Books

Book Review: ‘How Prime Ministers Decide’ By Neerja Chowdhury

Written by seasoned political journalist Neerja Chowdhury, ‘How Prime Ministers Decide’ serves as a comprehensive guide to India’s political history and the evolution of its leadership. It provides readers with a nuanced understanding of the complexities, achievements, and shortcomings of each prime minister’s tenure.

Neerja Chowdhury's 'How Prime Ministers Decide' starts from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and sets the stage for a deep dive into the subsequent prime ministers and their contributions to India’s growth.
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‘How Prime Ministers Decide’ is a thought-provoking exploration of India’s prime ministers, their leadership styles, and the impact of their decisions on the nation. Written by seasoned political journalist Neerja Chowdhury, the book delves into the lives and legacies of India’s Prime Ministers by providing readers with valuable insights into the country’s political evolution.

Spanning the years from India’s Independence in 1947 to the present day, ‘How Prime Ministers Decide’ offers a comprehensive overview of the challenges and opportunities that shaped the nation. It begins with the iconic leaders of the early years, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, highlighting their contrasting ideologies and their remarkable ability to collaborate for the greater good. This historical context sets the stage for a deep dive into the subsequent prime ministers and their contributions to India’s growth.

The book does an excellent job of presenting each prime minister’s unique leadership style and the circumstances under which they assumed office. It emphasizes the diverse backgrounds and motivations that drove these leaders, showcasing their commitment to nation-building. Readers gain valuable insights into their strengths, weaknesses, and the pivotal decisions that defined their tenures.

One of the book’s standout qualities is its balanced approach to examining each leader. The author refrains from overt bias and presents a nuanced perspective on their achievements and challenges. This allows readers to form their own judgments about the impact of each prime minister on India’s trajectory.

Nehru’s towering presence in the early years of Independent India is vividly portrayed. His intellectual prowess and commitment to secularism and democratic values shine through. The book also highlights his partnership with Patel, a pragmatic and action-oriented leader. Their collaboration, despite differing ideologies, sets an inspiring example of unity for the nation.

Moving forward, the book meticulously explores the leadership of subsequent prime ministers. It analyzes the contributions of leaders like Lal Bahadur Shastri, who provided stability during a tumultuous period, and Indira Gandhi, whose strong-willed decisions left a lasting impact on India’s political landscape. The narrative provides insight into the challenges they faced, including wars, economic reforms, and political controversies.

One of the book’s strengths lies in its examination of leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, who played pivotal roles in shaping India’s economy and foreign policy. Vajpayee’s ability to navigate coalition politics and his efforts to strengthen India’s global position are thoughtfully analyzed. Similarly, Singh’s tenure as the architect of economic reforms is given due credit, shedding light on the complexities of managing a rapidly changing economy.

A key theme that runs through the book is the evolution of India’s democracy and the changing role of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The author draws attention to the increased concentration of power in the PMO irrespective of the party in power. This analysis prompts reflection on the delicate balance between strong leadership and safeguarding democratic institutions.

Another noteworthy aspect is the book’s exploration of India’s political landscape through the lens of caste, religion, and class. It highlights how leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi strategically appealed to diverse segments of the population, reshaping the political landscape in the process. The book’s examination of caste-based politics, Other Backward Classes (OBC) empowerment, and the changing dynamics of Indian society adds depth to its analysis.

As the narrative progresses, it becomes evident that the book is not just a historical account of prime ministers but a critical reflection on the state of Indian democracy. It raises thought-provoking questions about the role of leaders, the importance of consensus in coalition politics, and the health of democratic institutions.

The concluding chapters of the book draw attention to the challenges facing Indian democracy. It discusses the erosion of institutions, the politicisation of government agencies, and the need for strong checks and balances. The author highlights the paradox that while coalition politics can lead to greater accountability, it can also result in corruption and instability.

In its entirety, ‘How Prime Ministers Decide’ serves as a comprehensive guide to India’s political history and the evolution of its leadership. It provides readers with a nuanced understanding of the complexities, achievements, and shortcomings of each prime minister’s tenure. Furthermore, it offers valuable insights into the factors that have shaped India’s political landscape — from economic reforms to identity politics.

The book’s narrative style is engaging, making it accessible to a wide range of readers from students of political science to general enthusiasts of Indian politics. The author’s journalistic background is evident in the book’s readability and ability to present complex political scenarios in a relatable manner.

In conclusion, ‘How Prime Ministers Decide’ is an essential read for anyone interested in Indian politics, history, and leadership. It not only chronicles the lives of Indian prime ministers but also prompts readers to contemplate the future of Indian democracy. It is a testament to the resilience and dynamism of India’s political leadership and the enduring relevance of their legacies.

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(Saleem Rashid Shah is a literary critic and independent writer based in New Delhi.)

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