Monday, February 6, 2023
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It’s Indira Gandhi’s 1974 in India again, but Modi faces a harsh new reality

CAA-NRC-NPR has divided India like nothing in decades, and the world is disappointed, if not critical. The stakes for Modi are higher than for Indira Gandhi.

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In the non-stop hail of worsening economic indicators, one stands out. That the unemployment levels today are the worst they’ve been in 45 years. They take us right back to 1974.

Indira Gandhi was still popular but some disillusionment was building up. Yet, even disappointed voters were caught in a ‘There Is No Alternative’ trap. All economic indicators were in free fall, inflation was at almost 35 per cent, and yet, nationalism was still rampant and high.

Sounds familiar? Barring inflation, much else looks, sounds and feels more than a bit like 1974. A phenomenally popular leader, with a party of unquestioning followers, a broken opposition, a nationalist high, and never mind an economy in free fall and crippling joblessness. India isn’t just a land of paradoxes, it is capable of producing the same mega paradox twice within a generation, under radically different ideologies.

Let’s explore a little backwards, to 1971. Early in the year, Mrs Gandhi had won a famous election, defeating the formidable old guard of the Congress she had just broken up, in spite of the fact that all opposition parties had joined hands against her.

In early 1971, she was riding the ‘Garibi Hatao’ pink populism. By the end of the year, she was ‘Maa Durga’ incarnate, having defeated and dismembered Pakistan. She could walk on water.

The twin-engined populism of socialism and nationalism, however, was masking the harsher realities of India. The economy was already collapsing under the weight of her maniacal nationalisations, entrepreneurs were fleeing an invasive licence-quota raj, super-high taxation (97.5 per cent ultimately) created the black economy that still hasn’t been defeated and the expense of the war didn’t help. But remember, political fortunes are determined not by statistics, but the mood or what we call the ‘hawa’.

Also read: Why Indians aren’t protesting against rising unemployment

It was in 1971 that poet-lyricist Gulzar made his first film, Mere Apne. It was built around Meena Kumari, a poor and abandoned old woman in a city who becomes a central figure of affection and refuge for a bunch of young men played by some who’d become big names later. They have degrees, aspirations, but no jobs and nothing to do except while away time in desperate hopelessness, play some pranks, or get into street fights.

But they could laugh at themselves, and Gulzar wrote for them the anthem for those years of decline: “Haal chaal theek thaak hai…” Play it, listen to the lyrics. Almost every line would make you pause and figure out why I take you back there.

Sample: “BA kiya hai, MA kiya, lagta hai woh bhi aiwein kiya/kaam nahin hai varna yahan, aapki dua se baaki theek-thaak hai…” (We’ve got our BA/MA degrees, looks like it was all a waste/there’s no job, nothing to do, yet, with your benevolence all’s well with the world.) Gulzar might as well have written it for 2019. Or he can re-release it and pretend he just wrote it. You wouldn’t know.

Before we discuss how we got here from the world-conquering optimism of 2014, it is instructive to see how India and Indira Gandhi reached the collapse of 1974 from the high of 1971. That March 1971 landslide and the destruction of all opposition was so heady, she and her deeply ideological (of the chic Left) advisers kept sinking ever deeper into toxic socialism.

Then, when India’s economy was at its most vulnerable, two Black Swan events struck. One, the Yom Kippur war (October 1973) and the resulting oil shock was beyond her control. The second — nationalisation of wholesale wheat trade — she wrought upon herself. Her Communist cabal said if it works in the Soviet Union, it shall work here. It didn’t.

A disaster followed, with wheat prices rising, farmers furious, traders and private rural middlemen jobless. It could have become her equivalent of Mao’s war on the sparrows of China. Alarmed, she reversed it, but too late. By the last quarter of 1974, India’s inflation peaked at 34.7 per cent, and Mrs Gandhi’s popularity had declined deeply. Protests, Navnirman Andolan, all essentially comprising jobless youth and angry students, broke out nationwide. Sounds familiar and a bit more current?

