A ringside view of the inner workings of power

It is disturbing that the relationship between the ruling side and the Opposition has become bitter, says veteran journalist Neerja Chowdhury; says this is unealthy for a democracy where dialogue is key

Updated - January 26, 2024 07:07 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2024 05:51 pm IST -  CHENNAI

Neeraja Chowdhury in conversation with Ramya Kannan at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 (The Hindu Pavilion) held at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Jan. 26

Neeraja Chowdhury in conversation with Ramya Kannan at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 (The Hindu Pavilion) held at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Jan. 26 | Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

The headlines may give us the news of the day, but it takes a seasoned journalist who has had a ringside view of the corridors of power and backroom dramas for four decades to paint the big picture. Neerja Chowdhury’s book, How Prime Ministers Decide, brings together the context, personalities, and politics to colour in the details of recent Indian history.

In conversation with Ramya Kannan, the Hindu’s Tamil Nadu Bureau Chief, during The Hindu Lit for Life session on ‘The inner workings of power’, Ms. Chowdhury, described how the wheels turn in the Prime Minister’s Office where the action lies, what goes on behind the scenes, and how the powers-that-be make decisions on tough situations.

Beyond the headlines

Take, for instance, the latest headlines. “The Ayodhya Mandir issue did not crop up in one day. It has defined politics for 74 years,” Ms. Chowdhury said. “The story began on December 22, 1949, when a Ram Lalla statue was surreptitiously smuggled inside the Babri Masjid, that stood where, today, the Ram temple lies — in the sanctum sanctorum, in the dead of night, organised by the Hindu Mahasabha. Not many know that among the group that went in was Nanaji Deshmukh, one of the three top leaders of the BJP. Clearly, it wasn’t a magical appearance of the murti, which was a spin given at that time. In short, the Ayodhya mandir situation has confounded every single Prime Minister and confronted them with decisions, which some took well and some didn’t,” she explained. 

She recounted how the local administration ensured that the idol was not removed, despite then-PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s instructions. “In the 1950s, locks were put on the mandir where Hindus could worship from a distance. This happened due to the competitive politics inside the Congress and the confusion over whether to go for the traditional Hindu line that Home Minister Sardar Patel and U.P. Chief Minister Vallabh Pant represented, or opt for the secular push that Nehru stood for. While on the BJP side, Ram Mandir equalled Hindu nationalism, which in turn resonated with the public, the non-BJP side had not yet found a metaphor or a narrative. Hence, even a powerful PM like Nehru could not handle it,” Ms. Chowdhury said. 

She admits, however, that Indira Gandhi handled the issue efficiently, “She Hindu-ised her persona in politics, after losing the 1977 election, where she lost minority support due to the excesses of Sanjay Gandhi. Between 1977 and 1980, she came back to power, in 33 months, by skillfully becoming pro-Hindu without being anti-Muslim,” she noted. 

Lonely at the top

Ms. Chowdhury has written about six Prime Ministers — all of whom finished their terms in office — in her book. Her exceptions were Nehru, who had ruled for 17 years and created the edifice of modern India, and Vishwanath Pratap Singh who ruled for just 11 months, but brought in and implemented the Mandal Commission. 

She offered insights into how lonely and vulnerable PMs often are, shedding light on how, despite the public image of enmity, there often existed an easy camaraderie between the PMs and their Opposition. “They were political leaders who fought each other bitterly, despite which most of them had cross-party relations. For instance, not many know that [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee suffered from cancer since the mid-80s and had publicly acknowledged that Rajiv Gandhi saved his life and sent him to the U.S. for treatment,” Ms. Chowdhury recalled.

“Back then, there was a relationship across parties. It is disturbing today that the relationship between the ruling side and the Opposition has become bitter. This cannot be healthy for a democracy where a dialogue is needed, especially when there is a crisis to deal with. This bitterness between parties is a worrying trend,” she said. 

Ms. Chowdhury also spoke of her experience gathering information from various sources, and her belief that her gender was actually an advantage as a reporter. “Even if I walked into a house sans appointment, I couldn’t be thrown out, back in the day. Today, however, the nature of media has changed, and with it, access to politicians,” she added.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.