In an article published in February 2013, I wrote that ‘neither Mr. [Narendra] Modi’s admirers nor his critics may like this, but the truth is that of all Indian politicians past and present, the person Gujarat Chief Minister most resembles is Indira Gandhi of the period 1971-77. Like Mrs Gandhi once did, Mr Modi seeks to make his party, his government, his administration and his country an extension of his personality.’
Let me now revisit that comparison. Take the question of making the party an extension of oneself. Before 1969, the Indian National Congress had thriving district and state units and many powerful leaders. But after Indira Gandhi split the Congress, the party became increasingly subordinated to her will (and whim). This was even reflected in its nomenclature — the ruling party was now known as Congress (I) with ‘I’ standing, of course, for Indira.
The Bharatiya Janata Party used to call itself the party ‘with a difference’. The BJP was opposed to the personalisation of political power that the post-Shastri Congress practised. The BJP claimed that, unlike its main political rival, it was not identified with a single individual. For many years it had a trinity of leaders with equal status — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani, and Murli Manohar Joshi. After the party came to power in New Delhi, the trinity became a duo, Vajpayee and Advani, known respectively as ‘Vikas Purush’ and ‘Loh Purush’, this a deliberate echo of the Nehru-Patel partnership of the first years of independence.
Like the pre-Indira Congress, the BJP also had influential leaders in states, and in trade unions and women’s organisations affiliated with it. And behind the BJP was the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. The RSS’s sarsanghchalak, as well as its general secretaries, played an important role in the BJP’s policy and practice. Indeed, it was this diversity of leaders and depth of organisation that allowed the BJP to state that it was different from the Congress, itself so pathetically dependent on a single leader — first Indira, then Rajiv, and finally Sonia.
Both the RSS and the BJP long inveighed against ‘vyakti puja’, the cult of personality, that being a feature of its opponents, whether the Congress or regional parties likewise dominated by a single individual. How archaic sounds that claim now! In the past year, Narendra Modi has stamped his will (and whim) on the BJP. His control of his party today easily equals the domination that Indira Gandhi exercised over the Congress following her electoral victory in 1971.
And much the same can be said about their relationship with the government they head. The story is told of how, before a visit made by Indira Gandhi to Washington, President Lyndon Johnson asked the Indian Ambassador how he should address her: ‘Madam’, or ‘Mrs Gandhi’? The query was passed on to the lady herself, who is said to have replied that most of her Cabinet colleagues called her ‘Sir’.
The story may be apocryphal, yet in essence it rings true. Her Cabinet colleagues were in awe of Mrs Gandhi, as, now, Mr Modi’s Cabinet colleagues are in awe of him. Our present prime minister’s decisiveness and air of authority is in sharp contrast to the unwarranted diffidence exhibited by his predecessor. At the same time, the concentration of power in his hands, and the identification of the government with himself in state publicity, is perhaps at variance with the spirit of the collegial, Cabinet system of governance mandated by our Constitution.
Which brings me, finally, to the identification of these two prime ministers, past and present, with the country itself. As Congress president Dev Kanta Barooah notoriously said, ‘Indira is India, and India is Indira.’ No BJP leader has gone so far yet, but Narendra Modi has on occasion indicated that he does see himself as the embodiment of the Nation. The claim that no previous prime minister has been as loved as he, or that only because President Obama looked him in the eye India stood tall in the world, bear echoes of speeches once made by Indira Gandhi of how she, and she alone, represented the present and future of the Indian Republic.
One final similarity is that each has had at their side a single individual who enjoys their confidence, who knows their mind, who executes their plans without being in the Cabinet himself. For Indira Gandhi, this sole confidant and utterly trustworthy second-in-command varied — between 1969 and 1974 it was PN Haksar, between 1974 and 1980 it was Sanjay Gandhi, and after 1981 it became Rajiv Gandhi. For Narendra Modi, it is Amit Shah, who, in terms of temperament and ability, may indeed be seen as a cross between PN Haksar and Sanjay Gandhi.
To be sure, the comparison between Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi breaks down at certain points. Mrs Gandhi benefited from being born in an influential political family, whereas Mr Modi is completely self-made. Mrs Gandhi believed in state control over the economy, whereas Mr Modi has more faith in private enterprise. Mrs Gandhi had an instinctive understanding of the cultural and religious diversity of India, whereas Mr Modi was reared in the homogenising school of Hindutva.
It is merely nine months since Narendra Modi became prime minister. His political evolution may yet take him in new and surprising directions. As an Indian democrat, I may be allowed to wish that, among other things, it takes him in the direction of Indira Gandhi’s social pluralism, and away from Indira Gandhi’s political authoritarianism.
(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed by the author are personal.)