Pushed to the wall, Mrs Gandhi fell back on her tested old ploy: Nationalism. First came the Pokhran-1 nuclear test (May 1974). That euphoria lasted only a few weeks, as people by now were hurting deep down. The last throw of the dice was the integration of Sikkim, in May 1975. But angry people were not willing to go back from the pickets. A month later, we ended up with the Emergency.

Once again, because you need to qualify and idiot-proof everything these days, I am not suggesting or predicting we will end up that way again. My point is minimal for now: That once people have suffered joblessness and economic stall for a length of time, nationalism will no longer calm their anger.

At which point we take you back to the movies again because, we well know that our film-makers can sniff the popular mood, their market, before any of us pundits can. After Mere Apne came the era of films like Shor, Roti Kapda aur Makaan and others woven around the theme of poverty, exploitation, price rise (“Baaki kuchh bacha toh mehengai maar gayi” was a mega hit), and the jobless underdog as protagonist. Again, this later dovetailed neatly into the ‘Angry Young Man’ phase. But I am not going there at this point.

Where do you think did this repeat of history began? Some of you might think it was the victory in the latest general elections, despite a declining economy, that made the Modi government smug. If people vote for us despite the messed-up economy, it means all they need is a constant socio-nationalist high. You can fortify it further with religion. So, rather than go all-hands-on-the-deck with the economy, unleash Article 370, the Temple, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Never mind that economic data is looking worse by the quarter.

Would you consider, instead, putting this calendar back somewhere early in Modi’s first term and the twin blow of ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ and defeat over that too-early-in-the-day land acquisition law?

Modi immediately shifted direction to more nationalism, deep socio-populism, and to being a corruption fighter. Demonetisation was the first of his self-wrought Black Swan events. This CAA-NRC-NPR jumble looks like his second. One, because it divides the country as nothing else did in decades. Second, because it has drawn total global disappointment, if not direct criticism, and you can’t just toss it now. We live in a globalised world where India’s stakes are different from 1974. And third, because unlike Mrs Gandhi’s heyday, India is now governed federally. You can’t order chief ministers around. Or fire them using Article 356.

Where do we go from this back-to-1974 feel now? We know where Mrs Gandhi took us by the summer of 1975. The choice lies with Narendra Modi. Just that, even if he’s more popular and powerful than Mrs Gandhi then, it is a very different world — and India — than in 1975.

Also read: No slowdown for these sectors — millennials are spending and pushing growth


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  1. It is not going to help BJP by arresting and putting oppositional political leaders behind bars. Younger generation less than 30 years is over 50% of India’s popultaion and they didn’t experience anthing that happened before 1990 and this generation reacts differently comapred to older generation and don’t have patience when things are actually going in the wrong direction. So Mod-Shah have to fight on two fronts politcal & economic. Both politcal and economic crisis are self goal by BJP govt.
    What do think will be third Black Swan event?
    1. Some nationalist event or skirmishes on the border war to unite Indians under the flag of nationalism
    2. Undeclared emergency in some parts of India other than J&K in addition increased targeted dissent control
    3. Some harsh economic measures

  2. Currently all Modi haters are painting Modi with the color of their choice. For people on the streets the resultant picture looks like an Holi Festival event. For Modi haters the resultant picture has become a modern art that each of them is interpreting according to the level of hatred for Modi. The final outcome is more votes for Modi, more hypocrisy of Modi haters being exposed.

    • Your comment does not answer any of Shekar’s comments. It just shows your angst that your God is being made the devil. And even if he gets more votes, that only means that people are still gullible to believe in hyper nationalism and divisive politics.

