July 05, 2020
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That ’70s Show

Back to the era of mad dictators and tinfoil democracies

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That ’70s Show
Illustration by Saahil
That ’70s Show

Oh, the shivers of nostalgia! It’s true—to paraphrase an old saying—if you remember the seventies, you weren’t in them. But who didn’t grow up learning about the dictatorial reign of Indira Gandhi? That disciplinarian of the Emergency years (secretly endorsed by the middle classes—you know, trains running on time etc), the conceited excesses of Sanjay Gandhi, the suppression of free speech and thought, news censorship, the crackd­own on universities and student demonstrations and slapping of terrifying sedition laws—all history now.

Or is it? It looks like the ghosts are back. If it weren’t for Twitter and headlines to remind us this is the 21st century, the two decades would be united by the tyranny of the majority. After all,  aren’t we all being stealthily prodded to see the s­­­im­ilarities between Modi and Indira all the time? If the paeans, both within his party and government, about his stately gait and dazzling machismo were not enough, his stature and working style are constantly used to conjure memories of the Indira era—all charisma, leadership and ruthless supremacy. Instead of reinvigoration through debate and introspection, with Supremo Modi we have mind-numbing loyalty. There’s even a list of do’s and don’ts for bureaucrats and ministers that range from a blanket ban on speaking to the media, not subletting official quarters to spending free time in Parliament library. And what could be a more touching avowal of the ’70s if not the revival of All-India Radio with the monthly torture of Mann Ki Baat.

The seventies sweepstakes is on a roll with the PM’s buttoned-up kurtas (much like his style guru—superstar Rajesh Khanna). And, if all this is not enough of a reminder of that decade, here’s more of the old faff-over-substance policy: like Indira, Modi loves to don the ethnic clothes of every state he visits, from the gigantic wild-boar-tusk headgear of Nagaland to the Ladakhi goncha to soaring peacock feathers in Manipur, preferring theatrics over actual work. Then there’s the moral lessons in cleanliness and godliness in public life; and experiments with benevolent punishment. Recall also the public sniggers at the hundreds of babus and lowly clerks who were forced to come out on Gandhi Jayanti to sweep their offices, including toilets, though the Swachh spirit has all but evaporated from government offices. And just like the late and lucked-out Sanjay Gandhi, Modi also has a fetish for a soldierly workforce of bureaucrats, off­icers and clerks even as his ministers and administration sit befuddled with no power or work. No wonder, for our PM also believes in Soviet-style centralisation of work. And forget those free markets and private enterprise slogans. Now it’s back to good old Indira-style PSUs (public sector undertakings)—from ma­m­moth state oil refineries to steel plants—succumbing to the demands of the Sangh ideology of a bucolic swa­deshi economy.

It is more than ironic that a loyal swayamsevak who believes in chara­cter-building ultra-nationalism and anti-Congressism has brought back the wave of ’70s puritanism—banning books, authors, kisses, art and culture to beef—only this time in the name of Hindu gods and goddesses.

But it’s in the heart of academia that the Stealthy Seventies have marched in to take over. The last few months have seen a battle between Sangh conservatism versus the students—shutting down the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT Madras, smashing Ambedkar Students Association in Hyderabad University leading to Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and now the sedition charge against Kanhaiya, president of JNUSU. All that action taken on the direct orders of the Union cabinet. Still surprised? All you have to do is listen to Modi’s surreal speech on Jamia Millia.

But on a hopeful note, like in 1975, this particular comedy of terrors has also woken up Dalits, the radical Left, socialists and workers—all marching to the revolutionary song. The battle-lines are drawn again—a witless government, supremacist thugs and remorseless police against agitated students. Now can the shakha shake, shake, shake?

Slide Show

One happy difference between 1975 and now is the free internet: while Indira got away with bullying ­Gujral for allowing the footage of protests on Doordarshan, the Sanghi’s violence is all over YouTube.

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