This article was originally published on June 3, 2018. It is being republished on November 19, 2018 to mark Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary.
When Congress president Rahul Gandhi attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for undermining the independence of every institution in the country – he was speaking in the context of last month’s Karnataka power play – the BJP hit back by reminding him about the Emergency and the sins of his grandmother, Indira Gandhi.
There was an irony in this exchange which each side is loath to accept: Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi are looking increasingly like two sides of the same coin. Surprised by the comparison? Here are ten things the two leaders have in common.
1. Pliant president and governors
Indira Gandhi used and abused the position of governor to place her favourites in the states, and use them to break governments on flimsy grounds, as seen in the cases of Ajoy Mukherjee’s United Front government in West Bengal in 1969 and N.T Rama Rao’s government in Andhra Pradesh in 1984. The dismissal of E.M.S Namboodiripad’s government in Kerala was ordered by Nehru, but on the advice of his politically precocious daughter.
Modi has used his governors to deny the single largest party in several states the opportunity to come to power, as seen in Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Last month, he used the governor again to try and ensure the single largest party, his own BJP, came to power in Karnataka. Diametrically opposite moves, no public morality, and the interpretation of the constitution changing at will.
Indira Gandhi chose pliant party leaders as presidents, be it Giani Zail Singh who infamously used to open the car door for her, or Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who was used to endorse the 19-months long Emergency. Modi has placed BJP loyalists as president and vice-president.
2. Scant regard for parliament and constitution
Indira Gandhi brought in maximum amendments to the law and constitution to consolidate her position and ideology, strengthen the centre at the cost of federalism, and curtail the freedoms of citizens. She maintained a limited presence in parliament and even cabinet ministers used to find out about many decisions (Emergency and bank nationalisation being two important ones) after these were taken.
Modi has even less regard for parliament. He got more than 40 Bills passed, including the Union budget in the last session, without a discussion. Many decisions, including demonetisation etc., were taken first by the prime Minister and his inner circle and only then shared with the cabinet and legislature. In the last session of parliament, the speaker, another Modi loyalist, ensured the opposition’s proposed no-confidence motion could not be taken up.
3. Compromised RBI, banking system and crony capitalism
Indira Gandhi nationalised the banks, had the Reserve Bank of India governor at her beck and call. She took currency-related decisions unilaterally. Crony capitalists such as the Birlas, Tatas and Mafatlals ruled the roost in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Modi demonetised 86% of the currency in circulation on the plea of curbing black money, breaking the backbone of terror finance, bringing in the digital economy and killing fake currency. None of these have been achieved wholly or majorly, and equal or more cash is back in the economy, with no end to cross-border or internal terror. The RBI’s autonomy lies in tatters. Business groups like the Ambanis, Adanis and Ruias rule the roost today.
4. Invoking the Pakistan bogey
Indira Gandhi used the threat of Pakistan to keep her hold on power, and even after a successful battle for the independence of Bangladesh, which was highly admired domestically, she kept the bogey alive. She used hatred towards Pakistan to win elections in India.
Modi has used the Pakistan fear psychosis throughout, in spite of paying a sudden visit to Nawaz Sharif’s house and inviting its intelligence agency ISI to Pathankot for an on-ground investigation into the attack on an Indian air base. Cross-border surgical strikes were publicised with aplomb, but there has been no decline in cross-border attacks. And Pakistan is dragged in to every election campaign; Modi even went to the extent of making the ludicrous allegation that former prime minister Manmohan Singh had sought Pakistan’s help to win the Gujarat polls. Needless to say, the wild allegation died its natural death the day the polls were over, only to be revived again in Karnataka.
5. Demanding a loyal judiciary and military leadership
Indira Gandhi ensured a pliant Supreme Court, making Justice A.N Ray the Chief Justice of India by superseding three others, and placing her favourite army generals at top positions out of turn. Her regime ensured higher court postings based on the history of the judges.
At least nine high courts pronounced that even after the declaration of an Emergency, a person could challenge his detention. The Supreme Court, then under the Justice Ray, over-ruled all of these, upholding the state’s plea for power to detain a person without the necessity of informing him/her of the reasons/grounds of arrest or, to suspend his/her personal liberties or, to deprive him/her of right to life, in an absolute manner (the habeas corpus case).
Today, Supreme Court judges have hinted at government pressure, pointing to the erratic allocation of sensitive cases resented. Delaying the appointment of judges is another form of leaning on the judiciary; former CJI T.S. Thakur raised this problem several time. That Justice K.M Joseph was denied an SC berth due to his earlier judgements being critical of the government is an open secret.
