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 …continued »