In the 1971 Lok Sabha election, Indira Gandhi’s party – the Congress (Requisition) – faced off against the Congress (Organisation), led by one-time Tamil Nadu chief minister K Kamaraj. The election saw a curious personalisation. The Congress (O) led with the Hindi-language slogan, “Indira hatao”, banish Indira. Indira Gandhi retorted brilliantly: “woh kehte hain ‘Indira hatao’; main kehti hoon garibi hatao”. They say, “banish Indira”; I say “banish poverty”.
With 44% of the popular vote and a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha, 1971 would be called an “Indira Wave”. 2014 would also be called a “wave”– a Modi wave (although Modi’s margin of victory was quite a bit smaller than Mrs Gandhi’s).
And that is not all. People have, for some time now, been noticing the similarities between Indira and Narendra. On Monday, Modi put his official imprimatur on this exercise. Kicking off the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign for the Uttar Pradesh elections in Lucknow, Modi exclaimed, “woh kehte hain ‘Modi hatao’; main kehta hoon kaala dhan hatao”. They say, “banish Modi”; I say “banish black money”.
Even before Modi made it near official by copying Mrs Gandhi’s slogan, the comparison had flown thick and fast. On Twitter – that most helpful barometer of public mood – there is already a parody account with the handle @NarIndira Modi.
As the description of that parody account makes it clear, the one thing that most closely binds Modi and Gandhi is their tendency to concentrate power in their person. In 1969, Indira Gandhi largely created the modern Prime Minister’s Office, with its incredible power and oversight over other arms of the Union government. Prime Minister Modi has followed suit. In the current Union government, the PMO is all powerful. Other ministries simply follow the PMO’s lead. From clearances for the Asian Games to piloting the Ganga rejuvenation plan, the Prime Minister’s Office micro-manages the functions of other ministries.
In keeping with this centralisation of power, both Gandhi and Modi preferred to work with bureaucrats rather than democratically-elected politicians. Mandarins such as PN Haksar, PN Dhar and PC Alexander held more power in India Gandhi’s administration than most Union ministers thanks to the prime minister’s patronage. Modi follows the same template.
If Gandhi had a “Kashmiri Mafia” preferring Kashmiri Brahmins such as herself, Modi loves Gujarati bureaucrats. Ever since he moved from Gandhinagar to New Delhi, his favourite state government bureaucrats have also been shifted from Gujarat to the Union government to work with him. His biggest policy move, demonetisation, was planned principally by a fellow Gujarati bureaucrat Hasmukh Adhiya, even as the cabinet ministers were kept in the dark.
While the first casualty of this sort of power centralisation is the Union government, soon other institutions start to fall. India’s federalism, already weaker than other models like the United States by design, is the first to be affected by strong prime ministers. While Jawaharlal Nehru started the process of devaluing elected state governments by using President’s Rule, Indra Gandhi would run amok with this constitutional provision.
Moreover, she made sure than Congress chief ministers depended not on the people of their states as a source of power but stayed in office at the pleasure of the prime minister – a bizarre twisting of India’s federal structure. Between 1978 and 1983, for example, Andhra Pradesh saw four chief ministers, all installed and removed by Indira Gandhi as part of her strategy to not let independent power centres develop in the states.
Modi also does the same by appointing people without independent power bases as chief ministers. In Goa and Gujarat, the BJP chief ministers are wholly dependent on Modi. In Maharashtra and Haryana, Modi made sure to appoint chief ministers who were not from the dominant castes, much as Mrs Gandhi had appointed AR Antulay in Maharashtra in 1980 to break the Maratha lobby.
Popularity and populism
This remarkable centralisation has a base to support it: the incredible popularity of the prime minister which legitimises this power grab. In 1971, Indira Gandhi’s win was made all the more remarkable because it was against nearly the entire Congress old guard. The Congress’s structure and organisation, set up by Mohandas Gandhi, had been robust enough to last for half a century. Yet Indira Gandhi made the 1971 election a referendum on herself thus, remarkably, rendering the Congress (O)’s party machinery useless.
While Modi did not have to face such an well-equipped Opposition – the BJP was the most organised party in 2014 – it is still true that Modi’s personal charisma was responsible for lifting the BJP to its first ever majority in the Lok Sabha. That even in a state like West Bengal – where it barely exists on the ground – the Bharatiya Janata Party won 17% of the popular vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections can be solely credited to the Modi wave.
To maintain her incredible appeal, Indira Gandhi turned to all manners of populism when in government. Her economic populism saw the nationalisation of banks in 1969, ostensbly to attack poverty. Her politics led to right-wing populism and majoritarianism. Marking a sharp departure from her father, Indira Gandhi would often project herself as a Hindu leader. She would speak of a “dharma yudh”, religious war in Kashmir in 1983. Under her administration, India would see, for the first time since Partition, large-scale communal violence, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Assam.
Modi’s own politics is remarkably similar. His economic populism means a massive expansion of statism. Like Gandhi’s bank nationalisation, Modi’s demonetisation is a millenarian programme which works on the vilification of the rich and promises unrealistic benefits to the poor. And, of course, Modi’s appeal to religion and communalism is well documented, right from his communal appeals in the 2002 Assembly elections in Gujarat, only a few months after the state-wide riots, to his choosing of Benaras – Hinduism’s holiest city – as his Lok Sabha constituency in the 2014 elections.
That Modi might want to copy his arch rival the Congress and one of its tallest leaders might seem counter intuitive – but its really rather understandable. During her lifetime, Gandhi was incredibly popular. Her assassination in 1984 and the subsequent sympathy wave that followed gave the Congress 404 seats in the Lok Sabha – the single largest majority ever. It is hardly surprising that Modi would hanker for such personal success.
Yet, the comparison might not be that sanguine if looked at from the point of view of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the end, Gandhi’s hyper-centralisation greatly weakened the Congress. States like Andhra Pradesh left the Congress fold. Strong state leaders such as Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal left the Congress, which could not tolerate multiple power centres outside Delhi. Today, in the Lok Sabha, the Congress has a little more than 10% of its seats it won in 1984.