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Modi draws the worst, dumps the best of Nehru & Indira Gandhi — and this might win him 2019

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Modi is deeply statist, just like Indira and Nehru. He believes nothing is wrong with the government, if you know how to run it: Like him.

Unrelated coincidences have brought two past titans of Indian politics back in the debate: Indira Gandhi, because of the Emergency anniversary, and Jawahar Lal Nehru, after former Congress minister Saifuddin Soz’s claim that he saved Kashmir for India while Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was “adamant” on letting it go to Pakistan.

Both have also come under fresh criticism from the BJP. Indira Gandhi more than her father. Because Narendra Modi has made Emergency the centre-piece of his counter-attack on the Congress: Your grandmother imposed the Emergency, and you have the cheek to call me a dictator!

After Nehru and Indira, Modi is our first all-powerful national leader. We aren’t counting Rajiv Gandhi and Vajpayee here. One lost his sway too soon into his tenure, the other, although much loved and respected, didn’t have real power, within his own party. Modi is no Vajpayee. No two public figures could be so different, but let’s leave that discussion for another day.

Four years into his tenure now, it is evident that Modi is more Indira than Nehru. There is, however, a bit of both in him. That is why he continues winning elections like them. He has drawn from both, but not necessarily the best of their qualities. He might have even picked some of their worst.

Modi does not look like he is about to lose 2019. There is a lot of unhappiness against his government. But his personal popularity is by and large intact. Globally, you call politicians Teflon-coated if scams, criticism, even blunders do not stick on them. Modi, I prefer to describe as cast-in-Titanium instead. That hasn’t changed. A repeat of 282 in 2019 might look distant at this point, but once he goes seeking votes for himself, it will take something extraordinary to defeat him. Just like Indira and Nehru, at re-election time, he is making it a one-horse race.

He has drawn much from their playbooks to protect his personal popularity (like them), but has that been the best thing for India?

Nehru’s best attributes were his personal liberalism, respect for institutions, intellect and curiosity. He was a voracious reader and interacted globally with men and women of minds better than his. He was tolerant of disagreement although not necessarily in his own party, deeply respectful of Parliament and media freedoms. He also had a sense of ideology and morality (as he saw it) in his foreign relations. As a result, he built institutions, had India punching above its weight until 1962 and restored social cohesion after the killings of 1947.

Nehru’s biggest negative was his woolly-headed Left-of-Centre view of the economy, an exaggerated notion of his own moral authority at home and in the world, obsession with global summiteering and smiling at cameras with fellow heads of state. He showed surprising inability to differentiate India’s strategic interests from optics. He was chasing the utopia of Panchsheel while the Chinese were grabbing Indian territory: No salami-slicing as is the norm now but gulping down big chunks like Diwali ki mithai.

Indira Gandhi’s best qualities were her deeply secular instinct, ability to redefine Indian foreign policy, predominantly in terms of its immediate strategic interest in the neighbourhood. She inherited Nehru’s scientific temper and fully supported the Green Revolution. Which, you wonder, if it could have been possible in these paranoid times when Dr Manmohan Singh’s Congress-UPA government shunned the latest breakthrough – genetically modified seeds that are to global farming what hybrids were 50 years ago.

On national defence, she was a big picture leader. That’s why she waited until she was ready to win decisively in 1971 instead of rushing in and making day-to-day tactical issues with Pakistan central to her domestic political rhetoric. She wasn’t open to criticism but was never talent-averse. That’s why she built a stellar team of advisors, until most fell out because of the Emergency.

On the flip side, she was dictatorial and driven by power. She finished most of the political talent, older and young within her party. K. Kamraj to D.K. Barooah as party president underlines this.

She was cavalier in her approach to institutions, unleashed awful economic populism, took top income tax to 97 per cent and turned Nehru’s already gooey idea of mixed economy into a pucca licence-quota raj, nationalising large sectors, from finance to coal to petroleum, raised tax rates and played with the agricultural economy (and burnt her fingers). She also left an unhappy, insecure and resentful neighbourhood.

