Is it 1974 again?

Growing disillusionment with the Narendra Modi government has led recently to a few electoral setbacks for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. In different states Dalits, farmers and some upper-caste groups have been agitating to draw attention to their demands. The BJP, through chicanery and worse, has installed governments of its choice in some states without having won a majority. The NDA government has been putting pressure on key institutions of our democracy such as the judiciary and Election Commission. In recent states polls, the Modi-Amit Shah team has been upping their rhetoric. And, lately, Opposition unity has been crystallising. In this context, the question arises: are we facing 1974 all over again?

In 1974, mass discontent with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s political agenda and rule was beginning to snowball. It was the agenda that she had unveiled in her “stray thoughts”, containing some socialistic policy ideas, at the All India Congress Committee session of 1969. She had two objectives. The first was to revive the electoral fortunes of her party in the context of growing public dissatisfaction, which had started from the mid-1960s, as a result of the slow pace of improvement in socio-economic conditions post-Independence. The second objective was to establish her leadership over the Congress, which was dominated by a group of regional bosses called the Syndicate. Arguing that the Syndicate represented vested interests who were blocking her radical programme, she rejected her party’s candidate for president, which was forced on her by the Syndicate. Immediately thereafter she proposed an alternative candidate, VV Giri, called for a “conscience vote”, split her party, and ensured his victory.

She followed this up with a series of policies – like bank nationalisation and abolishing privy purses for the former maharajas – with which she formed a new social base consisting of the exploited, disadvantaged and oppressed. These included workers in urban areas, landless labourers and poor peasants in rural areas, the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, religious minorities and secular-nationalist Hindus. Encapsulating these policies in her slogan “Garibi Hatao”, she was able to electrify the nation beyond her core social base to take her faction of the party to a spectacular victory in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections. By the end of that year, she had defeated Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh. She had truly become, as The Economist called her on its famous cover, the “Empress of India”.

In furtherance of her agenda, Gandhi co-opted many leftists and former communists into her party and government and formed close ties with the Communist Party of India, though the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Naxalites remained opposed to her rule. Further, she and other party leaders also called for a “committed judiciary”. Towards that end, a leftist judge, VR Krishna Iyer, was appointed to the Supreme Court. Dissatisfied with a landmark judgement of the Supreme Court ruling that the “basic structure of the Constitution” could not be altered, she superseded three judges and appointed a judge who had voted against the majority decision as chief justice. Four senior judges resigned in protest. Critics who had argued that Gandhi wanted the court to be committed not just to her agenda but to her personally were proved right when, especially during the Emergency that followed, she was able to make the Supreme Court completely subservient to her rule.

By 1973, the first stirrings of discontent against her government were emerging. First in Gujarat and then in Bihar, urban middle-class youth rose in revolt against “corruption”, demanding the resignation of their Congress chief ministers and dissolution of the state Assemblies. These protestors were largely from social classes and castes that had been alienated by the implementation of Gandhi’s agenda. They included the urban middle and upper classes, traders and industrialists, professionals, the rural landed rich, the upper castes, conservative and religious Hindus. These groups were not only unhappy with the emergence of the new social groups into the political arena, but also with what they saw as a violation of norms of the political and economic system, such as populist programmes, freebies, widespread and increasing corruption in public life, partisan interpretations of the Constitution and actions based on them.

However, the discontent grew wider and soon included Gandhi’s core social base. The railway strike of 1974 was brutally suppressed. Opposition parties, from the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the precursor to the BJP), the rival Congress (O), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the respected veteran freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan jumped into the fray. They gave the movement against Gandhi and her policies greater legitimacy and a national dimension. Even the “peaceful nuclear explosion” of 1974, which made many Indians proud, could not stem the tide. With threats to her position mounting, Gandhi declared the Emergency.

The Modi era

In 2013, in an attempt to revive the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral fortunes, the BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is said to have forced the party’s entrenched old guard to make way for Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

The Ram Janmabhoomi issue, which had been useful in mobilising mass support for the party nationwide in the 1980s, was not able to take the BJP beyond a certain percentage of the vote. Subsequently, in the run up to the election, Modi put on the backburner the party’s earlier Hindutva agenda – building the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code. And brought to the forefront his new agenda of inclusive development, jobs and prosperity for all – Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas and Achhe Din; and good governance – “minimum government, maximum governance.” This was “Garibi Hatao” for the post-socialist era; an era in which private capitalist entrepreneurship and unbridled greed were seen as the engine of growth that would eradicate poverty and transform India into a “developed nation”.

With considerable help from the national and international media, Modi succeeded in projecting himself as a pro-business, growth-oriented leader. But he also managed to get the public to ignore the record of his government in the Gujarat post-Godhra anti-Muslim riots of 2002, and his party’s earlier divisive and aggressive Hindutva agenda that had led to violence and the violation of Constitutional norms during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, which saw the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992.

It was a remarkable transformation. The RSS-BJP leader had put aside his party’s traditional agenda to unify and mobilise the Hindus, demonise the religious minorities, especially Muslims, and forge a Hindu Rashtra. And he had also donned the mantle of the inheritor of the agenda of the nation’s freedom struggle led by the leaders of the Indian National Congress. From the early nationalists onwards – starting with Dadabhai Naoroji who wrote a great book titled Poverty and Un-British Rule in India – to Mahatma Gandhi, to the post-Independence Congress governments headed by Jawaharlal Nehru and others, the fight against poverty through inclusive national economic development was at the centre of the nationalists’ agenda.

