A PM like Indira Gandhi

Like her, Modi has established his dominance. But can he move beyond her legacy, to rule by persuasion?

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Published:March 16, 2017 12:05 am
PM Modi has become contemporary India’s most dominant political figure. No politician since Indira Gandhi has had such cross-regional electoral appeal. (File Photo)

The BJP’s monumental electoral triumph in Uttar Pradesh, especially after a massive victory in the state’s parliamentary elections in 2014, invites reflection on two important political concepts: Dominance and hegemony. The BJP’s political dominance is now a commonplace observation, but some of the most thoughtful political commentators have also started speaking of BJP’s hegemony. The issue is not simply semantic. Real political matters are involved. And the success of future political strategies might well depend on which concept best captures the realities of Narendra Modi’s India.

Let us start with the differences between Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, viewed as the two most powerful leaders of India after Independence. What was the nature of their power and the polity they ruled? Which one does Modi resemble most? Where might a polity ruled by Modi be headed?

The basic question here is not about Modi’s economics, which is fundamentally different from Nehru’s and Indira Gandhi’s, both of whom were on the left. While Modi is no free market proponent, he is best described as right of centre on economics. The question about hegemony and domination concentrates on politics, not economics.

The basic difference between hegemony and dominance is that the former represents power stemming from persuasion, the latter, power from coercion. In democracies, we don’t get pure hegemony or pure dominance. Hegemony is often associated with totalitarian polities, like communism on the left and fascism on the right. The Soviet Union and Maoist China did exercise coercion, but most minds had been ideologically captured. Even the non-state citizen space, the so-called civil society, was inhabited by ideologically conforming and state-supporting organisations.

Democracies construct hegemony differently. They allow freedom to civil society; opposition parties also openly contest the government. They don’t curtail freedom of speech. Even with such freedoms and adversarial opportunities, the power of the Congress party under Nehru spread to all parts of India, with the exception of Kashmir and parts of the Northeast. Only in 1957, 10 years into Nehru’s tenure as PM, did one state, Kerala, acquire a non-Congress government. Opposition parties fought hard, but could not win against him. Also, there was vigorous debate within the Congress. Nehru was sometimes defeated in intra-party debates. Finally, civil society was not repressed.

Yet, S. Gopal, Nehru’s biographer, reports a famous mid-term assessment in 1956, published in the New York Times, that Nehru was one of the “unchallenged rulers of the world, perhaps the only one who ruled by love and not fear”. Ruled by love, not fear? These words explain why Nehru came to be viewed as a democratically legitimated hegemon of India.

In political practice, despite genetic lineage, Indira Gandhi was anti-Nehru. The masses, on the whole, adored her. But intra-party dissent was crushed; civil society organisations were harassed; government interfered in universities, getting left-leaning academics in positions of power; disagreeing judges were afraid; state-level leaders came to be appointed by her, not by regional wings of the party. Regardless, based on her personal popularity, the Congress party kept winning power in most states (except for 1977), though not in as many as under Nehru. She was dominant, not hegemonic.

In his politics, Modi is more like Indira Gandhi than Nehru. Under his leadership, the BJP is ruling in many more states than ever before. But opposition within the BJP rarely raises its head. Marginalised by Modi’s popularity, the seniors are fading away. An independent voice like Arun Shourie’s could not be accommodated in power, whereas Patel, Nehru’s adversary, was inside the cabinet. Hindu nationalist academics are being imposed on universities. Civil society organisations, opposed to Modi, fear retribution.

However, intolerance is popular at the mass level. It is extraordinarily hard to win 40 per cent or more of UP’s vote twice in a row, as Modi did. To this, add winning Maharashtra, a Congress bastion; Haryana and Assam, where the BJP was insignificant; increasing BJP vote share in Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; and keeping Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh intact. Punjab, Bihar and Delhi are Modi’s only notable electoral failures.

With this electoral record, Modi has become contemporary India’s most dominant political figure. When Karnataka goes to polls next year, he might even win a southern state. His victorious arc will thus touch all parts of India. No politician since Indira Gandhi has had such cross-regional electoral appeal.

However, like Indira Gandhi, his functioning between elections also departs from democratic principles. He does not stop intolerant organisations from running amok and unleashing violence. Freedom of speech is not a principle he loves. Ideological conformity and/or loyalty shape his political functioning.

