The peasant who became prime minister for a day

Ever since I was a little boy, I have seen the following thought thrown around in various flavours all across dinner table discussions: if the inept and incompetent politicians could be replaced by some people who actually know something (are educated, etc.) - our country might have some future. Otherwise, we are all doomed for sure.

A good rebuttal to this armchair rhetoric was a story which my grandfather used say on these occasions. A king was roaming through his kingdom one night in disguise and came across a group of men sitting around a fire having an animated excited discussion.One of them was most vociferous:
- "Oh the prime minister is a lazy bum. I don't know what he does all day, but he is always there as a sidekick when the king wants to address the kingdom"
- "And seriously, why can't he take care of these money lenders who are sucking our blood? Why do the main highways get fixed first and nobody ever cares about our side roads?"
- "I bet I could do a better job and fix things in a day if I got his job"

The king left silently the scene.The next morning, a posse of soldiers from the king's personal guard showed up at the poor peasant's door and demanded that the king wanted an audience. On the way, one of the guards let slip that the king had gotten word of whatever seditious comments he had made last night. He reached the palace shivering with fear, and upon realizing in the presence of the king that he had been saying all those things to the king's face last night, he almost fainted.

The king reassured him, however. He was not going to tried or his family harmed. In fact, he had given leave to the prime minister for the day and asked this man to become the acting prime minister. "Well, here is your chance", the king said, "to do all you want in the capacity you so wished for last night".

The man was really taken aback but also relished the opportunity. He inquired, "Sire, what is the first order of duty I may perform?" As luck would have it, there was a wedding procession passing the palace at that very moment and the king asked him, "Go and find out about that wedding procession"

The man left with a rather firm belief that indeed the minister was a good-for-nothing, if he was indeed being given such trivial tasks. He returned after fifteen minutes and said,
Peasant: Sir, the procession is just the groom going for the marriage, he is yet to return with the bride
King: Oh that sounds good. Who are the bride and groom?

The peasant did not have this information. He excused himself and returned after another fifteen minutes
Peasant: Sire, the groom is named Sudhir Roy and the bride is Gopika Dutta
King: Good. So where are they from and where are they headed?

The "minster" had to make another trip. Another fifteen minutes passed
Peasant: From Burdwan to Jamshedpur, my Lord!

You know what happened afterwards for the rest of the set of twenty questions

[And yes, for those of you technical enough to ask about the consistent amount of time being taken to query a "procession", let us assume that the party had stopped at a dhaba outside the palace. :D]

Anyway, the peasant was tired after a few hours of finding out the answers to these questions. Finally, the king asked him to wait somewhere and summoned his previous minister. He appeared and was given the same initial task, "Go and find out about that wedding procession".

The minister was also gone for fifteen minutes and then once he came back, the conversation went this way:
King: So what did you find out?
Minister: This is a wedding procession, going from Burdwan to Jamshedpur and they are passing through our town.
King: Who are the bride and groom?
Minister: The bride is Ms. Gopika Dutta, daughter of Mr and Mrs Shambhu Dutta and they are giving away their daughter to Mr. Sudhir Roy, son of Mr and Mrs Krishnakant Roy
King: What does the groom do?

Suffices to say, the minister had done far more research than the peasant and was more thorough at his job. It became obvious that this was just an example of the kind of work expected from a prime minister of the kingdom. The peasant apologized to the king and the minister for his ignorance. He went home reassured that the right man was already at the helm.

Now, I have used this principle in some places in my personal life. Before assuming that the college is doing nothing or the person in another department in my office does not know how to do his job, I have given people the benefit of doubt and tried to put myself in their shoes before passing judgement.

However, I have certain objections to the flow of the story and of course the content and the conclusions. I wish to write another follow-up post about those, but you are welcome to add your ideas in the comments.


  1. I object because if criticism were only allowed by people who have the expertise to do the job, there would be very little to criticize in this world.

    I am reminded of cricketers who get asked difficult questions by journalists and who ask in return whether they've ever picked up a bat in their life and played Brett Lee at 150 km/h.

    See, thing is this story sounds cute and all that, but it is heavily flawed because

    1. The peasant had no chance to get to know the job description before being given a chance.

    2. There was no training either.

    3. Just because the peasant does a bad job doesn't automatically make the original PM the best man for the job.

    4. A single opportunity may not be enough to prove talent. One learns by experience.

    5. It is easy to browbeat people in this way by citing the expertise of so-called experts to prevent awkward questions from being asked. The Nuclear debate some time back on TV was a prime example of this.

    6. The story is set in a monarchy obviously. It has no relevance in a democracy where freedom of speech is a fundamental right. The peasant has every right to criticize the PM even if he wasn't qualified to do his job. The message seems to be - if the message is inconvenient, shoot the messenger. A nice ploy by our political class to discredit genuine democratic expression.

  2. Hari, damn you robbed me of a blog post! :) Thanks for commenting, as always, and I couldn't have put this comment any better.

  3. Ah, sorry then. Wasn't my intention. However, I would love to read your take on this as well. :-)

  4. Some people do nothing yet are benefited, IMHO. They take advantage of others, get their work done. One who gets onsite once, keeps going again n again.

    Rather than saying so, better to mind our work and leave remaining to others.

  5. Hari, yes I had a twist in the tale on my mind as well. What if indeed the peasant outperformed the minister, or even stayed at par? Would the king have replaced his minister? That, and everything else you mentioned :)

    Manasa, welcome back :) It seems I struck a raw nerve somewhere :) Well it is always better to mind our own business, but there is a difference between smart work and hard work... and smart work involves awareness all around. :)

  6. @Sudipta, Smart work weighs more than hard work. When the work is done in 2 hours instead of say 4 hours. Only when you work hard initially, you would be able to work smarter once you know how it has to be done. ;)

  7. I agree with everything that Hari says, but i believe these stories are meant to not be taken too literally. It's got to be more about the bigger message that it is trying to convey.
    Like i remember my mom once commenting about the story of laila-majnu; 'it's not about love and the beauty and pain of love alone, it's more about the passion, that passion can make you move mountains'.
    The way i read your grandfather's story, the message at the end of the story for me was to see something in perspective before going on to critisize someone or making strong rhetoric about someone else. Your parting thought in the post was something like that too, and i was looking forward to the promised twist in the tale to see if it could change the message somehow.

  8. Looking forward to your follow-up post, but I couldn't agree more with what Hari has very beautifully put forward.

  9. Ferret, beautiful summary. Yes you have divined the true moral of the story: "to see something in perspective before going on to critisize someone or making strong rhetoric about someone else". The twist in the tale should come soon, given my 30-day blogging pledge! :)

    Arunava, agreed! And yes the follow-up should come up soon!


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