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Lessons from 1977-79 for Modi and 2014 April 20, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

Once in a while it helps to step back from the heat of the 2014 election reporting and take the road less travelled. I have been watching the Pradhanmantri series for past few weeks. The series takes us back into post independence history through the eyes of the seat of the Indian government in Delhi. It is highly recommended viewing for Indian politics history buffs; the only wrinkle for some would be that the entire series is in Hindi. I, though, very much enjoyed this aspect as well since I otherwise rarely watch TV or keep up with Hindi movies.

While most of the episodes I watched so far have been interesting, one of them particularly stood out. This dealt with the period starting with the withdrawal of the emergency in 1977 until the return of Indira Gandhi (IG) 3 years later. By the time I got through to the end of this episode I could not but think of the many lessons for Indian politics today and the skeleton for this post was ready.


1. Do not write off the Congress

Even if they get fewer than 100 seats, which itself is probably a lower end of the estimate, they will still be getting over 25% of the votes. It is true that the Congress’ star is not looking too bright today. But recall that while the stock market is on a bull run, it feels like the market may never fall and vice versa. A handful of poor decisions by a new non-Congress government will naturally make Congress look like a strong contender.

I recently read this about political victories – seldom are they permanent and when victories come in the Indian context, they are fragile. If NDA wins, that will again be true. It is telling that in an atmosphere of such anti-incumbency, the most optimistic estimates for NDA give them barely a 35% votes and 50% of the seats, with the average poll giving them 235 seats. Obviously this seemingly incomplete victories is about the nature of Indian politics rather than about the relative strengths of NDA or UPA.

2. Public opinion can change really fast.

Indira Gandhi was ousted in the middle of 1977. It was not just the loss of the Congress but Indira Gandhi herself lost her seat, which is a bigger upset than Rahul Gandhi losing today. She was considered down and out, even within her own party. There must have been such anger against her to have been comprehensively defeated. Soon though her popularity was showing signs of revival. She split the party and went on to win the Karnataka and AP elections barely months later in Feb 1978. This result is not widely known relative to her eventual victory in 1980.

In the same vein, the new government cannot take its mandate for granted. IG faced a united opposition in 1977, even more than what Modi faces in 2014. The Janata Party was voted to power with nearly 300 seats. Yet they found themselves increasingly unpopular within a year of assuming leadership and within 3 years, unpopular enough to be voted out. Modi, if indeed he comes to power, will find an increasingly impatient public, a belligerent media and hostile civil society. And just like the BJP took years to get over the 2004 defeat, the Congress and the so-called ‘secular’ parties will also be in denial and in no mood to move on. One can expect the opposition to be obstructionist and baying for Modi’s blood.

It is said that if Kerry could not defeat Bush in 2004, democrats should feel really sorry for themselves. Likewise, with the BJP in 2014. If Modi comes in, he will have done so against all odds, but with lots of help from a non-performing incumbent government. Moreover, he will have done so by winning over a large number of voters who are outside the party’s core base. These swing voters are the skeptics, particularly susceptible to great expectations that are often followed by cynicism and disillusionment.

3. Do not get vindictive against political opponents.

And certainly not against the Gandhis. It amazes me that as someone who imposed the emergency and ran the country like a fiefdom with her son as an extraconstitutional authority was voted back to power within a couple of years. It is fair to say that the vindictive attacks on IG by the Janata Party Government did more for her return than any other single factor. If Modi is seen as going after the Gandhis vindictively, he will lose any hard earned political capital. Trials against IG became spectacles and while they probably made for great headlines and much drama, they did no good in terms of meeting the needs of the population at large. Obviously this does not mean that scams of the past 10 years should not investigated, but Modi should learn the lessons from 1977-79 about how it should not be done. He has said at least as much in a recent interview. With a generally forgiving electorate and a short public memory, don’t waste time going after people right off the bat.

4. Third Front led government will not work.

The intrigue and infighting within the Janata party period of 1977-79 is worth reading about.

If the NDA cannot make it, I would actually prefer a UPA-III to a third front government. Every non-Congress, non-BJP government has essentially consisted of a similar set of parties/people/lineage – the Lohiates, the various caste-based regional parties and the Left. We have had 6 such governments that between them lasted barely 6 years. In spite of such repeated failures, the same people have the gall to suggest that they will form a government all over agin.

A third front will always have more than one PM aspirant. If the third front came in, it is said that the constituent with the most seats will have the PM. Well, sounds good in theory but in practice, unless that party has an order of magnitude more seats, the setup will remain unstable. This is similar to how it used to be believed that the strongest military power in 19th century Europe had to be stronger than the next two combined; if it weren’t so, the strongest would always be susceptible to an alliance between the next two. Now, India has no political space for yet another national party that has the potential to win over 150 seats. And what Charan Singh did to Morarji Desai, Chandra Shekar did to VP Singh and Mulayam Singh will do to Mamata Banerjee. And what the Congress did to Charan Singh, it did to Chandra Shekar, Gowda, Gujral and it will do to whoever comes in.

5. Sanjay Gandhi

That man could do no right.

A part of the article assumes Modi led BJP will come to power, which of course, is a lesson from 2004 for me (that I am refusing to learn.)




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