Can Modi move from dominance to hegemony? From electoral legitimacy to rule by persuasion? With an unrivalled political stature and its accompanying power, including vis-à-vis his own party, Modi could follow the idea made famous by Samuel Huntington: Namely, consolidation of power is often necessary before it can be dispersed. Would he pick power dispersal as a preferred strategy? And what will be his approach to groups that remain suspicious and fearful, especially Muslims (and Christians)?

It is unlikely Modi would pick power dispersal over further power consolidation. The former is not his style. It is also unclear whether he would embrace Muslims (and Christians). His election speech focusing on kabristan (grave yards) and shamshan (cremation grounds) was Hindu nationalist to the core. His victory speech later, however, was all-embracing. This duality has marked his politics since his rise as India’s Prime Minister: An inclusive speech at Wembley, London, was interspersed in close time with his Hindu nationalist twist in the Bihar election campaign.

If Modi wishes to rule by persuasion, there is a way out. He would have to seriously curtail his Hindu nationalist moorings, and focus on economic development for all, a promise he made in 2014. It is fanciful to believe that both pursuits, one exclusionary, the other inclusionary, are simultaneously realisable.

The writer is director, Centre for Contemporary South Asia, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App now

  1. H
    Hemant Kumar
    Mar 16, 2017 at 5:08 am
    Mr. Modi is the greatest PM since Independence. Don't compare him with Indira hi as it amounts to comparing apples with oranges.
    Reply
    1. Y
      Yogi_Bear
      Mar 16, 2017 at 6:17 am
      "I WILL PAY 1000$ TO COMMUNIST WHO WILL WRITE POSITIVE ABOUT MODI, " , and no one can do, cause its Ideology than TRUTH. THEIR IS 0% SCOPE TO ACCEPT THIS ARTICLE.
      Reply
      1. Y
        Yogi_Bear
        Mar 16, 2017 at 6:15 am
        Minority is more alienated, threatened and focred to afraid by Such writer and sikulars than reality. Todays India is more secure and inclusive for minority than decade ago, Just difference is Rise of Social/Electronic media. Which try to show one insidence as End of secularism and threat to minority. They like to shy away from this truth. Media is more dangerous than reality. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;PEOPLE LIKE YOU WILL DIE ONLY JUST HATING MODI, THAN DOING ANY POSITIVE FOR SOCIETY.. GOOD LUCK. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;AND KEEP IN MIND OPEN "RED TERROR/MURDERING " BY COMMUNISTS IS REALITY THAN THREAT TO MINORITY.
        Reply
        1. R
          Rajat
          Mar 16, 2017 at 12:12 pm
          But to these pseudo-seculars, talk of equality is Hindutva or communalism.
          Reply
          1. R
            Rajat
            Mar 16, 2017 at 12:09 pm
            Modi has abandoned minorities is a myth created by these congress stooges.
            Reply
            1. R
              Rajat
              Mar 16, 2017 at 12:10 pm
              Modi has talked about equitable treatment.
              Reply
              1. R
                Rajat
                Mar 16, 2017 at 12:11 pm
                and rejected appeas-ement of minorities.
                Reply
                1. A
                  Aniket
                  Mar 16, 2017 at 8:26 am
                  Shourie was astringent supporter of Modi in 2014 elections. He has turned into a critic only after being denied a ministerial position.
                  Reply
                  1. Z
                    zizek
                    Mar 16, 2017 at 5:47 am
                    Oh Varshney, come on now! The categories which you are using -- that of dominance and hegemony -- for explaining the Indian situation are not valid here, or even if they are valid, you have used them incorrectly. It is because every state uses some ideological apparatus to gain pority for its ideas. To say that Modi's is dominance while Nehru's was hegemony is unsustainable on further scrutiny. Here's why:lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;1. "Democracies construct hegemony differently. They allow freedom to civil society; opposition parties also openly contest the government. They don’t curtail freedom of speech. Even with such freedoms and adversarial opportunities, the power of the Congress party under Nehru spread to all parts of India, with the exception of Kashmir and parts of the Northeast."lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;You have written this in praise of Nehru but I don't think the situation is different now - civil society still has freedom, opposition parties are also openly contesting the government (with bad results), freedom of speech has not been curtailed (evident if you look at the media and their propist pieces, yet they continue to do it) and still BJP is spreading to territories uncharted hitherto.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;2. "Freedom of speech (FoS) is not a principle he loves. Ideological conformity and/or loyalty shape his political functioning."lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Do you guys love FoS? I don't think so. I did not hear anyone of you supporting Sehwag saying that he was totally justified in countering a rather illogical proposition with wit. And do I need to say about ideological conformity of you guys? I don't think so. The problem with you people is that you can't follow the ideals you admire. You people are hypocrites to the core.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;3. "He would have to seriously curtail his Hindu nationalist moorings, and focus on economic development for all..."lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;I don't think Modi subscribes to Hindu nationalist ideology (atleast not overtly). Rather, he is a proud Hindu who shows his Hinduness, and what's wrong with that? He is first a citizen of India and has the right to practice his religion, hasn't he?
