indira gandhi & narendra modi
Photo: DNA RNA

Narendra Modi today appears to be confronting the old guard in the saffron party in a manner not unlike how Indira Gandhi confronted the ‘Syndicate’ within her party in 1969. Former Defence Minister Jaswant Singh, who has now been expelled from the BJP, has claimed that decision-making in the BJP today is reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency era. The most iconic episode of that time was when Indira Gandhi decided to split the Congress party to get her way, rather than have to deal with her detractors.

In 1967 Indira Gandhi won 355 Lok Sabha seats while Morarji Desai managed only 169. Modi still has to go through such a phase and is yet to emerge victorious- however much the pre-election frenzy may be. Let us briefly compare these two leaders who seem to have much in common, and are yet so very different.

Mrs. Gandhi was expelled by her party’s President S Nijalingappa as she had her own socialist vision, and her move to split the party arose from an ideological battle. Modi till now has not fought any battle of ideology in the BJP but has certainly fought his way to the top. Indira Gandhi held an AICC meeting in Bangalore in 1967 where she announced a 10 points programme proposing the nationalisation of banks and insurance, ceiling of urban property, regulation of monopolies and land reforms, and the famous abolition of privy purses and titles. She had a vision and a socialist scheme with a focus on equitable distribution of wealth. Modi, however, has an agenda inclined towards private corporate companies- something that his critics and Congress enthusiasts call crony-capitalism.

Indira Gandhi always retained old congress leaders and tried to incorporate their thinking in her vision; while the Modi-led BJP treats its old bastion by either sidelining it or expelling old members. Thus unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi does not need to split his party because he is very good at disposing unwanted detractors in the party. Moreover, the RSS -led by a weak and confused leader like Mohan Bhagwat- is unlikely to be able to keep a check on Modi in any substantial way.

After the Bangladesh Liberation War Indira Gandhi was likened to the Goddess Durga, and quite similarly, Narendra Modi today has been likened to Lord Shiva with his party workers adapting Har Har Mahadev to Har Har Modi. This of course was recently condoned by Narendra Modi who -now that he is contesting from the Hindu-heartland city of Varanasi- didn’t want to upset religious leaders and Hindus.

Narendra Modi recently gave an interview (The Telegraph; January 18, 2013) where he said that Gujarat merely has a seafront- it has no raw materials, no iron ore, no coal and no diamond mines. Yet it has made huge strides in these fields. Imagine, he added, if we had the natural resources of Assam, Jharkhand or West Bengal, he could have changed the face of India.

In this interview, as in many other places, Modi chooses ‘I’ instead of ‘We’. There are no collaborators; no party workers; and no joint effort. It is indicative of Modi’s desire that everyone should bow down to his power and to his authority. Indira Gandhi too in her speeches never shied away from taking credit for herself- leading a noted journalist to coin the now infamously famous phrase ‘Indira is India and India is Indira’.

Both these leaders have pushed aside anyone who came in their way. Like Indira Gandhi, Modi too is fond of wearing the symbolic headgear of the region where he travels. But on one occasion, during his Sadbhavna Yatra in 2012, he refused to wear a Muslim prayer cap. Perhaps that is the one fundamental difference in the politics of Modi and Indira Gandhi. While one was secular and socialist, the other sounds increasingly like Sanjay Gandhi- with his hyper-masculine style- targeting minorities and bullying people into compliance. Modi’s attacks on the opposition are also in a more cynical tone. He uses symbolism- like calling a certain someone a Shehzada, or Mian Musharraf; and talking about Rome Raj.

It is no mere irony that both Modi and Mrs. Gandhi have, and had, a thirst for power and an appetite for control. Perhaps the political practices of both these leaders only serve to demonstrate that inside every political leader there is a human being.