lone battle.”
Stanley Baldwin, who as PM first appointed Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer, once said “There comes Winston with his hundred horsepower mind”. Yet Churchill was to later say harshly “I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better had he never lived.”
Of Lenin, Churchill said, he was “transported in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia”. Of Molotov: “I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modern concept of a robot.” Of Hitler, “If [he] invaded hell I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”. Of De Gaulle, “He was a man without a country yet he acted as if he was head of state”.” Of John Foster Dulles, “[He] is the only bull who carries his china shop with him”. Of Stafford Cripps, British Ambassador to the USSR, “…a lunatic in a country of lunatics”; and also “There but for the Grace of God, goes God”.
Decades later, that great neo-Churchillian Margaret Thatcher was on the receiving end of a vast amount of sarcasm. “President Mitterrand once famously remarked that Thatcher had ‘the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe’. Rather less flatteringly, Dennis Healey described her as Attila the Hen. She probably took both descriptions as compliments.” (Malcolm Rifkind in Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant edited by Subroto Roy and John Clarke, 2005).
Politics is, and should be, grown up stuff because it deals with human lives and national destinies, and really, if you can’t take the heat please do not enter the kitchen. The slight Churchillian sarcasm that does arise within modern Indian politics comes very occasionally from Bihar but nowhere else, e.g. about the inevitability of aloo in samosas and of bhaloos in the jungle but no longer of Laloo being in the seat of power. In general, everyone seems frightfully sombre and self-important though may be in fact short of self-knowledge and hence self-confidence.
What had Manmohan Singh said about LK Advani that he felt he had to apologise for? That Advani had no substantial political achievement to his credit and did not deserve to be India’s PM. Manmohan was not alone in making the charge – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and numerous other spokesmen and representatives of their party said the same. Has Manmohan’s apology to Advani been one on behalf of the whole Congress Party itself?
Was Advani’s apology to Manmohan one on behalf of the whole BJP too?
What had the BJP charged Manmohan with that Advani felt he had to apologise for? Being a “weak PM”.
Hmmm. Frankly, thinking about it, it is hard to count who has not been weak as a PM in India’s modern history.
Certainly Vallabhai Patel as a kind of co-PM was decisive and far from weak back in 1947-48.
Lal Bahadur Shastri was not weak when he told Pakistan that a Pakistani attack on Kashmir would result in an Indian attack on Pakistan.
Indira Gandhi was not weak when she resisted the Yahya Khan-Tikka Khan tyranny against Bangladesh.
Had he not been assassinated, Rajiv Gandhi in a second term would have been decisive and not weak in facing up to and tackling the powerful lobbies and special interest groups that have crippled our domestic economic policy for decades.
But the number of such examples may be counted by hand. Perhaps VP Singh might count, riding in an open jeep to Amritsar, as might AB Vajpayee’s Pokhran II and travelling on a bus to Lahore. In general, the BJP’s charge that Manmohan was “weak” may have constructively led to serious discussion in the country about the whole nature of the Prime Ministership in modern India, which means raising a whole gamut of issues about Indian governance – about India being the softest of “soft states”, with the softest of “soft government budget constraints” (i.e., endless deficit finance and paper money creation) etc.
Instead, what we have had thus far is apologies being exchanged for no real political reason between the leaderships of the Government and the Opposition. If two or three sellers come to implicitly carve up a market between themselves they are said by economic theory to be colluding rather than being in competition. Indian politics may be revealing such implicit collusive behaviour. The goal of this political oligopoly would seem to be to preserve and promote the status quo of the post-1947 Dilli Raj with its special hereditary nomenclatura, at the expense of anonymous diffused teeming India.
Subroto Roy, Kolkata
Postscript July 15 2009: Churchill’s mature opinion of Baldwin was one of the fullest praise at the 20 May 1950 unveiling of a memorial to him. See his In the Balance, edited by Randolph S Churchill, 1951, p. 281