Long before our present prime minister, there ruled a lady who had conquered reality with the power of narrative.
After the BJP sweep in UP, Omar Abdullah summed up electoral politics succinctly, “In a nutshell, there is no leader today with a pan India acceptability who can take on Modi and the BJP in 2019.”
Indeed, in terms of popularity, the Prime Minister’s personal approval ratings comfortably outstrip that of his party. He’s a master at creating narratives and presenting them in terms that best-selling authors can only envy. Whether it’s the catchy slogan, the earworm acronym, or the pithy speech, Narendra Modi always delivers.
His popularity has led inevitably to comparisons with the last Indian politician who generated similar pan-India appeal as effortlessly. Indira Gandhi pulled similar crowds, coined similar catchy slogans and wowed even her opposition to the extent that one of her major rivals, Atal Behari Vajpayee, once likened her to Ma Durga.
From Goongi Gudiya to Ma Durga
Indira’s political career had three phases. In the first, she was her widower-father’s political hostess. She was contemptuously referred to as the ‘Goongi Gudiya’ for a brief phase after her father’s demise.
After Lal Bahadur Shastri died in Tashkent in Jan 1966, she was elected head of the Congress. This was because the veterans who ran the party considered her a) capable of garnering sympathy votes by leveraging Jawaharlal Nehru’s name, and b) a malleable personality who could serve as a decorative figurehead.
The first estimate was true insofar as it went. But it severely underestimated her own personal charisma. The second take can only be called an epic misjudgement.
After winning a General Election as a ‘figurehead’ in 1967, she efficiently split the Congress and proceeded to win a massive mandate in 1971 with her version of the party. Some months after winning that second General Election, she proceeded to split Pakistan in two and carve out a brand-new nation.
In 1975, she was nailed by the Allahabad High Court on a technicality that invalidated her election from Rae Bareli in 1971. Her party retained a massive majority in Parliament and she could have simply exited the Lok Sabha and continued to pull the strings. But this was prior to the era of remote controls, and she chose to declare Emergency instead. Some 21 months later, she called a General Election, which she lost. That was the only election she ever lost – a unified Opposition swept into power but it didn’t stay there for long.
By 1980, Ma’am was back in the saddle again, with another massive electoral mandate. In October 1984, she was shot by her own bodyguards. Her elder son, a reluctant politician by all accounts, won a record mandate on the sympathy vote in the General Election that followed. She could thus be said to have exerted her popular influence even from beyond the grave.
Indira was the sole politician with pan-India appeal between 1967-1984; she was also the last person before Modi to win clear majorities, time after time. No single party won a Lok Sabha majority between 1984 and 2014. In fact, no single party even came close. This is yet another reason why the comparison with Modi arises.
Her legacy will be indelibly associated with the slogans, ‘Garibi Hatao‘ and ‘Roti, Kapda aur Makaan‘. She consistently claimed to be completely focussed on poverty-reduction, and her electorate loved her for that empathy. She won a sweeping military victory against Pakistan, and also carried out India’s first nuclear test. Her electorate admired her for her strength and her decisive focus on the nation’s security.
Those toxic years
In the cold light of history, Indira’s reign (I’m using that word advisedly) was among the most toxic periods Independent India has endured. It was two decades of economic stagnation, coupled to multiple internal mutinies, and a foreign policy that left India firmly on the wrong side of history.
Economic growth stagnated. Multiple wrong-headed policies ensured that garibi remained firmly entrenched, with gazillions living and dying below the poverty line. GDP grew at what came to be known as the ‘Hindu rate’ – per capita growth was around 1.3 per cent per annum through those years.
Banks were nationalised; mines were nationalised; in fact everything including corruption was nationalised. Peak income tax rates were hiked to 98 per cent. Indians travelling abroad received the princely sum of Rs 50 as foreign exchange every year.
The ‘strong, decisive’ attitude towards national security did not quell multiple internal rebellions. In fact, some new ones developed. The Khalistan movement eventually killed Indira Gandhi. Apart from the Khalistanis, there were the Naxals in Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. There were the Mizos, the Nagas, and the Manipuri, who continued to battle against assimilation. There were communal riots everywhere, ever so often, with the police sometimes participating. (Moradabad 1980, Nellie, etc.) The internal strife was frequently blamed on the ‘foreign hand’ as lakhs of Indians ended up killing each other.
Indira Gandhi spoke fluent French and perfect English. She went on extended foreign tours, where she charmed world leaders. She was a pillar of the Non-Aligned Movement, which her father had helped to found.
But India’s foreign policy was Kafkaesque – the image was ludicrous. Here was a nation that wandered around with a begging bowl seeking aid, while it lectured aid donors about their lack of moral probity. India ended up firmly in the Soviet camp, and received more-or-less zero overseas investment. The restrictive economic policies and the License Raj made investment impossible anyhow. India almost became a pariah after the Pokhran I test – the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group came into being as a direct result of that ‘peaceful explosion.’
Reality – 0. Narrative – 1
The reality was irrelevant so far as the electorate was concerned. Indira Gandhi composed her own personalised riffs on the classic populist theme : She controlled the narrative and won the elections. She cared for the poor, she was a strong decisive leader with an uncompromising focus on security, and she charmed world leaders. What she actually delivered didn’t matter.
On a personal note, I was reading the Lord of the Rings when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency. When I think of her proclamation, I always reference the scene where Frodo offers Galadriel the One Ring to Rule Them All.
The Elven queen refuses the poisoned gift. “In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair! (But) I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”
Unlike the fictional queen, Indira Gandhi did not refuse the ring of power. (Please ignore all references to Dark Lords above.)
In the end, her reign exemplified the dichotomy between populist policies that get politicians elected and policies that actually work.
Sometime along the line, there will have to be a critical examination of the ground reality of what Modi has delivered via his foreign policy, his security initiatives, and his economic stances. Let us hope that he shines in comparison to his predecessor.