Unrelated coincidences have brought 2 past titans of Indian politics back in the debate: Indira Gandhi, because of the Emergency anniversary, and Jawahar Lal Nehru after former Congress Minister Saifuddin Soz’s claim that he saved Kashmir for India while Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was “adamant” on letting it go to Pakistan.
Both have also come under fresh criticism from the BJP. Indira Gandhi more than her father. Because Narendra Modi has made Emergency the centre-piece of his counter-attack on the Congress: Your grandmother imposed the Emergency, and you have the cheek to call me a dictator!
After Nehru and Indira, Modi is our first all-powerful national leader. We aren’t counting Rajiv Gandhi and Vajpayee here. One lost his sway too soon in his tenure, the other, although much loved and respected, didn’t have real power, within his own party. Modi is no Vajpayee. No two public figures could be so different, but let’s leave that discussion for another day.
Four years into his tenure now, it is evident that Modi is more Indira than Nehru. There is, however, a bit of both in him. That is why he continues winning elections like the other two. He has drawn from both, and not necessarily the best of their qualities. On the other hand, he might have picked some of their worst.
Modi does not look like he is about to lose 2019. There is a lot of unhappiness against his Government, but his personal popularity is, by and large, intact. Globally, you call politicians Teflon-coated if scams, criticism, even blunders do not stick on them. Modi, I prefer to describe as cast in Titanium instead. Distant as he might look from that 282 for 2019 at this point, once he goes seeking votes for himself, it will take something extraordinary to defeat him. Just like Indira and Nehru, at re-election time, he is making it a one-horse race.
He has drawn much from their playbooks to protect his personal popularity, but has that been the best for India? Nehru’s best attributes were his personal liberalism, respect for institutions, intellect and curiosity. He was a voracious reader and interacted globally with men and women with minds better than his. He was tolerant of disagreement, although not necessarily in his own party, and deeply respectful of Parliament and media freedoms. He also had a sense of ideology and morality (as he saw it) in his foreign relations. As a result he built institutions, had India punching above its weight until 1962, and restored social cohesion after the killings of 1947.
Nehru’s biggest negative was his woolly-headed Left-of-Centre view of the economy, an exaggerated notion of his own moral authority at home and in the world, obsession with global summiteering and smiling at cameras with fellow heads of state. He showed surprising inability to differentiate India’s strategic interests from optics. He was chasing the utopia of Panchsheel while the Chinese were grabbing Indian territory: not salami-slicing as is the norm now, but gulping down big chunks like Diwali ki mithai.
Indira Gandhi’s best qualities were her deeply secular instinct, ability to redefine Indian foreign policy predominantly in terms of its immediate strategic interest in the neighbourhood. She inherited Nehru’s scientific temper and fully supported the Green Revolution. Which, you wonder, could have been possible in these paranoid times when Dr Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led UPA Government shunned the latest breakthrough – genetically modified seeds which are to global farming what hybrids were 50 years ago. On national defence, she was a big picture leader. That’s why she waited until she was ready to win decisively in 1971 instead of rushing in and making day-to-day tactical issues with Pakistan central to her domestic political rhetoric. She wasn’t open to criticism, but was never talent-averse. That’s why she built a stellar team of advisors, until most fell out because of the Emergency.
On the flip side, she was dictatorial and driven by power. She finished most of the political talent, older and young within her party – K Kamraj to DK Barooah as party president underlines this. She was cavalier in her approach to institutions, unleashed awful economic populism, took the peak income tax rate to 97% and turned Nehru’s already gooey idea of mixed economy into a pucca licence-quota raj, nationalising large sectors, from finance to coal to petroleum, and played with the agricultural economy (and burnt her fingers). She also left an unhappy, insecure and resentful neighbourhood.
Take a close look at Modi’s 4 years now. Check where he looks like Nehru or Indira and where he doesn’t. He certainly looks as personally popular as both at this point in his tenure. He has great global presence and first-name acquaintance with many world leaders. His personal integrity is beyond reproach. In a broader sense, he has the same magisterial sway over pan-national public opinion as the other two. He’s given India a new confidence, Indians have a renewed swagger.
At the same time, his economics is more socialist than Nehru’s, almost as populist as Indira’s. He hasn’t nationalised any sector (although he has failed to denationalise Air India), but he is renationalising much, in a manner of speaking. He is simply getting one public sector company to acquire another, thereby using these as his off-balance sheet milch cows. If the economic statistics do not look good, he isn’t disinclined to have them dressed up. Like both Indira and Nehru, he is deeply statist. He believes nothing is wrong with the Government, if you know how to run it: like him. The Government, therefore, is becoming bigger, more intrusive.
His Chief Ministers are hand-picked nobodies, the party is fully dependent on him for votes. His obsession with summiteering rivals Nehru’s but his approach to foreign relations is transactional. It hasn’t worked. Our big-power ties are wobbly. Our neighbourhood is stressed again and we are left with just one friend: Bangladesh.
Further, if UPA bowed to a Left Luddite gallery on GM seeds, he is surrendering to the loony, xenophobic swadeshis of the Right. We aren’t sure he reads very much, or has time for people with intellect and fame in their specific fields. His Government is the most talent-averse in our history yet, even having got rid of the few good, professional economists it had. Most problematic: our political discourse has degenerated into non-stop abuse and accordingly, social cohesion is stressed.
Draw a line at the bottom of this balance sheet, add and subtract, assign what weightage you wish to each factor. I leave it to you then to decide whether Modi has drawn the best, or the worst attributes of Nehru and Indira. I must qualify again, the best qualities in a leader do not necessarily win you a re-election. Check out the fate of Vajpayee circa 2004.
(By special arrangement with The Print)