Of late, a lot of comparisons are being made between Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi. They are so similar (read dictatorial), both brook no interference and do not suffer fools gladly, we are told.
While that might be true on the surface, I am coming to the conclusion that imperiousness is where the similarity ends. Modi is not a patch on Mrs Gandhi’s political acumen and, the Maharashtra experience tells me, he has not yet learnt how to cover his flanks. I began my career towards the end of Mrs Gandhi’s life and times – my first ‘encounter’ with her was in Assam in 1983 where she had flown in soon after the Nellie massacre in which hundreds of Muslims had been killed. Her concern for people of all communities in the state — and indeed the country— was clearly visible in the manner in which she took the then governor to task for allowing the massacres to happen. It would be difficult to quote her verbatim but definitely there were no “puppy” comparisons. She said, ‘What assurances you think I am going to be able to give these people given your administration slept through the massacres?’ The governor turned green at the gills at her public tongue lashing.
The one major mistake she perhaps made was to publicly snub the then Andhra Pradesh chief minister T Anjaiah, who was much of a buffoon — she, as I said, did not suffer fools gladly — and that led an outraged NT Rama Rao to form his Telugu Desam Party — the rest, as they say, is history.
But why I recall her now is because of something my professor of political science had told us while at university – that Mrs Gandhi, while autocratic, never quite let anyone down completely. “She always played a cat and mouse game with both her opponents and party men. Like a cat, she will pick the mouse up in her paws but not drop him from a height. Instead she will let him down gently on the ground so that if she ever needed him again she could pick him up again and the mouse will be so grateful for a) not having been eaten up and b) for being of use to her again that he will fall over himself to do her bidding.’’
That clearly is not the case with Modi — the manner in which the Shiv Sena was betrayed just before the Maharashtra assembly elections clearly suggests that Modi believed he could well afford to discard a long-time ally with such impunity. But now, not for want of trying, the BJP has been unable to break up the Shiv Sena and has had to both climb down its high horse and eat humble pie. But, to quote a former cabinet secretary from the Maharashtra cadre, Mrs Gandhi never disregarded anybody’s importance. When a particular situation in Maharashtra needed deeper understanding and the bureaucrats expected her to send a minister to co-ordinate, she decided to send her son (Rajiv Gandhi) who, of course, did not know much about the state but nevertheless charmed the bureaucrats by his willingness to learn. She later told the bureaucrats, “I knew you (bureaucrats) would take care of his (Rajiv’s) inexperience. But I needed the message to go across that I am taking this (the matter) very seriously. My son’s presence there would work the way an indifferent Cabinet minister’s won’t.’’
Her emissaries always suited the occasion and the people they were dealing with — unlike the BJP which despite knowing how prickly Uddhav Thackeray is about his status and self-respect sent two relative non-entities from the state and the Centre to negotiate with the Shiv Sena. No wonder these emissaries could strike only an ‘80%’ deal with the party, I am convinced that Uddhav is waiting for 20% more respect to be shown to him by appointing some more senior interlocutors before the deal is finally clinched.
It was always evident that it was not going to be easy for the BJP to rid itself of the Shiv Sena. Modi, then, should have dealt with Uddhav more gently – for he is no mouse but a cat himself. He can scratch!