Deputy Prime Ministers: India

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This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.


An overview

From the archives of “India Today”, January 29, 2009

Shafi Rahman

Even as the UPA Government pushed its top minister to swing too many fences when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh availed his medical leave, the big picture emerging from the legal quarter is not very pretty. What arrangements should be made when the prime minister is unable to carry out his duties? Unlike the US, the Indian Constitution does not have a provision for automatic handing over of the reins of governance when the prime minister falls ill. Though India had several deputy prime ministers over the years, the post had remained more of an honorific, a consolation prize in the game of political jugglery. Unlike the prime ministerial slot, there are automatic stand-ins for other posts. The Vicepresident can step in for the President followed by the Lok Sabha Speaker and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. There were attempts though to put a hierarchy in place. A writ petition in 1989 challenging the appointment of Devi Lal as deputy prime minister was rejected by the Supreme Court, but with a terse comment: “In view of attorney general’s statement that he is just a minister like other members of the Council of Ministers... we think the contention raised by the petitioner has no force.” Unlike the US where the President is elected directly by the people and his Cabinet consists of handpicked members, the Westminster form of government in India is anchored on “Cabinet Government” based on collective responsibility. This allows the Cabinet to carry on even without the prime minister. Earlier appointments of deputy prime ministers were an opaque mix of compulsions of coalition politics and intra-party power equations. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel became the first deputy prime minister, even before the Constitution of India was framed, as a part of the Congress party’s original power struggle. Morarji Desai was the next to be elevated, in 1967, in an oblique effort to diminish his rant and rave against Indira Gandhi. (see box) The last one to become deputy prime minister was L.K. Advani, nothing more than a affirmation from prime minister A.B. Vajpayee that the man who was his No. 2 in BJP held the same position in the government too. Beyond protocol hair pulling, the crisis has more implications on the government’s coherent functioning. Ad hocism is dangerous when the country is facing security threats and economic crisis. Ensuring a constitutional provision for a deputy prime minister will put in place a clear chain of command.

Second in command

There is no constitutional provision for a deputy premier but intra-party feuds have catapulted many to the post

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (Congress)

Term of Office: August 1947 to December 1950 The Iron Man stayed No. 2 to Pandit Nehru despite their frequent skirmishes.

Gulzari Lal Nanda (Congress)

Terms of Office: May 1964 and January 1966 Served two fortnight-long stints as interim prime minister following deaths of Nehru and Shastri.

Morarji Desai (CONGRESS)

Term of Office: March 1967 to December 1969 Quit following tiff with Indira Gandhi over bank nationalisation. Later became prime minister.

Chaudhary charan Singh (Janata Party)

Term of Office: July 1979 to October 1979 Was deputy in the first non-Congress regime. Later had the shortest stint as prime minister.

Babu Jagjivan Ram (Janata Party)

Term of Office: October 1979 to December 1979 An able administrator, it was said of him that he was the best prime minister India never had.

Yashwantrao Chavan (Janata Party)

Term of Office: December 1979 to January 1980 Had the shortest stint as the deputy prime minister, serving for less than a month.

Chaudhary Devi Lal (Janata Dal)

Term of Office: December 1989 to June 1991 He was elected prime minister in a drama played out in Central Hall, but settled for the No. 2 slot.

L. K.Advani (BJP)

Term of Office: June 2002 to May 2004 Apersonal dream was met halfway when he was made deputy PM, a post held by his icon Patel.

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