                    Reply
                    1. J
                      Joe
                      Mar 16, 2017 at 5:00 am
                      How convenient - everyone you disagrees with your view-point is consistently a dishonest rag.
                      Reply
                      1. V
                        Vidhu
                        Mar 16, 2017 at 1:14 pm
                        Modi himself has due respect for all previous PMs. Such kind of articles create frictions among the readers. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;If you have listened to his speech after victory in UP.
                        Reply
                        1. S
                          Surya
                          Mar 16, 2017 at 8:54 am
                          I am rather surprised at even possibility of comparison between great leaders and an election campaigner. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;Winning elections alone, against the kind of opposition he has, will not take Modi near to great leaders.
                          Reply
                          1. A
                            Ajay G
                            Mar 16, 2017 at 6:08 am
                            Nehru and Indira are dead. They have been judged millions of times. Modi can be judged when his innings is over. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;Indira peaked in 1971 and then touched bottom in 1977 and finally left for heavenly abode like a martyr.
                            Reply
                            1. A
                              ak dev
                              Mar 16, 2017 at 10:40 am
                              If Congress wants to understand Modi, it has to first understand RSS. Author has a Congee mind set and can't think of beyond Congress leaders. He can't perceive that Modi is from RSS background and not from Congress. He simply can't be compared to Nehru and Indira. This is the reason political experts in Congress are not able to even understand what Modi is all about.
                              Reply
                              1. A
                                ak dev
                                Mar 16, 2017 at 4:16 pm
                                If Muslims wants BJP to give tickets to them, they should vote BJP in large numbers. It doesn't make sense that Muslims vote SP and complain to BJP for not giving tickets. However, BJP government will ensure that its actions don't favor any section of society as has been the case in Akhilesh rule.
                                Reply
                                1. A
                                  ak dev
                                  Mar 16, 2017 at 4:28 pm
                                  Left had hegemony over the Idea of India until Modi become powerful. Now when an alternate Idea of India is demanded by the majority, left intellectuals show extreme intolerance. The internet has given freedom to the mes to express their views. During Indira Nehru time the majority was kept in dark and only views of leftists prevailed. Things have changed for better for majority and for worst for leftists minority.
                                  Reply
                                  1. B
                                    Bhakt
                                    Mar 16, 2017 at 1:08 pm
                                    SP and BSP have fulfilled that space.
                                    Reply
                                    1. B
                                      Bhakt
                                      Mar 16, 2017 at 12:23 pm
                                      WTF ! Hindu nationalist moorings ... Development alone is the agenda. Why not exclusionary, the other inclusionary, pusuits are simultaneously realisable ? lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;Keep your Nehru and Indira with you. Tough people don't compare themselves with anyone and don't care for anyone. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;Sab ka Saath sab ka Vikas !!!
                                      Reply
                                      1. A
                                        amit
                                        Mar 16, 2017 at 3:20 pm
                                        Hey writer ... I am ignoring you as you have ignored my leaders hi senior - junior and Hon. Kejriwal ... can u write anything about their contributions to society ... about their ideologies, inclusiveness and vision ... plz ... I am eagerly waiting ... or leave commenting ... already we have Sagarika Ghose and her husband and Barkha Dutt for these jobs ...
                                        Reply
                                        1. A
                                          Amar
                                          Mar 16, 2017 at 6:37 pm
                                          Modi kind of politicians should be thankful to extremists who have scared common people. Moment these terror forces are tamed, such kind of politicians will lose their worth.
                                          Reply
                                          1. A
                                            Anjan
                                            Mar 16, 2017 at 12:50 pm
                                            Nehru and Indira hi were so much for inclusiveness that SP Mukherjee was requested to become Deputy PM of India and after 1971 victory, Vajpayee Ji was asked to lead Indian Delegation to UN. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;What can you expect from a person giving Congress-Mukt Bharat. So much hatred ..... lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;Chowdhury A 18:48 2017/3/16
                                            Reply
                                            1. Load More Comments