The Modi government also promoted army chief Bipin Rawat out of turn, and he is proving to be useful in his politico-military positioning in Kashmir, which is unprecedented.
6. Press and citizens’ freedoms
Indira Gandhi had scant regard for freedom of the press in particular, and citizens’ political freedom in general. She declared the Emergency, curtailing citizens’ fundamental rights and severely limiting press freedom. Students’ political rights were severely curtailed and a reign of terror was unleashed on campuses by her government in the mid-1970s.
Modi is known to have compromised the media even more, ignoring them in sharing any information they seek beyond whatever is dished out, use media owners to ensure the absence of critical coverage, and is now said to be attempting to limit the freedom of the online media, apart from heavily blunting the RTI Act by denying information on grounds of sensitivity and national interests.
Though Modi has not yet declared an Emergency, socio-political tensions among communities are at their worst today due to lynching and lumpenism on issues like beef or cow trade, ghar-wapsi claims, love-jihad conflicts, the ruling party standing with rapists in some states, etc. The politics of vengeance has led to continuous conflicts on university campuses and sensitive areas, including Jawaharlal Nehru University, Allahabad University, Hyderabad Central University and Aligarh Muslim University.
7. PMO equals government
In spite of the presence of a few stalwart ministers like Y.B Chavan, Indira Gandhi was often referred to as ‘the only man’ in her cabinet. She brooked no challenge and often took decisions first and asked the cabinet to endorse it later.
Modi neither has stalwarts in his cabinet who have risen from the grassroots and can stand up in front of him, nor is the treatment of his cabinet any different from Indira Gandhi’s. By handing over key portfolios to average favourites, silencing potential challengers and suffering from the lack of quantity and quality of ministers, Modi has fine-tuned the art of being a one-man government and the PMO as the single-most powerful centre of authority, just as Indira Gandhi did with her PMO.
8. Undermining the functioning of institutions
The next similarity between the two is the way they treated the Election Commission of India (ECI). Chief election commissioners in the Indira era were known to work on PMO instructions. Today, based on questionable decisions on the timing of the Gujarat poll announcement and the failure to apply the model code of conduct in letter and spirit, the independence of the ECI stands compromised.
Indira Gandhi and Modi have effectively used the ‘caged parrot’ – the Central Bureau of Investigation – and also the Enforcement Directorate and Intelligence Bureau to intimidate opponents. The difference is that then, on the receiving side were the ideological forefathers of the BJP, some regional forces and the communists; while the aggrieved ones today are Congress and regional party leaders.
In her unabashed pursuit of unlimited power, Indira Gandhi ruthlessly weakened almost all the constitutional institutions, including the judiciary, the legislature and executive – the Supreme Court, parliament, the collective responsibility of cabinet, the office of the president, the steel frame of the bureaucracy – and even the fourth estate (the media). Her aim was to get everyone else to toe her line or serve her agenda. This is why even some of her very positive actions, like the nationalisation of banks and other industries or the abolition of the unpopular privy purses still had an adversarial ring and the authoritative streak in those decisions led to avoidable controversies and criticism.
India is currently going through a similar decline in the independence and efficacy of all institutions and sources of constitutional authority, while no lokpal has yet been appointed and no probes have been initiated into several alleged cases of corruption, like the Birla-Sahara diaries, the PDS scam in Chattisgarh, etc.
9. The cult of personality
Indira Gandhi effectively used the slogan, “They want Indira out, I want poverty out.” Modi uses this with aplomb, “They want Modi out, I want corruption out.” The larger than life image, using media to the hilt (and in today’s context, social media), blending lies and factoids to create a godly image, etc, are hallmarks of the personal styles of both Indira Gandhi and Modi. She got her party president D.K Barooah to say, “Indira is India, India is Indira”. Modi gets his alter ego to lead the party and work on his agenda with no questions asked. Both the Prime Ministers used the bogey of stability and a strong leadership as their raison d’ etre of seeking and being in power. Every public event he attends, the chanting of “Modi, Modi’ is organised.
10. Impact on opposition politics
With similar scenarios in the mid-1970s and late 2018, it is no surprise that Modi has triggered similar opposition politics. Political parties across the country have mooted the idea of a common fight against the BJP in the next election.
The author is an academic who has served as dean of various media institutes.
Note: This article has been edited to correct the reference to Jyoti Basu as the chief minister of West Bengal whose government Indira Gandhi had dismissed. It was, in fact, Ajoy Mukherjee.