At around 11 am on October 31, 1984, I had gone to the Post Office to mail some letters. I overheard some of the employees talking about the prime minister being shot. At that point, this was unimaginable in India. Leaders got killed in rest of South Asia, never in India. I rushed home to turn on the news only for a voice on All India Radio drone “An attempt has been made on the life of the Prime Minister…” a refrain that continued till the evening even after the BBC had declared by noon that the Prime Minister had been shot and killed, by her own bodyguards.
For all the merits and demerits of Mrs. Indira Gandhi as a leader, there is no doubt that she has left a mark on the political history of modern India. She was a strong leader and there was a time she was referred to as the “only man in a cabinet of old women”. No doubt this was meant as praise!
As I remember her today, I am struck by how much similarity there is between her and the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the face of it this comparison seems laughable – Modi is a self (cadre) made man whereas Indira Gandhi was born into a political dynasty. However there are traits they have in common
- An ability to connect with people: Modi’s finger on the pulse of what people want is well known. What may not be known by the younger generation now is that Mrs. Gandhi almost always knew what the people would like. There was a brief time (during Emergency) when she lost that connect but she got her mojo back quickly.
- Confidence in their world view: To the extent that neither of them were (are) willing to listen to alternative opinions. Remember Indira on bank nationalisation and Modi on pretty much everything.
- Ruthlessness: After the Congress caucus tried to stymie her early into her Premiership, she crushed them ruthlessly. Modi has been ruthless too – see the treatment meted out to his former mentor L K Advani. See the ruthlessness with which he is crushing the Shiv Sena for daring to oppose him.
- Eliminating all opposition within their own parties: Just a few years ago, Modi was one of the second rung leaders in the BJP. Sushama Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh, Venkkaiah Naidu were his peers. Once Modi has gotten to the top he is ensuring that there will be little challenge to his authority from his ex-peers. The others are now definitely – a rung or two lower. His cabinet is packed with people who will do as he commands. Cooperation – Jim Hacker style. Like Mrs. Gandhi, he is not allowing powerful leaders even in the States. Khattar (in Haryana) and Fadanwis (in Maharashtra) are quite low-weight blokes who will do as they are told. I can see this in Maharashtra where Nitin Gadkari and Eknath Khadse, the more popular leaders were overlooked. After all they could have grown into power centres.
We know what happened to Mrs. Gandhi in 1977 when the power went to her head and she started believing her sycophants who said “Indira is India”. What will be Modi’s fate? Time will tell.
* Same Pinch : As children in India, sameness was celebrated by shouting out loud and pinching each other. It could be a same idea or a same t shirt!