The Naya Indira: India’s New-Old Populism

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 27

Indian democracy has endured for over seventy years, despite the occasional bumps in the road. The most notorious of these was ‘the Emergency,’ a 21-month period marred by mass arrests and the suspension of civil liberties and habeas corpus, declared by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. However, these structures survived largely due to the leadership of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who took care to display due deference to Parliament in order to strengthen the fledgling legislature. Additionally, one can attribute India’s rapid economic transformation since 1991 to the stewardship of three Prime Ministers: P.V. Narasimha Rao, who initiated market liberalization and globalization, his successor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Strangely, according to an India Today August 2019 Mood of the Nation poll, few regard any of these men as the country’s ‘best’ Prime Minister. A sixth of respondents favored Indira, with Vajpayee, Nehru, Singh, and Rao lagging behind her. The only leader to outperform the leader who declared the Emergency was another authoritarian populist: over a third of respondents favored incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is surprising, considering Modi’s record of establishing a National Register of Citizens to aid the deportation of Muslim refugees who fled Bangladesh for the eastern state of Assam nearly fifty years ago, enabling rampant cow vigilantism, suppressing media criticism, and compromising the independence of the judiciary. Why, then, do a people so jealously protective of their democratic freedoms yield their admiration to such brazenly autocratic leaders? Indira and Modi’s genuine political talents and Indians’ appreciation of “bold” and “decisive” leaders, explain much of this apparent paradox, portending Modi’s continued electoral dominance.

The similarities between Indira and Modi run deeper than mere authoritarianism. Both leaders were gifted orators, which enabled them to personally connect to their people in a way the erudite Singh, Vajpayee, and Rao could not. Their populist policies and rhetoric, from Indira’s nationalization of India’s largest banks to Modi’s abrogation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status, enhanced the lusters of their personalities to domestic audiences, especially when contrasted with the back-and-forth chaos of the democratic process. Dr. Singh’s second government, beset by venal ministers and coalition partners, was especially prone to this “policy paralysis,” allowing Modi to prioritize speed over Parliamentary consultation in his decision-making. As Shashi Tharoor, a Member of Parliament (MP) from the opposition Indian National Congress (INC), observed, despite Modi’s habitual steamrolling of major legislation without the slightest Parliamentary oversight, the Indian public has largely appreciated “bold” solutions even when their results have been underwhelming. Modi’s unilateral demonetization of five-sixths of India’s currency, which only briefly affected his popularity despite inflicting a full percentage point reduction in GDP and millions of job losses across the country, serves as a prime example. Indians similarly appreciate Indira’s boldness despite the untold damage state micromanagement and the related “License Raj’ system inflicted on the economy.

Curiously, preceding this year’s elections, unemployment reached levels not seen since Indira’s premiership. Overall, Modi’s shoddy policy record has attracted criticism from multiple intellectuals. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has either disputed their contentions or questioned their Indianness; intellectuals as a class have been routinely condemned by BJP leaders as “anti-national,” “Leftists,” or “Westerners.” This boldness has carried over to the leaders’ foreign policies. Modi’s Balakot airstrikes and Indira’s 1971 war with Pakistan enhanced their national security credentials and popularity. Their belligerence won Indians’ admiration, regardless of their efficacy. One can view their foreign policies as extensions of their domestic policies , in which the means of grandstanding, posturing, and faux-decisiveness justify the ends. Assertiveness on the global stage is an easy political point-scorer, and Modi and Indira exploited such moments to bolster their domestic reputations. This becomes especially apparent when one considers the timing of Modi’s unilateral abrogation of Jammu & Kashmir’s bespoke constitutional status; the move utterly distracted the public from a flagging economy.

Ultimately, both rose to the top of the greasy political pole quite simply because they were the most gifted politicians of their eras. While Indira was initially regarded as a gungi gudiya (“mute doll”) by her rivals, she successfully outmaneuvered them by portraying them as out-of-touch elites. This mirrors Modi’s shedding of his hardline Hindu nationalist image by embracing a single-minded focus on development. His 2014 campaign instead elected to attack the ruling Congress Party’s record on corruption and promote Modi’s “Gujarat model” of development, capitalizing on his record leading that state for twelve years. Many of the nation’s rural poor especially have since experienced real progress in electrification and basic sanitation. Again, this mirrors Indira’s garibi hatao (“remove poverty”) slogan, which helped her assemble a thumping majority in the 1971 elections.

Fundamentally, Modi and Indira’s brazenly totalitarian use of their personal brands has afforded them an unusual security from even monumental blunders. Demonetization, a flagging economy, and rising inter-religious tensions have barely dented Modi’s invincible aura, while Indira triumphantly returned to power just three years after her defeat and imprisonment on corruption charges. As Modi continues to emulate Indira’s style of governance, it is likely that his government becomes more populist at home and belligerent abroad just as the country’s economic hiccup requires another round of necessary but perhaps politically unpalatable reforms rather than another round of unsustainable populist sops. Just as the country requires a deft political hand to navigate a range of foreign policy challenges from the rise of China to the country’s burgeoning relationship with the United States, Modi’s leadership has experienced souring relations with India’s neighbors (barring Bangladesh), muddled and unclear signs vis-a-vis the United States and China, and the absence of an overarching foreign policy vision. As with Indira, domestic troubles caused may well induce Modi to embark on rash misadventures, a tendency he has already displayed with demonetization. Worryingly, Modi, like Indira before him, has proved able to withstand broad failures on these fronts, even as several of his predecessors lost re-election with less controversial resumes. It is entirely possible that Modi will find himself in position to gradually remake a “Naya (“New”) India” in his image, even as he ironically tarnishes Hinduism’s and India’s historical record of religious tolerance over the centuries with his narrow Hindu nationalist agenda.

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