Take a close look at Modi’s four years now. Check where he looks like Nehru or Indira and where he doesn’t. He certainly looks as personally popular as both at this point in his tenure. He has great global presence and first-name acquaintance with many world leaders. His personal integrity is beyond reproach. In a broader sense, he has the same magisterial sway over pan-national public opinion as the other two. He has given India a new confidence, Indians have a renewed swagger.

At the same time, his economics is more socialist than Nehru’s, almost as populist as Indira’s. He hasn’t nationalised any sector, failing with even Air India, but he is re-nationalising much, in a manner of speaking. He is simply getting one public sector company to acquire another, thereby using these as his off-balance sheet milch cows. If the economic statistics do not look good, he isn’t disinclined to have them dressed up. Like both Indira and Nehru, he is deeply statist. He believes nothing is wrong with the government, if you know how to run it: Like him. The government, therefore, is becoming bigger, more intrusive.

His chief ministers are hand-picked nobodies, the party is fully dependent on him for votes. His obsession with summiteering rivals Nehru’s but his approach to foreign relations is transactional. It hasn’t worked. Our big-power ties are wobbly. Our neighbourhood is stressed again and we are left with just one friend: Bangladesh.

Further, if UPA bowed to a Left Luddite gallery on GM seeds, he is surrendering to the loony, xenophobic swadeshis of the Right. We aren’t sure he reads very much or has time for people with intellect and fame in their specific fields. His government is the most talent-averse in our history yet, even having got rid of the few good, professional economists it had. Most problematic: Our political discourse has degenerated into non-stop abuse and accordingly, the social cohesion is stressed.

Draw a line at the bottom of this balance sheet, add and subtract, assign what weightage you wish to each factor. I leave it to you then to decide whether Modi has drawn the best, or the worst attributes of Nehru and Indira. I must qualify again, the best qualities in a leader do not necessarily win you a re-election. Check out the fate of Vajpayee, 2004.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. Modi is just a bigger election machinery than Indira and much tinier statesman than Nehru. There are Putinish traits in him. However, he is much less wily and deceitful than Sonia, and therefore will struggle to get a big mandate in 2019.

  2. Why Shekhar Gupta is two minds, can’t understand, it is not like him. I was initiated into reading blogs, opinions through his writings in Indian express, did not expect this from him, scared?

  3. Sad to see so many anti-nationals commenting on this. Your love for congress is too deep to come to the realisation that NaMo is the PM india has been waiting for since a long time. I hope you find peace !!

  4. The minute one starts comparing to past leaders the progress stops. There should be uniqueness in a successful leader only then real people will follow and that’s the path to success. The present party is only bad mouthing the past and there is nothing about their own achievement. Simply blaming the past will not get future benefits out of sympathy. Gone is the time of Sympathy.

  5. It is a crime to compare Modi with great great visionary leaders and statesmen like Nehru and Indies Gandhi.
    They are the leaders along with Shastri, Vajpaiji and manmohan Singh which brought this nation to this level from scratch.
    Modi did nothing more than dividing the nation on religion, destroyed a vibrant economy, and bashing congress all the time.
    It is a great insult to the country and the people , the scientists, the economists, and enterprising business community to say that there was no development in the last 60 years.
    He did get a developed and technologically developed India in a platter ,so that he can act tuff and also get respect globally.
    It’s not modi that get respect but the country that it is.
    It would have better if he could acknowledge the facts and give due and explain how he can take the nation forward with his policies.

  6. Rather than malign Nehru, let us frankly admit that Right Wing people like Syama Prasad Mookherjee, on becoming Industry’s minister, wanted a bigger role for the state. Indeed, coal could have been nationalised then itself but for the countervailing pressure of the US/UK upon whom we were more dependent then. Whether it was Deshmukh or TTK, whoever came to Delhi turned into a Statist. The US now acknowledges that its Aid money, and money from World Bank, was used to build Socialism in India! ‘Free money’ was the curse that pushed us down the road of dependency.
    No doubt, we also made some unique mistakes of our own but the fact is, as Nehru said, both the American and Soviet economic advisers were using the same type of mathematical growth theory to give the same counsel. Only later did we realise that it was cheaper and better to buy on the open market rather than get trapped into dependency.
    Consider the Planning Commission. Whether composed of Leftists or Conservatives it always gave the worst possible advice- even trying to stop Swaminathan’s hybrid seeds!

