India's 3 Greatest Prime Ministers of All Time

Where does Modi stack up?

Since India’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, it has had 14 prime ministers. India adopted a parliamentary system from the British, so its prime minister is chosen by a majority vote from the largest bloc in India’s Parliament. As a result, the same person can serve as prime minister for multiple, non-consecutive terms.

India is not an easy place to govern. It is a young country founded through a traumatic, bloody partition. It has the world’s second largest population in a landmass the size of Western Europe. This population is divided into hundreds of ethnic groups speaking over a thousand languages, including twenty major ones. Indians follow many religions and range from some of the world’s poorest people to some of the richest. All in all, governing this vast and diverse population has been difficult for India’s prime ministers, who have had to increasingly rely on unwieldy and complex coalitions due to the rise of regional and caste-based parties.

No Indian prime minister was perfect because even the most successful ones also pursued deeply flawed policies. Still, these three stand above the rest.

Jawaharlal Nehru

The first leader of a country is always going to make a mark on it and impact its future evolution, for good or ill. Jawaharlal Nehru was one such individual. Nehru made many, many mistakes, but also set the course for India to become the stable, multiethnic democracy it is today.

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Nehru, the leader of the Congress Party, became India’s first prime minister in 1947 and served until his death in 1964. The first controversy surrounding Nehru was his role in the partition of India; he has been often criticized for allowing or even tacitly supporting India’s partition into India and Pakistan.

This may be true, but in retrospect, this was a good decision for India. The Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who went on to found Pakistan, wanted an extremely loose, decentralized India that Nehru felt was incompatible with the level of integration needed by a modern state. Nehru chose not to grant concessions to Jinnah even if it led to partition. He was right—an India with Pakistan and Bangladesh within its modern boundaries would have been dysfunctional and probably experienced civil war. Today, India is unwieldy but compact and governable.

Nehru’s foreign policy also came under a lot of criticism. Nehru was overly idealistic and could not see the world in terms of power politics. This got him burned in dealing with China, a country that he admired but misjudged. He was reportedly broken after India’s 1962 defeat. Yet, Nehru set the course of India’s foreign affairs by implementing its non-alignment policy, a smart policy for a large nation with diverse interests. India is one of the few nations in the world that can be close with both Russia and the United States, and Iran and Israel. Non-alignment allows India to pursue its own strategic autonomy and sphere of influence in its backyard, luxuries afforded to only countries with truly autonomous foreign policies, like the United States, Russia, and China.

Unlike many other emerging third-world leaders, Nehru was no fan of populist or nationalist regimes, and set India on a course toward stable democracy by making sure India got a Western-style constitution and followed it. This has kept India more stable than most of its Asian neighbors in the long run. Indeed, as Freedom House shows, India is one of the few “free” countries in Asia.

Nehru also emphasized secularism very strongly, a necessity for a modern, multi-confessional country. India’s secularism has rightly been criticized by many on the right for supporting Muslim minorities over the Hindu majority, but at least the principle, as imbedded in India’s constitution, is sound.

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Finally, there is no doubt that Nehru did not pursue the right economic policies, a fact that has kept India in poverty and destitution longer than many other developing countries. Yet, he did get one thing right—emphasizing industry and modernity in contrast to his mentor Mahatma Gandhi, who wanted India to remain a land of idyllic villages. At least under Nehru, India began industrializing, which came in handy when India became to open up its economy later.

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Therefore, more than any one specific policy (and many of his policies were flawed), Nehru helped India by laying out general parameters that actually ended up being very sound and beneficial to India throughout its history.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi, daughter of Nehru, was India’s third prime minister. She married a man surnamed Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) and strategically took his last name in order to make the most out of it.

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