ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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What You Will

As Malvolio pronounces in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, some have greatness thrust on them – with surprising results.

In the 450th year of the Bard’s birth, Malvolio, the slightly priggish, strait-laced custodian of Lady Olivia’s household, would vociferously agree that some “have greatness thrust upon them”. Presumably, his list would include “accidental” prime ministers. But are we sure that the great have always been to this manner born?

Few will today question Winston Churchill’s greatness, but almost all parliamentarians then were reluctant to trust his leadership, even at the start of the second world war. Churchill recalls how he accidentally came to power. The King sent for him and Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax, hoping they would decide it would be better if His Lordship became the prime minister. An adamant silence of half an hour finally tipped the scales in favour of Churchill.

Pitt the Younger, later to be called Britain’s greatest prime minister, came accidentally to that office at the age of 24, because Fox made the mistake of trying to reform the East India Company.

Curzon, who became viceroy of India while still in his thirties, was convinced the post was his, but Stanley Baldwin, that “monument to insignificance” (in Curzon’s words), accidentally became prime minister because few liked the aloof Curzon.

Forget forthcoming events – even nicknames accidentally cast their ominous shadows far ahead. Edward Heath, the Tory prime minister, was called “the grocer” by Private Eye magazine. Little did its editors know that Maggie Thatcher, who followed Heath, would, in reality, be a grocer’s daughter!

Nearer home, if Netaji had not accidentally died in a plane crash, the mantle of being India’s first prime minister may never have rested on Nehru’s shoulders. The indomitable Indira rose accidentally to power because she was dismissed as the “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll) by the old brigade, who foolishly thrust her into power while they sorted out equations among themselves. Later on, the force of dynastic politics propelled Rajiv Gandhi into accidental power and death – when all he had desired was a private life as a pilot.

No one ever thought that colourless Lyndon Johnson, the running mate of the charismatic Jack Kennedy, would ever become the American president, nor, for that matter, poor Jerry Ford, who kept tripping over his own feet, after Nixon was forced to resign following the Watergate disclosures.

Incidents of such accidental rise to power stretch all the way back to the dawn of history, even to the untalented Octavian, who after his uncle, Julius Caesar’s murder, became the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Accidents make history, and all the better for the surprises they bring!


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