Modi, like Indira

Both turned poll into plebiscite, raised huge expectations.

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Published:June 6, 2014 12:00 am
Modi transformed an adverse political context into an asset and ensured that this election was a plebiscite on him. (Source: PTI) Modi transformed an adverse political context into an asset and ensured that this election was a plebiscite on him. (Source: PTI)

As the Narendra Modi ministry gets going, the industry of deciphering every move made by the new PM is flourishing. Having won the election for the party, Modi certainly has real power now, which many a prime minister from the recent past did not have. Indicative of this is the report (“A first: PMO empowers itself on ‘all important policy issues’”, IE, May, 28) that in allocating portfolios, the prime minister has allocated to himself “all important policy issues”. While we will have to wait to find out how this operates in practice, it adds to the challenge of making sense of the Modi phenomenon. It might be instructive to go back into India’s democratic history and compare Modi with Indira Gandhi. Such a comparison may give us some clues to understanding the rise of the new leadership and its likely trajectory.

First, the transformation of an election into a plebiscite over one leader was the key strategy adopted by Indira Gandhi in 1971. Similarly, Modi transformed an adverse political context into an asset and ensured that this election was a plebiscite on him. Like her, he made a virtue of the fact that everyone else was opposed to him. He used that context adroitly to place him at the centre by getting himself declared  the prime ministerial candidate of his party. That move scandalised his opponents outside the BJP so much that everyone started criticising him, facilitating unprecedented publicity and media exposure, in turn. Though he did not overplay the point, this adversity allowed Modi to present an image of someone cornered by opponents. While everyone was busy criticising Modi, he went ahead with slogans and banners that practically announced the arrival of a new messiah.

Second, listening to Modi’s speeches, one could not mistake the aggressive — even injured — tone. After winning the Gujarat assembly elections in 2012 and subsequently addressing students at a Delhi college, Modi’s speeches were less argumentative, more exhortative and cajoling. But once he sensed that the Congress party was on the back foot, he shifted to a more aggressive stance. His tone became more acerbic. He coined the moniker of “shehzada” for Rahul Gandhi, thereby referring not only to the hereditary element but also reminding audiences of the unstated charge of Muslim appeasement by the Congress. The swift transformation into an aggressive and confrontational mode of argument helped in building the image of a strong, determined leader ready to fight and remain in battle-mode all the time.

Third, like Indira Gandhi, Modi bypassed the party. The details are, of course, dissimilar: Indira Gandhi had to fight a drawn-out battle with those who then controlled the Congress and thought she would remain indebted to them for having installed her as prime minister. She, in fact, did not mind forcing a split in the party. Modi did not have to go to that extent. Having lost two parliamentary elections in a row, the BJP was all too keen to have a strong leader take the reins for the parliamentary elections. This made Modi’s task easier. But the real similarity lies elsewhere. Both sought to appeal to voters directly, over the heads of their respective party organisations. And their appeals sent the same message — a vote for the party candidate is a vote to the leader. So, both in 1971 and 2014, voters were asked not to elect their “representatives” but only the loyalists of the leader.

Fourth, this strategy inevitably brought them in confrontation with the old guard in the party and they both bulldozed the dissidence within.

In Indira Gandhi’s case, the battle was far too bitter because she was new to the office of prime minister. In Modi’s case, the battle was caused mainly because he was new to Delhi’s politics. But the old guard in his party was not able to put up much resistance and had to mostly acquiesce to the wishes of Modi supporters. The differences of scale apart, the core issue was identical — those who did not support the new phenomenon had to make way, rather than share party power.

Fifth, how did Indira Gandhi justify the plebiscitary mode of politics? She blamed the personalisation of the electoral battle with her famous statement: opponents say Indira hatao; I say garibi hatao. Garibi hatao, then, was the slogan, the dream, the goal. In her whirlwind tours of the country (before the era of television and holograms), Indira Gandhi intimated that she was there to change the language and substance of politics. She was carving out huge expectations. Till 1971, she had little to show for herself. But that did not deter her from framing the politics of dreams and expectations. Exactly in the same manner, Modi’s campaign hinged on shaping expectations of a strong and prosperous India.

