By Praful Shankar
One of the side effects of the stranglehold of the intellectual Congress-Left alliance over the narratives of post-Independence India is that the reference points for most analysis of our nation’s recent history has come to be centered around the Congress party and the Nehru-Gandhi family. Rarely do political pundits venture outside these confines in their deliberations and even the few who do, tend to only look back as far as the Mughal dynasty.
Perhaps it is because of this reason that when confronted with the expanding base of the BJP and the pan-India popularity of the Prime Minister that the commentators have chosen to – almost instinctively – draw comparisons to the premiership of the late Mrs Indira Gandhi.
Howsoever superficial such associations may be, it is not difficult to see the motivations behind them. Both the Prime Minister and Mrs Gandhi are seen as charismatic mass leaders with powerful personalities and a no-nonsense attitude. There is also the subtle subtext in the implied correlation which comes with such comparisons- that the inclination of Mrs Gandhi to exert full control over her party and the country led to her declaring the Emergency and that if the electorate is not careful, history might be repeated with the current Prime Minister as well.
In fact, this is a theme around which the Opposition has looked to build their counter-narrative for the next general election. And while the irony of a Gandhi-led Congress shedding crocodile tears in the name of supposed dictatorships is not lost on most, it is more than likely that come the summer of 2019, one can expect the usual bout of fear mongering around ‘minority freedoms’ and ‘one man rule’ from the usual suspects.
Such a characterization – like most of the chatterati’s presumptions about the Prime Minister – is more fiction than fact and representative of wishful thinking on the part of its narrators than an argument with any sort of factual merit.
As any unbiased political mind will be able to see, PM Modi and former PM Indira Gandhi are cut from very different cloths.
First let us consider the most obvious difference – that of their respective rise to the top of the political order.
The divergences could not be starker – Mrs Gandhi was born into one of India’s wealthiest and leading political families while PM Modi hails from an ordinary home in Vadnagar.
During most of Mrs Gandhi’s early political career, her father was India’s Prime Minister and exerted immeasurable personal influence across the nation, even beyond the political domain. And while she did face political opposition when she tried to take control of the party, it cannot be denied that being the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru enabled her to almost inherit the Congress machinery and legacy from her father.
By comparison, when Narendra Modi started off as a swayamsevak in the RSS, the post of the Prime Minister would have been farthest from his mind. And even after his entry into the political arena; his rise to India’s premiership was preceded by years of struggle – first as a normal party worker and later as the Chief Minister of Gujarat.
The differences can be seen to be even more striking once one studies their actions post their respective rise to PM’s chair.
While the Indira Gandhi’s premiership did certainly have its own moments of glory, it cannot be denied that it was under her leadership that the Congress began its steep descent into the corrupt and dynasty-centered entity it is today – a far cry from the towering institution it was during the freedom struggle.
As Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi systematically broke down her own party’s internal democracy – pushing mass leaders, whom she saw as potential rivals, into the margins. Simultaneously, she anointed her son as her political successor and in doing so, she cemented the culture of dynastic succession in the party and killed the hope of any sort of meritocracy in the Congress forever
Additionally, by handpicking her relatives and lackeys for key positions in both party and government, she became the fountainhead of state-sponsored systematic, cronyism in both government and private enterprise – a tragedy from which the nation is still struggling to recover.
Her desire for complete control along with her penchant for placing family over country finally resulted in the Emergency – the blackest period in post-Independent India, during which she dealt deadly blows to most of India’s institutions from the Presidency to the judiciary and the press.
Now contrast this with the approach of the current Prime Minister – far from breaking down the organizational strength of his political party, he has only worked to strengthen it through the remarkably ambitious and efficient leadership of the BJP’s current President and the Prime Minister’s longtime collaborator, Shri Amit Shah.
Similarly, there has been no Congress-style High Command culture in the appointment of people to key posts as well. The Prime Minister’s personal charisma had played a critical role in the success the BJP has achieved in UP, Jharkand, Maharshtra, Uttarakhand and Haryana.
Yet, none of the Chief Ministers selected for the states are seen to be airdropped from Delhi. Rather, BJP CMs have been encouraged and supported to cultivate mass bases of their own and strengthen their local units – a stark contrast from what is seen on the other side where a hugely popular Capt Amarinder Singh had to threaten to leave the Congress in order to be able to wrest control of the Punjab Congress from the Gandhi dynasty’s preferred CM candidate.
This spirit of divesting both power and responsibility has been reflected in the dealings of the NDA government as well. By first giving States a larger percentage of tax revenues and then through the successful legislation of the GST Bill, the Prime Minister has stayed true to his pre-election commitment of strengthening the federal structure of India’s governance and divesting more power from the Center to the States.
Now compare this to Mrs Gandhi’s decision to nationalize India’s banks or her penchant for harassing and dismissing opposition-led state governments and one will get a truer picture of the varying style of the two leaders.
The propagators of such comparisons would do well to consider that the Prime Minister’s ideological foundations are much different from their own. In the framing of his vision of a ‘New India’ and his dealings in matters of defense, trade and foreign policy, PM Modi has shown that his inspirations for leadership and service lie elsewhere – far away from the ‘en vogue, socialist’ heroes of Lutyens Delhi and much closer to the icons of Bharat’s Indic heritage.
(The author is a keen observer of Indian politics and writes regularly on contemporary issues)