By taking over this agenda and radically reinventing his party’s image, Modi was able to electrify the nation. He was able to extend his party’s support much beyond its core social base of businessmen, the urban middle and upper classes, rich farmers, the upper castes, and conservative Hindus. And lead it to a spectacular victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

This new-look BJP was able to convincingly win the state Assembly elections held later that year. Its first major political defeat, however, came when it failed to overcome opposition in Parliament to even the diluted version of its amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill of 2013, which it finally abandoned in 2015. Its first major electoral blow came when the Aam Aadmi Party won 67 of Delhi’s 70 Assembly seats during the polls in February 2015. That November, the party faced defeat in Bihar but it has subsequently formed governments – on its own and with partners – in several states including Assam (2016), Uttarkhand (2017), Himachal Pradesh (2017) and Tripura (2018). In some others states where its electoral performance was unsatisfactory – Goa (2017) and Meghalaya (2018) – it formed governments through questionable tactics.

In 2017, in Uttar Pradesh, with the help of demonetisation, anti-incumbency, a split in the ruling Samajwadi Party, and Opposition disunity, it was able to recover some of its lustre by winning the Assembly elections in a landslide. But the party’s low margin of victory and the Congress’s much-better-than-expected performance in the Gujarat Assembly polls that December, was a crushing blow to Modi not only because it is his home state but also because his rule in Gujarat had provided the model on which his image, promises and electoral victories nationwide were based. The failure to win a majority in Karnataka recently was a continuation of this trend.

(Photo credit: AFP).

Disillusionment sets in

These electoral setbacks are a consequence of growing discontent over the government’s failure to deliver on its promises. Not merely just about the more outlandish promises Modi made – such as the transfer of Rs 15 lakh to every Indian’s bank account from money recovered from illegal foreign accounts of the rich – but also the promises he made about jobs, prosperity and inclusive economic growth.

Rural distress shows no signs of abating despite Modi’s promise to double farmers’ incomes over the next few years. Farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra – all BJP-ruled states – have been at the forefront of protests. The powerful landed upper castes, again more so in BJP-ruled states – like Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra – are mobilising and demanding reservations and other benefits and protection against the lower castes and classes. Dalits too are unhappy. Among other things, they have borne the brunt of the aggression of the upper castes, once again more so in BJP-ruled states of North India.

Like in the early 1970s, the judiciary is under attack – from senior Union ministers and government lawyers, who have accused it of overstepping its limits, interfering in the sphere reserved for the Executive. It is also under pressure by the Centre that has delayed clearing appointments the Supreme Court collegium has made to various vacancies. In 2016, the Chief Justice of India broke down in the presence of the prime minister over the shortage of judges and the massive backlog of cases. In January, four judges of the Supreme Court rebelled, going public with their grievances against the sitting chief justice. Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra has been at the centre of a political controversy with his role under public scrutiny. Fears that he will side with the government on crucial issues led some Opposition parties to propose an impeachment motion against him in April. On the other hand, in an unprecedented move, the government has been forced to give reasons in writing for its objections to the nomination of KM Joseph as judge of the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court was finalising the Memorandum of Procedure for judicial appointments the Centre had insisted on the Executive’s right to reject the collegium’s recommendation for appointment of a judge on the ground of national security without giving reasons in writing.

But this time it is not just the judiciary that is under pressure. Another key institution, the Election Commission, is in the spotlight. Former Chief Election Commissioners have come together to warn that the body responsible for administering election processes in India is facing a crisis of credibility. Some important decisions that the election body has taken are being seen as aiding the BJP. These include the decision to delink the announcement of the Himachal Pradesh polls from that for Gujarat, and the Election Commission’s decision to send its opinion to the president in the office-of-profit case against Aam Aadmi Party MLAs without holding oral hearings on the merits of the complaint. The former election commissioners also raised the issues of curbing of hate speech and matching paper slips from voter-verified paper audit trail machines with electronic counts. Earlier, S K Mendiratta, who till his recent retirement was the Election Commission’s legal counsel for 53 years, made it clear that he was not consulted on the AAP MLAs case and on the decoupling of the Himachal and Gujarat election announcement. These decisions have created a dent in the fair name of the Election Commission, he has said.

Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo credit: IANS/PIB).

Meanwhile, some of the BJP’s political tactics in the states and the national level are causing concern. In states where the BJP could not get a majority or even emerge as the single-largest party, it has cobbled up a majority and formed the government through methods fair and foul. This was seen in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya. In some northeastern states, like Arunachal Pradesh, in 2016, it engineered wholesale defections to form the government. In Bihar, it formed the government in 2017 by splitting the ruling coalition and entering into an alliance with one of the alliance partners. In Tamil Nadu, through political and legal manoeuvring and manipulation, it has managed to set up a friendly but weak government with no popular mandate. It was only in Karnataka where – even though it was able to emerge as the single largest party – its attempt to seize power by the partisan use of the governor’s office was foiled by some uncharacteristically quick thinking and fast acting by the Congress national leadership. This fiasco delivered one more blow to Modi’s aura of invincibility and gave the national Opposition an opportunity to rally together ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

At the national level, the failure of the Lok Sabha Speaker to allow the no-confidence motion in the Budget Session earlier this year and the summary rejection of the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice of India by the Rajya Sabha Speaker are two recent actions that have raised questions about the government’s intentions.

The use of the Central Bureau of Investigation and other anti-corruption agencies to target Opposition politicians at the Centre and the states is another area of concern. Similar transgressions of democratic and Constitutional norms – and probably worse – were also seen during Indira Gandhi’s rule, even setting aside the Emergency period. To a lesser extent, this has also been seen under other governments at the Centre.

All this taken together has aroused suspicions in some commentators whether the Modi government, faced with the prospect of electoral defeat, will stop at nothing to cling to power, even without formally declaring an Emergency.

This is the first of a two-part series considering the similarites and differences between the situation in 1974 and the present situation. The second part can be read here.

KN Hari Kumar is a senior journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Deccan Herald and Prajavani.