    Nehru, poor fellow, was quite well educated and so he was more easily fooled by Cambridge intellectuals. Mrs Gandhi however was prepared everything for her son. Massive nepotistic corruption and crony capitalism saved India from the intellectuals. Modi grew up seeing all this. He has never seen, as Nehru & Indira had seen, a political class which was not thoroughly corrupt and, often, criminalised to boot! How can he be ‘statist’ in the same way? Even in the Sixties there were plenty of Ministers and IAS officers who retired to live very modest lives. Where can such persons be found now?
    It is a different matter that India now faces an unprecedented agricultural crisis and that State Capacity must be built up so as to give displaced rural populations a soft landing. Modi has to ‘extend and pretend’ on the fiscal front but that means retaining the means to do so.

    Indira, bless her, took after her mother, not her father. She was deeply spiritual. She used the Leftists and discarded them ignominiously. Seeking Spiritual blessings not just from indigenous seers but also foreign Occultists (Foreign Secretary Rasgotra organised a conference of such Occultists for her after Sanjay died) Indira laid a religious basis for dynastic succession.
    Rajiv went one step further and stole the BJP’s clothes on the Ram Mandir issue. However, by then, the corruption of the dynasty was too blatant. They had to remain part of the system without trying to dominate it completely or else risk losing everything. They have to accept they can’t be autocrats but only ‘first among equals’ in an oligarchic set-up.

    Modi, poor fellow, has learnt for Vajpayee’s twilight. In his old age, only the RSS will keep him company. It is up to them whether he dies miserably, forgotten and unlamented, or as a cherished comrade who helped raise the Sangh to new heights. By itself, this consideration restrains any ‘statism’ on his part. Unlike Indira, or Nehru, babus hold him in no particular awe. He has promoted on the basis of ability- but promotion alone can’t satisfy a bureaucrat’s greed. Lateral entry is no solution.

    Short term, Modi has to build State Capacity but medium term this itself becomes a threat. Thus long term, he has to embrace subsidiarity. Even the Congress oligarchy saw no other way forward because how can you trust your bag-men not to loot you as well?

  7. Nehru governed the countryng from scratch. The British believed that India will collapse in its diversity. He was respected world wide. He laid the foundation for this country with members from experts as well as SP Mukerji of Jan Sangh and the great Dr Ambhedkar. It will be wrong to compare him with Modi who is a good orator but unlike Vajpayee, he indulges in personal rebuke than policy and principle. Modi’s cabinet and MPs are subservient to him and very poor in ability but good yesmen. His visits abroad may seem more self promotion and on commercial basis ( like a Gujju) and pales in insignificance compared to Nehru or Indira or even MamMohan Singh. Good photo ops and PR but nothing of significance achieved other than winnng the Indisn diaspora for their monetary help.
    Modi shares the assertiveness of Indira Gandhi but yet she had her ear to experts in various fields. She was charismatic and respected world over. The biggest blot in her reign was the emergency – yes to save herself – but one yet can count many good achievements including her relations with Pakistan in 1971.
    Modi is no democrat or secular in his policies – as enshrined in our Constitution. Most of his oratory is personal rebuke and more propaganda with some willing media
    and based on figures which are not supported by actual facts. He was well described as a ‘One Man Band’. He is the only spokesman for the party in all State elections. He had lofty intentions but as a lone general with a very poor army except for a strong PMO to help him. Our economy is in doldrums and our foreign policy without a clear direction. His only policy has concentrated on amendments to existing laws to improve the treasury of his party to win elections. Money power and unfulfilled promises are concealed by using one word- development and the false claim that the country suffered from no development in 70 years!

  8. Modi may be having all the best and worst qualities of Nehru and Indira. But his game is over. The trust in him has dwindled. The false promises made
    but never intended to be fulfilled are more damaging then the non performance on any front. The combined opposition parties are feeling motivated to play the political boxing. The next government is expected to be coalition government.

  9. There is no way to compare them.
    Nehru took over at the time of partition and economy was in tatters.
    Still he laid the foundation of modern India . China war outcome demoralised him. Still he managed country well.
    Indira took over after two wars and at the time of food shortages. She had to take upon her another war. She work for the problem resolution.
    Modi had every thing right when took over . He is struggling to resolve any of of the burning issue country is in.

  10. If one confines oneself to the economy, no small canvas in a country where most people are either poor or lower middle class, the sweep of India’s remarkable progress since 1947 dictates that each successive premier build boldly on what has been achieved before him. Nehruji inherited a nation that had been colonised for 200 years, growth may have been 1% for a century, the ravages of both WW II and a bloody, traumatic partition. His creation of the public sector may have been more a compulsion of the times than his socialist instincts at work. Mrs Gandhi, especially when she returned to power in 1980, about the time China was seeing big changes, could have initiated major economic reforms, just as her son could have, not left it to the minority government of PM PVNR to do so, when pushed against the wall. In 2014, although the economy had been affected by the 2008 crisis, sweeping change was promised, expected, possible. The fortuitous fall in oil prices gave a huge bonus. The incumbent was walking on water. Nahin kiya, for reasons that remain unclear. To my mind, this missed opportunity will have a larger outcome in 2019 than many political analysts are predicting at the moment.

  11. Nehru appealed to the good in people,Modi to the evil within them.That is the sum total. The author is reluctant to state in so much words not that he is unaware of it. Even if a single law abiding citizen is in fear of state violation for his beliefs , intellectual emotional or physical violation, then that state is not democratic.
    As for Indira,this reader who lived through emergency never felt as insecure as he is today.
    ,You can decide for yourself under what situation is India today.

    • Reason Shekhar gupta is lutyaian Journalist. Do I need to tell more. Some people must be scared to do mischievous like PC, Vadra etc. I am fine like others indians..

    • I totally disagree with you. Nehru thought for himself first, tried to be a leader of the third world without any credentials, screwed up the entire country. If he had been good, India would have been one of the top ranking countries in the world. He had little knowledge about India. This cannot be told about Mr Modi. He rose from the ranks though hard work after fully studying what India needs. Certain communities do not like him because Mr Modi stopped their illegal activities they engage in through funding from abroad. All law abiding citizens are safe and secure. Indira Gandhi was dictator and she can be easily compared with Hitler. India today is far far better than any time we were in India. If you are feeling insecure you may be one of such persons who work against the interests of the country. Otherwise no law abiding citizen has anything to worry. Most of the people like have problem because we do not foreigner at the helm of affairs which you guys generously enjoyed between 2004-14. My friend, those days are never going to come. Indians made a big blunder in 2004 and 2009 and learnt a bitter lesson.

  12. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist, Barnala(Punjab)

    I am of the conviction that NaMo stands no where in the comparisons to two Indian icons Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru and Mrs.Indira Gandhi !

    Pandit Nehru and Mrs.Indira Gandhi had qualities of head and heart and NaMo comes no where near them in this respect !

    The fact cannot be denied at all that NaMo is only a product of time ! The golden opportunity that came his way by chance, he did fritter it away owing to his follies and blunders ! Even if now he thinks that all is well and fine, then no body can forbid him to live and enjoy in fools’ paradise !

    Furthermore, if ” He believes nothing is wrong with the government, if you know how to run it: Like him.” In this context two thoughts
    cross my mind very spontaneously and objectively.
    First of all, if one likes to be a petitioner as well as judge in his/her own case at the same time, the act appears quite ridiculous, funny and shabby too in nature !
    Secondly, in popular Shakespearean tragedies like “Hamlet”, “King Lear”and “Macbeth” Shakespeare employs Aristotlean Greek dramatic device ” Hamartia.” In the identical manner, NaMo’s blunders, flaws and follies will lead him towards his political and electoral fall !
    He experienced a very swift rise in the national politics and his fall too is going to be equally very fast ! The writing seems to be very clear, evident and certain on the wall !
    Mr. Shekhar Gupta appears to be caught in two minds, I do not know why ?

    Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest, Barnala (Punjab)

  13. Presstitute coupta is jealous of nationalist NaMo government. No crumbs thrown for him and his brethern by current govt, unlike the previous dispension.

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