Just as the removal of poverty was a goal that had moral legitimacy and an obvious social sanctity, Modi’s narrative of “development” enjoys considerable legitimacy in post-1991 India. The new India of today is evidently impatient with alibis and excited about growth in the global context; even growth without much concern for equity has acquired a certain moral legitimacy and economic justification. Just as the removal of poverty had a compulsive moral attraction for the India of the 1970s, growth and development have a compulsive instrumental attraction in today’s India. This context turns the political game of raising huge popular expectations into a winning strategy.

The main difference between the personalistic and populist politics of these two leaders is probably in the composition of their core constituencies. Indira Gandhi’s constituency was principally oppressed, inarticulate and from unprivileged social sections — Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. Four decades down the line, most social sections in India are fairly mobilised and awakened. But more particularly, Modi’s core constituency is definitely very articulate. It consists of two somewhat diverse but mostly interconnected sections — the aspirational middle class, which reads in the rhetoric of development an expansion of opportunities and the realisation of its aspired economic advance, and the entrenched middle class, which expects the cultural discourse to be reframed. The former will judge the leader on the basis of material advance and the latter will judge him on the basis of how he redefines the contours of India’s nationhood. Both classes have heightened expectations and a strong sense of the moral justification of their demands from the polity. The durability of the plebiscite that Modi has won will depend on how skilfully he satisfies and balances these expectations.