      • Firstly vote is vote …equality that you have forgotten. Secondly democracies dont make mistakes that you are imagining…hitler did not win election and was neither re elected….Rahul and Sonia though thoroughly beaten are back and people are supposed to suck up to it…

  3. I am a witness of Emergency and also took part in JP agitation which due to one mistake of JP himself (arranging a ticket for Lalu in lok sabha elections by veto) inspite of late S. N. Sinha opposing it made a mockery of our efforts Lalu a product of it in Hotwar Jail for 25 yrs. 2nd such agitation you forgot has delivered Arvind Kejriwal. I saw Mere Apne and Roti kapada during my student life. The strength of Modi is he is not a dynast and he has no family. Economy can be made OK by selling selected PSUs made to suck our blood due to Soviet influence on Indira Gandhi post 1969 Breznev era. We are facing the trail of her mistakes ultimately we will have to take back all Hindus of Pakistan and may be Bangla Desh. Corrupt dynasts are no future of this great country but Modi shall be open to healthy criticism.

  4. These hacks can draw parallels with anything — even something which happened in 3000 BC. Except for the Print ,whose cash it seems has run out, since they are now resorting to aggressive ads which completely block the screen green shoots of recovery is clearly visible.
    Next December the discussion will be on whether the dramatic turnaround will be sustainable — from of course Gupta and his curmudgeon gang.

  5. Gupta Jee is batting hard for Congis. He has lost so many benefits he used to take for granted. It is obvious he misses his regular foreign trips on taxpayers money. He find s faults in everything Modi does.

      • You need to re-read and realise that it not something profound he has written. First, Modi is not Indira, whose only success was dismemberment of Pakistan. That is all. Modi, in contrast is doing more than all his predecessors put together, except Nehru, who can be credited to lead building of a robust institutional infrastructure for India.

    • Didn’t you just see his criticism of Indira Gandhi? How is that batting for Congress? Why do you Modi supporters not answer to the points raised in the article instead of name calling and such things?

  6. When it is coming up as dynasties vs Modi (now even in Maharashtra) . So as per writer people will side with dynasty..meh … well some logic. It looks like 2014 rather than 1974. Opposition needs good economy more than BJP now both to come to power and to stay there. BJP has learnt enough from India shining but not opposition from 2014.

  7. While comparisons look matched, the personalities involved (both in ruling party and opposition), state of the nation (read societal progress, both economical and political) and overall institutional growth (Incl media, judiciary, other arms of governance) is quite different. End result this time will most likely be quite different and un-predictable than what happened in 70s.

    Chances are that the most of the protests although real and big, the impact is overblown. There is a sizeable majority who is watching silently and currently understanding the issue. BJP govt is also trying to see how to and which way the opinion is to be moulded. This is the reason why Congress has not jumped whole-heartedly into it as they are measuring up the mood. This may not be the continuous story of slide down and Modi-Shah will change or try to change the script. Relative silence of few weeks, have yielded a directional/script change as previous experience show. Brace up for some big announcements in 2-3 months

  8. Shekhar Jee

    I read your articles with lot of interest and have watched cut the clutter regularly. With no hesitation, I admit that I have gained from watching those.

    However, this one has missed your comments on several of the key points put forth by BJP for bringing in CAA and NPR. Please let us know:
    1. Whether Gandhi, Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and other prominent leaders promised anything to hindus and sikhs of Pakistan?
    2. Whether Manmohan Singh sought protection for Hindus and sikhs in Parliament?
    3.Whether NPR was brouht in by UPA?
    4. Whether countries all over the world have some sort of citizen count?
    5. if aadhar card can be issued to 125 crore Indians, how they become illiterate to provide the names of their parents?
    6. How have you ascertained that the protest is widespread?My reading is MODI ji wants this to become widespread.
    7. Why no owaisi like figure emerges in pakistan and BanglaDesh for Hindus and sikhs? Should we also abandon them?
    8. How to resettle Pandits back in valley? I believe this will create a lot of goodwill, what do you think?


  9. There is no comparable situation now with situation in 1974 or 75. Emergency was imposed to imprison the leaders of all opposition party s leaders who were asking madam Indira ji to resign as her election was declared null and void by the Allahabad High Court due to election mal-practises. and then Government of the day unleashed a programme of terror to deny people even basic human rights as conferred by the Constitution of India. If she was thinking of any national interest , she would have come out with some economic package in 1973 or 1974 when alarm bells were ringing. There are crores of Indian still alive who were witness to wrong doing and actual reason thereof. That generation is not all dead so soon. Please do not spread mis – information .

