India attained independence from the British in 1947 and adopted a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster model. Political parties compete for power and the leader of the single largest party forms the government. Since 1947, the Indian National Congress party, commonly known as the Congress, has been the dominant political party in the country. Before independence, the Congress was a movement led by Mahatma Gandhi who recommended that it be disbanded post independence. Like many of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas, this was disregarded after independence. The Congress under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed uninterrupted power and Nehru’s influence kept increasing as other stalwarts of the freedom struggle died leaving no challenge to his authority. By the end of his life, Nehru had promoted his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and within a couple of years of his death she emerged as the Prime Minister.
Indira Gandhi went on to impose a “state of emergency” for two years beginning in 1975 during which she put her opponents in prison. As a result, she lost power in 1977 to a ragtag coalition of parties that imploded three years later and she was back in power in 1980. Indira was assassinated in 1980 and was succeeded by her son, Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv lost power in 1989 and his life in 1991. From 1991 to 2004, the Nehru dynasty was out of power. An alternative leadership seemed to be emerging in the Congress party and regional parties based on caste became increasingly prominent. At the national level, coalitions became the norm and single party rule has since become a thing of the past.
In 2004, the Congress returned to power under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian widow of Rajiv Gandhi. Although the Congress had to enter into a coalition to cobble together a majority, the lack of alternative viable national leaders meant that Nehru’s dynasty had returned. Sonia could have been the Prime Minister herself but she chose Manmohan Singh to be the Prime Minister and he has been in office since.
Why is Manmohan Singh relevant?
As India becomes increasingly significant in the global economy, questions such as who leads the country and how is India governed increasingly gain importance – not only for the country itself but for the entire world. The last few years have seen an exponential increase in corruption in India. There have been scandals galore in telecoms, coal and even defense. For the first time in the last twenty years, a mass movement against corruption erupted last year. The Indian economy has been growing rapidly despite the corruption, red tape and infrastructure bottlenecks. It has been called upon to play a larger role at the global level with the increasing importance of the emerging economies, especially the BRICS nations. Given its multiple challenges, India’s governance and leadership have come into sharp focus.
The key controversy in India pertains to power and responsibility. No one in the country or outside it quite knows how the country is run. Sonia Gandhi wields absolute power in the Congress party and is grooming her son, Rahul Gandhi, as her successor. He is widely regarded as lacking the education or competence to run the country.
The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is known to be loyal to the Nehru dynasty and defers to Ms. Gandhi. It is now a cliché in India that Manmohan has responsibility without power and Sonia has power without responsibility. This raises fundamental constitutional and philosophical questions in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy.