His approach resembles that of Indira Gandhi. But he must note: in Delhi, what one controls, slips away.
What is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s view of political institutions? Consequent upon the rejection of Gopal Subramanium’s nomination as a Supreme Court judge, the gubernatorial appointments and the changes in Delhi University’s undergraduate curriculum, there has been some debate on whether institutions will suffer under Modi’s leadership. The debate needs greater clarity.
Perhaps the best way to think about the institutions is to examine the matter historically. The three longest-lasting prime ministers of India — Jawaharlal Nehru (17 years), Indira Gandhi (15 years), and Manmohan Singh (10 years) — are associated with three different institutional models. Atal Bihari Vajpayee could well have developed a fourth model, but before he could do so, he lost power. Which model is Modi closest to?
Institutional nurturing marked the Nehru model. He did not attack the judges, when the SC invalidated his land reform programme, a lynchpin of his economic policy. Rather, he followed the constitutionally assigned procedure of passing an amendment to override the judiciary. He did not appoint presidents of the Congress party; the party elected its leader. He did not impose chief ministers on states; the state units of the Congress made that call. Party colleagues sometimes staunchly opposed his policies but dissenters were not expelled from the party. Instead, debates in party forums decided who would win. Charan Singh defeated Nehru on farm collectives. Initially opposed to a linguistic organisation of Indian federalism, Nehru gave in when a democratic storm erupted. Whenever a clash between democracy and his personal policy positions arose, he would embrace the former.
Nehru’s record, of course, is not flawless. Two institutional deficits are especially noteworthy. In 1957, he suspended the first elected Communist government of Kerala on grounds of law and order; the case for president’s rule was not incontestably clear. He was also either unable or unwilling to follow proper procedures in the continued arrest of Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s preeminent leader until the early 1980s. Ostensibly on grounds of treason, Abdullah’s arrest, though ordered by the state government, not Delhi, lasted more than a decade, but legal proceedings were never instituted. No democrat ever keeps someone in jail without judicial approval.
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The second model was Indira Gandhi’s. Biologically a daughter of Nehru, institutionally she was anti-Nehru. Her approach illustrated the ambivalent character of charisma with respect to institutions. If Nehru invested his charisma into institutions, thereby strengthening them, Indira Gandhi used her charisma to undermine institutions, arguing the leader was more important than the institutions. After 1971, when her army dismembered Pakistan and she won a thumping victory in the elections, her power was immense and her charisma beyond doubt. But how did she use her power and charisma?
She expressed open preference for a committed judiciary, not one that acts as a watchdog over the executive. In 1973, she suspended internal party elections, imposing loyal Congressmen on the party as presidents thereafter. She eliminated the practice of the state units of the party electing their chief ministers, picking them personally instead. She repeatedly took recourse to Article 356 to suspend non-Congress state governments. Finally, in June 1975, faced with an adverse court verdict and a movement against her, she suspended democracy, jailed opposition leaders, gagged the press and gave extra-constitutional authority to her son, Sanjay Gandhi. The trains did run on time.
The third institutional model, belonging to Manmohan Singh’s 10 years in power, was based on a bifurcation of power and responsibility. The locus of power was the Nehru-Gandhi family, but the responsibility for policy and governance lay with Manmohan Singh’s government. The consequence was the weakest stable government of independent India, which often reduced the office of the prime minister to an empty shell.
For a BJP-led government, the third model is always a possibility. If the Congress has its dynasty at 10 Janpath, the BJP has its RSS family in Nagpur. Being the institutional centrepiece of Hindu nationalism as well as the purveyor of thousands of volunteers working as electoral mobilisers, the RSS always feels privileged when the BJP is in power. But is the matter so simple?
Modi’s record, both in Gujarat and already since coming to power in Delhi, shows that he may not allow the RSS to become a 10 Janpath. Already widely noted is his fraught relationship with some wings of the Sangh parivar, especially the VHP, which campaigned against him during the Gujarat state elections. Some key ministerial portfolios of the new Modi government — finance, defence, human resources — have not gone to RSS ideologues. Modi’s economic philosophy, too, follows a much more modern view of Hindu nationalism than what the RSS has preferred in the past. The RSS has always been more comfortable in the company of small-town shopkeepers than in the glittering offices of South Mumbai, or with the jet-set foreign capital. Modi’s courting of the latter is well known.
Modi’s BJP is beginning to resemble Indira Gandhi’s Congress. Much like Congress cadres propelling Indira’s rise against stalwarts like Morarji Desai, Modi’s immense popularity with the BJP’s mass base has led to his remarkable ascendancy. Virtually every major stalwart of the BJP has been diminished, if not thrown out — think of L.K. Advani as roughly, if not exactly, comparable to Desai. The new BJP president is someone known for his unwavering loyalty to Modi, much like the relationship of all Congress presidents to Indira Gandhi after 1973. The top echelons of the RSS cannot but be concerned about what lies ahead. Will the BJP be RSS-governed or Modi-dominated?
Modi’s rejection of Gopal Subramanium’s judicial candidacy and his government’s approach to higher education thus far also parallel Indira Gandhi. But there is at least one institutional sense in which Modi seems fundamentally to depart from her. Unlike her erosion of federalism, Modi has repeatedly announced his support for deepening federalism, a point to be taken seriously until systematically violated. With a veritable record of electoral victories behind them, BJP chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are also personalities in their own right. They can’t easily be trifled with.
Of course, it is too early to come to strong conclusions. One can go wrong in reading the early trends for two reasons. First, because of the relative mysteriousness of the RSS, one can misidentify the nature of the relationship between Modi and the RSS. Second, Modi can change course in the future. Back in the 1960s, Samuel Huntington famously argued that power first has to be concentrated before it can be dispersed. Critics of Huntington always argued that those who concentrate power might choose not to disperse it. Which way will Modi go?
Be that as it may, we know that Indira Gandhi’s institutional model failed. With a decentralised institutional model, Nehru never lost a general election, but Indira Gandhi was outvoted in 1977, even though her control over her party was complete and her threats to the judiciary and the press made many judges and journalists subservient. India is too vast, too diverse, too free to be ruled with an institutional model that concentrates power. That model can at best work at the state level. In Delhi, inescapably, what one controls slips away, a thousand resentments build up, and the pyramid of power crumbles.