Comparing political styles is a game professional commentators like to play. The popular analogy these days, given fresh impetus by the 40th anniversary of the Emergency that went by last month, is the one between Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi. Given their shared characteristics, which include, at the very least, an intolerance of dissent, a tendency to centralise power and to project oneself as being co-terminus with the nation, this is a persuasive comparison.
But another event also took place last month, incidentally on June 25, the same day as the anniversary of the Emergency, the launch by the Central government of its much vaunted Rs 4,00,000 crore urban and smart cities schemes, which made me think of the resemblance between Modi and another member of the Gandhi dynasty, Rajiv Gandhi.
At first sight, this may not seem an easy case to make. The bitter rivalry between Modi and Rajiv’s son, Rahul, and also Rajiv’s affable personality versus Modi’s stern disposition seem to preclude any comparison. Indeed, if at all, it is the similarity between Modi and Rajiv’s brother Sanjay, once pointed out by sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, that jumps more convincingly to mind. Yet, a look at Modi and Rajiv’s sudden ascent to the prime ministership and their respective first years in office reveals some surprising correspondences.
To begin with, both were outsiders in politics who managed to win large majorities at moments of relative uncertainty. Both were accused of seeking to suppress dissent: Rajiv with his anti-defection law and a failed later attempt at muzzling the press with a defamation bill; Modi with his gag order on ministers and his hostile campaign against inconvenient NGOs.
Both understood the power of communication and gesture. Rajiv’s early forays into the country’s interiors were lovingly captured for primetime telecast, as were his various political initiatives, including the hastily cobbled together Assam Accord, announced with fanfare from the Red Fort on Independence Day, 1985. Modi’s early days in office have been similarly marked by a series of made-for-television events, beginning with his grand swearing-in ceremony, attended by heads of government from the neighbourhood, the flashy NRI extravaganzas in various foreign countries and his assiduously mounted tableaux, such as the most recent one on International Yoga Day.
Both leaders in their sartorial style, Rajiv with his sneakers and Ray-Bans and Modi with his more laboured executive style, came to represent a new, more Westernised India. And yet, both were also associated with a more traditional, Hindu ethos.
In Rajiv’s case, the assassination of his mother Indira created a situation for a collapse of the personal and the political: her public funeral with its rituals, its bugles and its sea of mourners made for an affective experience in which the bulk of the nation, 60 million, united for the first time by television’s expanded reach, were able to participate. The televised spectacle of the aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat on the banks of the Ganga in May last year, a celebration for the triumphant Modi, replete with ceremonial practices and soulful Vedic hymns, though more conspicuously planned, was like a rerun before an even larger audience.
Both Rajiv and Modi were associated with episodes of brutal, largescale communal violence. Following the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984, Rajiv’s election campaign played on subliminal fears of the majority about the threat from “Sikh terrorism” and aggressively attacked his political opposition, even suggesting a link between them and the forces of destabilisation.
Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat, his adamant refusal to express regret for the attacks that took place under his leadership, and his self-created image of a protector of Hindus in the state enabled his later projection as a strong leader, capable of ruthless action for the furtherance of economic reforms.
Both succeeded in selling a vision to the masses. Rajiv’s electoral success in 1984 marked the point at which India made a clear break from her socialist past and began the slow process of liberalisation. Modi’s election in 2014 had the same landmark quality with regard to India’s policy shift. Both men sold a promise of privatisation, managerial efficiency, connectivity, technological advance and a modernity modelled after the West.
If after all this, I say that I don’t think Narendra Modi is really like Rajiv Gandhi or like Indira Gandhi for that matter, it is because comparing personalities is necessarily an exercise in simplification. Political leaders are too complex for easy equivalences. What is really of value in the exercise is the opportunity to discover strategies and traits that recur over time and the sense they make of a seemingly arbitrary process of political succession and wider structural change.
The writer is at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.