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.
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. continued…