Portraits of Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi
Indira Gandhi, 1962 and Narendra Modi, 2017
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The BJP’s line of defence in the K.M. Joseph issue raises two questions. Does the law minister mean that ‘irregular’ appointments are justified because there is precedent?

Many a commentator and historian has frequently compared Narendra Modi to Indira Gandhi. Invariably, the references are made in the context of the Emergency.

Last week, defending the stalling of Uttarakhand High Court Chief Justice K.M. Joseph’s elevation as a Supreme Court judge, the union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the Congress could not object to the decision because it had a history of doing so, citing Indira Gandhi as an example.

This line of defence raises two questions. Does the law minister mean that “irregular” appointments are justified because there is precedent? Or does he mean that Indira Gandhi was right? If he means the former, he is effectively saying the Modi government is imitating Mrs Gandhi, and, therefore, that she was right.

On the other hand, NDA ministers quite often remind people that the Emergency was a dark period in Independent India’s history and that is why the Congress must never come to power.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly harps on the importance of democracy and freedom. And yet the comparisons between Modi’s authoritarianism and Indira Gandhi’s.

In a very weird way, Modi’s supporters often defend his autocratic style, saying the country needs a strong dictator. In cosy air-conditioned drawing rooms, they condemn the “excesses of democracy”; demand a ban on, or at least control of, human rights organisations; seek the abolition of trade union rights; defend encounter killings as a measure to eliminate crime and terrorism; and decisive (even harsh) steps to suppress environmentalists who “stall” development.

Ardent anti-Communists are seen praising China for its fantastic development on all fronts and say India should adopt a similar style of governance (without a Communist flag or ideology, of course). Some want Modi to become a free market dictator like Lee Kuan Yew. There are even those who see in him Deng Xiaoping, who transformed China by capitalism without giving up the ‘Red Flag’.

They want Modi to demolish the Nehruvian model (both of development and democracy) and take India forward on an unabashed capitalist road.

The neo-liberal lobby hopes that he will bring major economic reforms, which he has not so far.

The Hindutva radicals feel that he is a perfect medium to establish the Hindu Rashtra.

It appears that Modi loves to be described as India’s Lee Kuan Yew or Deng. Some indulgently describe him as a “dream merchant”. But his admirers and critics both compare him to Indira Gandhi.

The comparisons that aren’t

Be that as it may. His comparison with Indira Gandhi – like when Ravi Shankar Prasad did with regard to judicial appointments, or as Modi and Amit Shah have done with reference to press censorship during the Emergency – often puts Congressmen on the defensive.

These comparisons are misplaced and, in fact, made to defend Modi’s brazen control of various institutions or the suppression of the media.

However, the reason Modi’s comparison with Indira Gandhi appears absurd is because it refers only to the context of the Emergency.

Mrs Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966 and was described as an inconsequential “dumb doll”.

Her genuine elevation came only in 1967, after the general election. Incidentally, she lost as many as eight states in that election – from Tamil Nadu to Uttar Pradesh and Kerala to Bihar.

She won a marginal majority in the Lok Sabha (interestingly, the same number as Modi, 282. However, she had 41 per cent of the votes against Modi’s 31 per cent).

That was the first general election under her leadership. In 1969, the party was split, when Congress president S. Nijallingappa removed her from the party on the charge of violating discipline. She had appealed for a “vote of conscience” in the election to the president’s post. Congress nominee Sanjivani Reddy lost and independent candidate (who was vice-president) V.V. Giri won, because of her appeal.

The BJP president cannot dare to throw Modi out. Forget Amit Shah, even sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat cannot disown Modi.

Mrs Gandhi fought the 1971 election against the grand alliance of the Congress (O), the Swatantra Party, the Jan Sangh and the socialists. She won a landslide victory despite the hostility of the press to her, the kind Modi has not encountered.

Later in 1971, she led India to victory in the war against Pakistan, dismembering that country and giving rise to Bangladesh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee called her Durga and The Economist, London, described her as “Empress of India”.

That was her moment of glory, which could have gone to her head. But she did not establish her authoritarian rule then. There was an anti-corruption movement against her, led by Jaiprakash Narayan, and a nationwide railway strike that had disrupted foodgrain supplies, an unprecedented drought and famine situation. She fought them politically.

After the Allahabad high court, and later the partial Supreme Court judgment, against her, the opposition gave a call to indefinitely gherao the PM’s house. She declared the Emergency only after the call to police and the army by JP to not obey government orders.

Today, no court can dare give a judgment against Narendra Modi. Not even against Amit Shah. No institution confronts the government – the Reserve Bank of India, the Election Commission, the UGC or the media. Most of the electronic media is so servile that they act as if they are paid propagandists. Indira Gandhi had no such luxury (There was no electronic media worth the name at the time). No opposition party has given a call to police or the Army to disobey government orders, and there is no move to gherao the PM’s house.

The comparison of Narendra Modi to Indira Gandhi, therefore, is outrageously ahistorical. The so-called institutional decline attributed to her has actually hit the bottom now, under Modi. And yet the media, by and large, is silent. The context in which the authoritarian regime of the Emergency came cannot be ignored. The autocratic style of Modi (condemned by Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Ram Jethmalani) is a different phenomenon. None of them was ever remotely sympathetic to Indira Gandhi or the Congress, and were all the harshest critics of her rule.

And now it is they who are saying that the Modi raj is dangerously dictatorial.

Kumar Ketkar is a former editor and Congress member of Rajya Sabha.

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