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

express@expressindia.com

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  1. T
    Truth hurts
    Jun 6, 2014 at 4:06 pm
    Why no negative votes here? So only yes votes? I tried every msg here to put my negative vote. Never registered. Chumcha giri! Keep it up. Good media.
    Reply
    1. M
      Mahesh Sarin
      Jun 6, 2014 at 10:27 am
      Congress leader and nine time winner of Lok Sabha election Mr Kamal Nath has proved his management skill and efficient functioning as a pro tem speaker of 16th Lok Sabha. It was his style of functioning only that in one single day more than 500 members of the house took the oath.
      Reply
      1. M
        Mahesh Sarin
        Jun 6, 2014 at 10:28 am
        In our Parliamentary system there is a provision of Pro tem speaker who presides the proceedings of the newly consuted lower house of our parliament that is Lok Sabha during the period when new members take the oath.
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        1. M
          Mahesh Sarin
          Jun 6, 2014 at 10:28 am
          Mr Narendra Modi will either make or break India... but give him time. India desperately needs speedy development and to control corruption. If he does both these tasks we'd go very ahead. Just because Modi won does not mean Modi-ites should get so triumphalistic.
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          1. M
            Mahesh Sarin
            Jun 6, 2014 at 10:28 am
            Now Mr Narendra Modi is the prime minister of India. Let’s see results - not the kind we saw in Gujarat. Facts. Truth. Not hype. It was the same with the election campaign - first Development, then Polarization.
            Reply
            1. M
              Mahesh Sarin
              Jun 6, 2014 at 10:28 am
              The Narendra Modi government needs to control inflation, dal, chawal ... if not the the large majority who voted for the development agenda will be lost. Hindu rashtra is not for which Modi was elected.
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              1. M
                Mahesh Sarin
                Jun 6, 2014 at 10:27 am
                The ancient Indians invented the place value system which in turn also caused them to invent zero to denote places without any value. As Einstein said, ‘We should be thankful to Indians who taught us how to count without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been possible.
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                1. M
                  Mahesh Sarin
                  Jun 6, 2014 at 10:28 am
                  The senior member of the house becomes the Pro tem speaker. In this capacity of a senior most member of the 16th Lok Sabha Kamal Nath took this responsibility after taking his oath at Rastrapati Bhawan in the morning.
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                  1. M
                    Mahesh Sarin
                    Jun 6, 2014 at 10:27 am
                    UP’s SP government is totally disconnected with people since 2012 and onward...and their goons r still exploiting the society...and they know no rule & law can abide them..This is for sure....you all see more incidents and crime in coming time.
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                    1. P
                      Prapur
                      Jun 6, 2014 at 6:00 pm
                      In my opinion this comarision is no match to each characters. If both leaders are to be compared about style and substance than there is vast difference of ocean. Modi never sideline party or leaders and became arrogant like Indira. He has taken majority (Over 95%) of hard working leaders and party persons in confidence except those who should have retired and taken advisory role. Advani and Joshi should have done so. Shushma was looking for better reward by siding with them. However Modi still has her cabinet and she deserves that. Modi's track record is coming up from small unknown family and worked hard to his way up where as Indira was coming from towering dynastic family born with silver spoon and well trained by Nehru. Indira had personal agenda where as Modi wants India First and he means it.
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                      1. O
                        Observer
                        Jun 6, 2014 at 10:07 am
                        Modi has promised a restless Young India, jobs, jobs and more jobs, and he has promised Middle Income India, low inflation, cheaper food and better infrastructure. He better deliver all this and fast. If not, He will face the same anger as UPA did. India has a demographic profile that can very rapidly change from dividend to disaster, if it remains unemplo.
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                        1. A
                          adal singh
                          Jun 6, 2014 at 2:17 pm
                          From 1971to 2014 a gap of 43 years India is totally changed. Youth of 1971 havegrown old like me & India, it's political, social, economic &educational structure hastotally changed. Indra &Modi come from totally different family&cultural background.Also Indra was undisputed head of her party while Modi was declared a PM candidatesby leadership of BJP.So in short this comparison is less justifiable.
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                          1. A
                            Anand
                            Jun 6, 2014 at 7:42 am
                            You can compare Modi with Sardar Patel only.. not any body else...
                            Reply
                            1. C
                              Chandrasekharan K>R.
                              Jun 6, 2014 at 3:43 pm
                              Writers make a life out of penning about Modi.they give flight to whatever their fancy says. His opponents called him all kinds of names. Now, these writers compare him to whatever political personalities their whim catches. I believe in all these writers,more than politicians,there is deep crave or hidden expectation that Modi should slip somewhere. If Modi gives a good governance as he said,more tha anyone,these writers could not stomach that.all that they expect is a slip,and they would have much more material to spin and berate him.
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                              1. G
                                Gary W
                                Jun 7, 2014 at 2:52 am
                                The writer mistakenly compares what he considers two autocrats. But he's wrong. Modi's every act after taking the oath has been collaborative and results-oriented. He set about fixing the tool by which policies reach the people, viz. the bureaucracy. He is disciplined enough to know how to execute his promises. Indira hi on the other hand had no problem becoming the supreme dictator. She was an autocrat, Modi is not.Modi should be compared with Sardar Patel instead. By electing him India has (at long last) righted the wrong of sidelining Patel. India will shine like never before.
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                                1. J
                                  Jafo Jafo
                                  Jun 6, 2014 at 4:04 pm
                                  It may not be right to say that modi byped the party......it is more like , modi managed to byp his detractors within the party and bring the party in line with his thinking
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                                  1. A
                                    ashok
                                    Jun 6, 2014 at 6:06 am
                                    There is an important distinction. Indira hi's administrative record was slender, consisting of populist measures like the nationalisation of banks and the abolition of privy purses. Bangladesh was a genuine achievement. Narendra Modi has a stellar governance and development record in a progressive state for well over a decade. There is real substance behind those holograms.
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                                    1. M
                                      madhukar nikam
                                      Jun 6, 2014 at 7:51 am
                                      Modi has been elected democratically...with entire party cadre behind him, perhaps the only leader who enjo so much support at the gr root level!
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                                      1. V
                                        Varghese
                                        Jun 7, 2014 at 12:50 am
                                        Not quite....evidently instances show that party was subjugated to the man
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                                        1. V
                                          Varghese
                                          Jun 7, 2014 at 12:52 am
                                          True, after all the hard campaign work that the PM put out...the demand he has created is so high that this new Govt won't be able to slip even one step.
                                          Reply
                                          1. N
                                            Nanda kumar
                                            Jun 6, 2014 at 7:06 am
                                            hi suhas, how old are you? you should be really old.....a pattern on analysis is on display - a pattern groomed from a particular way of thinking.....the pattern is and will be always wrong, therefore your analysis will also be wrong - sort of paralysis by analysis.......due to this set patter of thinking, you put out all the wrong things that come out your pattern of thinking - very sorry you can't see Modijis better points - even modi would not have planned or thought like pattern expressed in your 'post mortem' thinking - anyway the paper sells and you earn a livelihood.
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