  10. Disclaimer: I am neither a bhakt nor an anti-bhakt. I want to see my nation (and therefore, its people) to make sicial and economic progress during my life-time. Period.

    During the last UPA stint, 82K illegal Bangladeshis were deported. During 2013 to 2017, NDA managed to deport 1,800 Bangladeshis. Also, during their respective regimes, foreigners applied for Indian citizenship and some may have been granted that too. Short point: laws exist for both (a) deporting illegal aliens and (b) granting citizenship to foreigners. So where is the need for amending those laws? And even if there is a need to amend the law, why now when there are so many unfulfilled promises to be kept?
    Why is HM saying one thing and PM saying another, on the same issue?
    Per a televised i/v of the HM, neither the passport nor the Aadhar card nor the PAN card nor the voter card will be entertained as proof of citizenship. Really??
    In that case, this govt itself needs to be dissolved because it was elected on the basis of voter cards which are not proof of citizenship. So some other alien electorate elected this govt.
    In that case, refund all the taxes paid because these taxes were collected under a PAN that is not recognized any more.
    In that case, punish the Ministry of External Affairs for granting passports that will not be recognized as proof of citizenship.

    The central govt has no money to pay the states, the GST refund amounts, which legitimately belong to the states. So instead of working on Roti, Kapdaa and Makaan issues of people, this govt is working hard at diverting people’s attention from these issues.

    Finally, their math did not work out because the expected result was widespread communal riots whereas the actual result was the beginning of a mass movement where common people who understood these issues started protesting, albeit, unorganised-ly. Now, we can see those in power running helter-skelter to contain the damage.

  11. “Second, because it has drawn total global disappointment, if not direct criticism, and you can’t just toss it now. We live in a globalised world where India’s stakes are different from 1974.“ – Interesting statement but more interesting are the facts from around the world (if we care so much) –

    (1) In spite of globalisation, the UK goes BREXIT. The EU leadership is disappointed (writing open letters) and the media and opposition keep repeating that the country is divided, yet the public votes overwhelmingly for a BREXITEER; (2) the US gets into trade war with China, upsetting the apple cart, with gold price zooming and uncertainty looming, but the world watches with patience; (3) China unleashes its state on Hong Kong and Uyghurs, with Western media screaming from top of the roof, yet OIC and Pakistan maintain a solid silence. Paradoxes galore in a global world, isn’t it?

    The key question is: Though discriminatory in the strict liberal sense, is CAA anti India’s muslims? The answer is NO.

    For once instead of pointing to the malaise of despair, explicitly suggest what kind of India you desire. However, when doing so, also acknowledge that India’s denominator (wrongly stated as demographic dividend) is just to high and unnecessarily growing; its way of life, offered by its beautiful democracy too chaotic; rule of law too weak; and politicians, irrespective of their background and education levels, too elitist and corrupt to even think about that haggard rickshaw wallah in Delhi who toils hard by transporting spoilt middle class, mall trawling fellow citizens adept at bargaining with him for few pennies, so that he can send a some measly rupees to his family back in Bihar. Last but not the least, question the erudite Manmohan Singh’s stint as PM and ask him how he could allow a chai wallah to replace him. Why was he so incompetent that public voted his party out, not once but twice.

    • CAA is not anti Indian Muslims but a combination of CAA with NRC is. Simple fact known to all. So this protest against CAA is vital as it will dissuade Modi-Shah duo from implementing NRC.
      No government should be allowed ignore India’s 220 million Muslims. It will completely tear apart our society. And yes I am Hindu from Assam but an Indian first.

