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Narendra Modi has lots in common with Indira Gandhi in style, populism and opposition

Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi are in contrasting contexts, yet there are striking similarities in their style and populism

Updated: Sep 17, 2018, 15:44 PM IST

"Woh kahte hain Indira hatao. Hum kahte hain garibi hatao." (They say 'Remove Indira,' we say 'Remove poverty'). 

That powerful slogan gave Prime Minister Indira Gandhi-led Indian National Congress a two-thirds majority in the 1971 general elections, sealing her as the supremo of her party, and by extension the nation. There is a lot in the politics of Narendra Modi that reminds you of those days. The two leaders are generations apart, from parties bitterly opposed to each other, and often seen to represent opposite bands of the ideological spectrum split between the Right and the Left. Yet, Prime Minister Modi and Mrs Gandhi are alike in so many aspects that it is fascinating to take note of their similarities.

As Modi turns 68, he is ready to unveil in a few days after his birthday the details of his ambitious Ayushman Bharat scheme that promises state-supported health insurance for 50 crore out of the 125 crore-strong India. In some ways, 'Modicare' promises to a new generation of Indians a big leap forward, the way Indira's slogan for anti-poverty programmes did. You could say Modi's implicit slogan is: "Woh kahte hain Modi hatao. Hum kahte hain beemari hatao." (They say 'Remove Modi,' we say 'Remove illness'). The new slogan befits an India in which poverty is much less of a problem than healthcare as millions of people move out from a malnutrition zone to one where better health is an aspiration. It is as if beneficiaries of Indira's schemes are aspirants for Modi's largesse.

Like Indira, Modi talks over the heads of all sorts of power brokers such as senior party leaders, mediapersons and sundry intellectuals to state an unsaid message: 'I am the deliverer. I am the saviour of the people. The votes come because of me. The power flows from me to the system. Not the other way around.'

Cabinet ministers show reverence beyond the usual courtesies extended to the prime minister, junking the conventional belief that in a parliamentary system, the PM is the "first among equals." Their nervous smiles, their lining up to greet their leader and their loud, sometimes overzealous display of loyalty remind one of the Indira era. 

When Indira Gandhi was elected prime minister by the Congress in 1966 following the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, it was said she was installed by a gang of senior party leaders so they could manipulate her. She was even dubbed a 'goongi gudiya' (dumb doll). Indira proved to be anything but that as she manoeuvred shrewdly to oust the influential right-leaning group of the Congress known as the 'Syndicate' with a series of populist measures. She went on to nationalise a clutch of banks and enact a new anti-monopoly law that controlled big business houses from imperious highs -- splitting the party and carrying it with her as her juggernaut moved forward.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is quite different from the Congress, but there are a few things that Modi has done that remind us of those days. Modi was a barely-seen cheerleader in 1990 when Lal Krishna Advani as party president took the BJP to parliamentary centre-stage with his Rath Yatra campaign to build a Ram temple at the site disputed by Muslims in Ayodhya. Things changed after Modi was dispatched to Gujarat as chief minister in 2001 in a party reshuffle, the way the Syndicate installed Mrs Gandhi.

A few years later, however, there were loud murmurs of how traditional RSS titans were sidelined in the party as the likes of Murli Manohar Joshi and Lal Krishna Advani were reduced to quiet 'Margdarshaks' (guides) in the Modi dispensation, while powerful ministers of yore such as Jaswant Singh, Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha find themselves in the ranks of dissidents and losers.

Indira Gandhi was backed by the 'Young Turks' -- a band of left-leaning MPs -- to triumph over the 'Syndicate'. Modi has had his aggressive 'Bhakts' quietening the seasoned 'Sanghis'.

Demagogy and charismatic appeal came naturally to both Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. They both are seen by millions of Indians as saviours amid a bunch of power-hungry leaders as they appeal to commoners for their support.

Both Indira and Modi ran into obstacles halfway into their winning term. The oil shock of 1973, high inflation and unemployment resulted in the JP Movement that led to the imposition of Emergency in 1975. Modi's demonetisation of high-value currency notes in November 2016 to curb tax evaders has not quite yielded a magnificent catch and talk of a 'Mahagathbandhan' (Grand Alliance) against Modi is reminiscent of the way opposition parties closed ranks against Indira Gandhi in the Emergency era.

Indira made the Prime Minister's Office a powerful extra-constitutional force. Modi has not done anything of that sort, but it is common knowledge in Delhi that he towers over the home and finance ministers and relies (like Mrs Gandhi did) on a bunch of chosen bureaucrats and advisors who act in stealth. 

Modi's call for discipline, his unstated disdain for media commentators, his not holding a news conference and his clutch of populist schemes ranging from 'Swacch Bharat' for hygiene to 'Ujwala' that provides cooking gas cylinders to poor women advertised in state-sponsored advertisements are eerily similar to the 1970s. 

Similarities do not necessarily mean the same agenda or circumstances. There was no private television, the internet or social media in the times of Mrs Gandhi. A rare cartoonist like RK Laxman lampooned Mrs Gandhi while a dozen celebrity stand-up comedians and hundreds of meme-makers are subjecting Modi to no-holds-barred humour. 

It would be a fascinating subject for future historians to study how strong personalities functioned in changing times, even as they stood for differing ideologies.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)