Is Narendra Modi the New Indira Gandhi? Not Really

What set her apart was her genuine compassion and empathy for the poorest citizens of India.

This article was originally published on December 5, 2016.It is being republished on October 31, 2019 to mark Indira Gandhi’s assassination 35 years ago.

From the time he became the prime minister of India, many pundits and analysts have compared Narendra Modi to Indira Gandhi. For the critics, Modi has the same disregard for institutions and a similar tendency to over-centralise, while some supporters and even ‘neutral’ analysts tend to point to his alleged resoluteness when it comes to taking difficult decisions. These were the hallmarks of the late Indian prime minister, who is now recalled as someone who imposed her will not just on her own party colleagues but also a hapless country, and not often for the best reasons.

It is not a comparison Modi would particularly mind. Much as he and his party dislike – detest is a more accurate word – the Nehru-Gandhi family and would like to obliterate them from the nation’s memory, they have a deep admiration for Gandhi. They see her as tough and no-nonsense, with no time for self-doubt or wishy-washy concerns for democratic niceties. They admire her nationalism and at a pinch will even claim she was a true Hindu. And of course, they remember how she dismembered Pakistan, something that every Sanghi yearns to do. The BJP has a declared policy of making India a “Congress-mukt” country and the government has done its utmost to wipe out Jawaharlal Nehru from institutions if not from public consciousness, but they have been less aggressive in downgrading the woman whom their tallest leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee called Durga.

Yet, any attempt to equate the two is glib and facile. It is also self-serving. Cherry picking a few attributes to build a case is fine as it goes, but runs the danger of reducing a great leader to no more than a caricature. Gandhi made many mistakes, including some horrendous ones with far-reaching consequences, and was a deeply flawed personality, but there were sides to her as a person and a politician which are sorely missing today.

For all her imperiousness and ruthlessness, Gandhi was totally secular and she also showed great compassion for the poor and the downtrodden. She had personal connect with them, of the kind barely visible in the current leadership. She reached out to the poor not just for votes, but because she felt for them and they reciprocated. She was at her best not in chambers of commerce but with the old, the weak and the indigent in the vast hinterlands of India. Her father, though very good with the masses, still retained a patrician air; Indira Gandhi immediately established a bond with them at an individual level. That kind of intimate relationship cannot be learnt or cultivated; it is inherent, stemming from a genuine empathy. Nor can simplicity – in thought, deed and even clothes – be faked; the people can see through it.

As we cope with the harrowing aftermath of an ill-thought out, ill-planned decision that has left this country reeling, it is also important to recall that bank nationalisation – an economic big bang policy of Gandhi’s – did not strike at the poor but at the rich, who had turned banks into their private treasuries. No ordinary citizen was harmed by it; if anything, it benefited the small businessman and also resulted in the expansion of the banking system to reach out to the remotest corners of the country. That these same banks have been milked by businessmen, with the active connivance of politicians, is a bitter irony. The nationalisation of banks and oil companies and the withdrawal of privy purses were steps that rattled the elites and pleased the ordinary citizens; it is the other way round as far as demonetisation is concerned.

Those measures and Gandhi’s slogan of ‘garibi hatao’ have often been referred to as blatant political exercises, part of the leftward turn that she took to move away from the Syndicate and establish herself and her party as the true representatives of the masses. But all politicians tend to look for maximisation of political impact – the question is what they do to achieve it. In the current climate, the effort is to reach out to the growing and very vocal cohort of the middle-classes whose own aspirations have drowned out the needs of all others, especially the huddled masses. The continued emphasis on how it is imperative that every citizen immediately gets himself or herself a smartphone and an internet connection and join the cashless economy, rather than sympathise with the difficulties millions of people are going through, reflects a delusionary attitude that can only come from complete alienation with ground realities and disinterest in the lives of the poor.

Gandhi too came a cropper when she lost touch with the country. Self-protection became her primary concern and she took the ultimate step of imposing emergency and curtailing fundamental rights. The people, rightly, punished her. Hubris and a cavalier disregard for citizens and their welfare always ends badly.

Anyone wanting to emulate her should know that her legacy is not just about the headline-grabbing events, such as the Emergency or the Indo-Pak war, but also includes her love for her fellow citizens, especially the voiceless and the powerless. If she is remembered by the people of India, it is because they know that she felt their pain and hurt and genuinely wanted to do something to alleviate it. Anyone wanting to emulate her would do well to remember that.