      • I am not in disagreement with you on NRC. Perhaps these pre-emptive protests are necessary. However, the moot point is that if the leadership of collective opposition feels that Modi-Shah might do great damage to the social and political fabric of India, then it is their duty towards the people of India to initiate a no-confidence motion in the Parliament. That would be seen as the biggest and loudest protest. Yes, BJP has majority, but in a parliamentary democracy, no-confidence motion is the greatest symbol of protest by a responsible opposition. Perhaps this is the best opportunity to galvanise the support of BJP allies who are against NRC, and many other policies of this government. Now please don’t tell me that I am very simple and straightforward in my thought process.

        • I agree with you RR. But a leaderless Congress Party can’t be relied on to unite the opposition. As usual Rahul Gandhi missed the boat once again. We can only hope if this govt. tries to bring in NRC even after all the protests, its allies and the opposition stops it in the upper house.

    • some good points, but we need to consider that: 1) Boris Johnson, thereby Brexit are immensely helped by the incompetence of Jeremy Corbyn. This is similar to Modi being helped to some extent by the incompetence of Rahul Gandhi, 2) US and China are economically at a level where other countries stay quiet whatever they do. Examples; Invasion of Iraq or interfering in Libya by US and as you pointed out, treatment of Uyghurs and Hong Kong by China now. India is simply not there yet. Had we been growing at 8% or more rest of the world might have stayed quite or showed a bit more restraint, but at 4.5% growth there is no chance. Example, countries like Turkey and Malaysia are talking against abrogation of article 370 which is supposed to be internal matter of India (it can be argued by few though). They are simply not afraid of what India might do or economic implications of such action. This is the harsh reality that we have to face now.

      In my opinion, Congress misjudged the results of 2009, which were actually a result of votes for Manmohan Singh by urban middle class voters. Congress either mistakenly or intentionally projected it as vote for their social welfarism and doubled down on it, which in hindsight was a mistake. UPA-II is definitely marred by corruption, but to some extent it was exaggerated by CAG reports of Vinod Rai. We now know that the estimates of loss in 2G/3G or coal scams are simply high.

      All the complaints about India you mentioned are totally right. There is a need for change, but I don’t have a clue about how it will happen. If you look around in India, all the young leaders you see are either dynasts or caste based leaders. Just to make clear my view on caste based leaders, ideally this should not be happening , more than that I don’t believe that they can unite or lead whole society together. We have seen this in UP and Bihar. They tend to remain with their loyal base.

  12. 3. Uttar Pradesh deserves special mention. The CM was always a controversial choice. He has done nothing in the last three years to prove his sceptics / critics wrong. The manner in which the police have dealt with the protests, more specifically the Muslim community, pains and shames decent Indians. How the remaining part of the second term pans out, Lucknow will give us some of the answers. Either the gentleman stays, or he goes.

      • He is a gift of democracy to people like you! He is there because you deserve him! Don’t you ever forget that the democracy would ensure that you are governed no better than you deserve!

  13. 2. There was no wisdom / sagacity / statesmanship in the Shock and Awe programme, using the three hundred plus majority in the Lok Sabha. Kashmir – like Pakistan – has been a perennial problem. Instead of some kind of a political dialogue, the Cruise missile of 5th August. The CAA initiative which, it is now acknowledged, led to countrywide protests that the government and party did not foresee. A precipitate fall in India’s global standing. The promise of a pan Indian NRC that will cause havoc. One could see an element of Buyer’s remorse in the disappoint state Assembly results, which will strengthen going forward.

  14. The dominant emotion after winning a second term ought to have been overwhelming relief. The fact is that all the problems we see around us, led by the economy, were in full flower by then. There should have been a firm resolve to get done in the second term what was normally the agenda for the first and the second. A first rate economic team ought to have been selected, empowered to come up with a blueprint for reform and revival. Instead, recall the breezy a Budget, the formal speech all politics, no economics or even numbers.

