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History does have a sense of irony. This election has been about Narendra Modi doing an Indira Gandhi; it’s also held out the promise of Modi ridding India, once and for all, of a toxic Indira-Gandhianism, and of a political legacy that crippled the UPA government.
In many senses, the election of 2014 resembled that of 1971. The superficial similarities were remarkable. Both elections were dominated by muscular personalities who not just grabbed national attention but redefined and reshaped their parties, taking on and marginalising an old guard. Both elections were presidential in that there was one strong candidate and virtually no serious opponent.
Both elections were astonishingly misread by the press/media, which predicted a hung or indecisive mandate or even a defeat for the eventual winner. Both elections saw the principal protagonist selling a dream—‘garibi hatao’ in Indira Gandhi’s case; the promise of a middle-class society in Modi’s.
But that final comparison also offers a clue to the fundamental difference between the two appeals. About everything that Modi has offered his voter in this campaign, for every commitment he has made and every idea he has floated has been the antithesis of the Indira years. The election of 1971 came early in Indira’s annus mirabilis, in a year capped by victory in the Bangladesh war. Even so, memories of that military success often mask the essential tragedy of the Indira age.
The Indira who won the 1971 election represented the high noon of a populist and ultimately wasteful socialism. She nationalised industries and stifled entrepreneurialism. She superimposed a centralised polity on what was a diverse and federalised society. She sanctified a Delhi-based Supreme Leader and a matching Delhi-centric apparatus—packed with fellow travellers—that told states what to do. In turn, she told the people she would think for them.
She nurtured crony businessmen and sustained a family cult. She created a culture of handouts and loan melas. She fostered an environment of fear and anxiety, seeking to transfer her personal insecurities to a larger society and projecting her adversaries as the nation’s enemies. She glorified a Fortress India mentality. The obsession with the ‘foreign hand’ and the excesses of the Emergency were natural corollaries.
In all this, it needs to be said that Indira invented the modern Congress party. The entity she founded bore little resemblance to the party that had taken India to freedom or the institution her father had led in the 1950s. Several elements of the architecture of the Indira Congress, as enunciated in the two preceding paragraphs, outlived her.
If you consider the failures and the sheer egregiousness of the UPA—Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s refusal to cede authority but not take responsibility either; the doles and giveaways mission that sought to bribe voters; the declaration of businessmen as hate figures to be mocked and kept at a distance, and in the dark of the night, milked; the designing of unworkable social sector programmes by Delhi-based ideological warriors who dictated terms to the states—these can be traced back to the dna of Indira’s Congress.
In 2014, Modi attacked and triumphed over not just the UPA and the Congress of today, not just Sonia and Rahul (and lest we forget, Manmohan Singh) but actually the Congress ecosystem that was Indira’s gift. He spoke of making states partners of a central government and transferring powers to them. He spoke of jobs and not doles. He spoke of harnessing the energies of young India and to open up to the world.
He told Indian businessmen, even a gathering of traders, to prepare for global challenges and to spend on innovation in an era of globalisation. He spoke of trade and GDP growth being both goals and tools of foreign policy. He painted a picture of an India at peace with itself, filled with happy, prosperous families, each pursuing its own dream. He talked of not an overwhelming state but of “maximum governance, minimum government”.
Has Modi over-promised and will he succeed? We will know in five years. What we do know already though is that he has broken the back of the Indira legacy. Thanks to Modi, India has finally accepted that Indira-Gandhianism—or its epigone versions, Sonia-Gandhianism and a caricature Rahul-Gandhianism—is past its sell-by date.
It has taken India’s most compelling national politician since Indira to win posterity’s argument with her. India has given up a ’70s ghost, buried that nightmare as a more confident, even brash generation has elected a government it thinks speaks its language, uses its idiom, understands its instincts and is alive to its ambitions. Everything else is detail.
The author, a journalist, has been writing on the BJP for two decades