  15. Shekhar is right as far as historical account of early 70s under Indira goes and of course, the Bollywood stories. To juxtapose that with India under Modi now, is totally disingenuous. NRC issue will be sorted by Modi soon. He will keep it off the table till 2024 during which his outreach to Muslims will continue and he will expose hypocrisy of the opposition parties on this issue. CAA will get implemented in the meanwhile so that main aim of BJP of giving nationalities to persecuted minorities from neighboring countries is achieved. NRC may get modified by some sort of amnesty and voluntary declaration scheme and its implementation related nightmare will be sorted. Modi will use division on this issue to his advantage soon and bring around Muslims. On economy, conditions are bad but not hopeless. Some indicators tell a depressing story but overall picture is still a pass grade. The next budget should tell us what Modi intends to do with economy and only after that, we can discuss if the economy will become a tight noose around his neck. Hold your horses, Shekhar in the meanwhile. Dilli abhi bahut door hai!

  16. I think you should have continued with how history went on. After a turbulent period of emergency when elections happened in 1977 Janta party along with most of opposition parties cobbeled together an alliance which threw Indira Gandhi out of power.

    However an alliance forged just to oppose someone or just to keep someone out of power looses steam and fractures appear once they achieve that aim. This too can be seen nowdays with many unlikely partners coming together to keep BJP out of power. Trouble is conflicting ideologies cannot stick together indefinetly and like Indira Gandhi did in 1980 just 3 years after ouster. Eventually the party with stronger idealogy will sweep back into power.

    Even if one were to loose a couple of election the ideology and the party will continue to make progress and keep spreading.

  17. Mere Apne was adopted from Tapan Sinha’s Bengali classic Apanjan. Be that as it may India largely votes on caste considerations, economy or jobs are secondary. Preventing undesirable caste leaders to come to power may be the utmost in the minds of opinion making classes.

  18. Very good article, According to me in1974 Indira Gandhi ‘s position quite difficult than Modi. Her challenges were different because the Bangladesh battle America was deadly against India, farm production was not in today’s condition, Economy was due to battle in poor status. So Modi can’t be considered on the same ground

  19. Let NRC happen with full use of technology ( portal/app/website/no manual intervention).

    People are afraid to stand in line, if that is taken care, there will be no issue.

    Let this topic of illegal immigrants close permanently.

    Country has other modern topic to address, but people should be ready to close legacy issues.

    Instead of this will happen, hell will happen, give solution.

    Everything will be ok

    • Reminder: 300 million Indians can’t read or write.

      Please give this pesky problem a thought before talking about Apps and Portals.

    • The cheapest, rational & more sustainable way of tackling the illegal Muslim immigrants from our neighbourhood is to constitute an agency, preferably under the Intelligence Bureau, with the mandate to verify, detain & prosecute illegal immigrants across the country. This way the campaign against these immigrants can be kept up for longer than the NRC which is a one-time activity. Govts which see these illegal immigrants as vote banks would continue to accommodate them in their states as TMC has been doing in West Bengal. It also means the huge one-time expense of a NRC-type exercise can be avoided which also seamlessly passing on this information to intelligence agencies. But we all know that NRC is meant to be a political exercise & an ideological statement. THe BJP & Modi have to extract themselves from this morass and tackle the problem of illegal Muslim immigration in earnest effectively.

  20. You are wrong. Only liberals, Muslims and Christians are against CAA + NRC. And they are 20% of the country. The remaining 80% is solidly with the government. Do not mistake silence for non-existence.

    • The only sensible part of your comment was the last sentence, “Do not mistake silence for non-existence” Remember that, bhakt.

    • 80% ? If you got that figure from the census data, you are wrong because that Census itself is a farce. At best, Modi & BJP have a 50-60% support of which practising Hindus comprise 99%. Of this 99%, pretty much everyone supports the CAA but NRC is unchartered territory. NRC requires documents that the illegal Muslim immigrants were able to procure through organized systemic support by vested interests. NRC wouldn’t be able to weed out illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants or the Rohingyas. Along with the agency-backed push, civilians must be involved in identifying these pockets of illegal immigrants which if done effectively could stamp out this phenomenon.

      • Make employment of all illegal immigrants illegal with an imposition of hefty fines. Even sheltering them in rented proprieties should invite the same punishment. And explore how the western and Arab countries treat illegal people.

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