Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi, and the deceit of grand gestures (26 November 2016)

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 26 2016)


When patricians of the Congress party installed Indira Gandhi as their preferred gungi gudiya(dumb doll) in 1966, she wasn’t supposed to have a spine or a mind. She horrified them by wielding both, and soon the elders disappeared into historical cold storage while Mrs Gandhi transformed into what is called a “towering leader” and a memorable prime minister whose birth centenary year celebrations commenced last week. Facing an erosion of support for the Congress, her politics in the late 1960s tilted left, and after she prevailed over Pakistan in 1971 (and stood up to White House bullies) emerged her famous slogan of garibi hatao (banish poverty) when someone proposed that it was time to banish Indira.

Leaders in democracies, however, must simultaneously sustain power and stay in charge of the public narrative, all the while maintaining stability and the capacity to deliver. Mrs Gandhi’s socialism was embraced by a deeply impoverished electorate, but soon after her triumph in 1971 (on a “wave” that surpassed Narendra Modi’s in 2014), narrative alone ceased to be adequate. Poverty refused to depart, and crises piled up, from labour unrest and railway strikes to student agitation followed by Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement. Oil prices multiplied, and aid from the US was suspended. A cornered Mrs Gandhi imposed the Emergency, but returning to power in 1980, she quietly discarded socialism and began to reinvent herself, favouring new solutions to old problems.

But the point here is that narratives can purchase time for governments ruling in challenging circumstances and persuade the electorate to remain patient with the system and its plodding. And the most effective narratives are not always those that are logical but which have ingredients that appeal. Economic trouble, for instance, had already begun in the 1960s but garibi hatao was a compelling promise and the Congress was given a powerful mandate. Expectations were not fully met—and the opposition got its turn in power, therefore—but there were dramatic segments that bolstered the government and prolonged its rule. Mrs Gandhi’s determination in abolishing the privy purses granted to India’s former princes is one example of this.

At the time of independence, this order controlled a third of the subcontinent and one in five Indians was a subject not of the Central government, but of a princely specimen. In return for relinquishing territory in what Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel called “a bloodless revolution”, assorted rajas and nawabs were given the carrot of allowances and certain vanities, politely called “marks of prestige”. The princes were often vulgarly feudal, but the amounts disbursed to them, while generous, were not handicapping the economy. However, in keeping with the plot of garibi hatao and the “egalitarian social order” it envisioned (and because many princes challenged the Congress), Mrs Gandhi toppled these ex-rulers.

It was a hugely popular move, and it satisfied public appetite for “visible action”. The people who lost were a privileged minority (though there are still Indians who receive government allowances as royalty—the nawab of Arcot appears on the Warrant of Precedence with the perks of a cabinet minister). And “the masses”, watching princely pretensions cut to size, endorsed the prime minister and gave her their patience, even if beyond the consolations of narrative, this did not particularly empower them.

I was reminded of this when Prime Minister Modi made his dramatic announcement demonetizing high-denomination currency notes to vanquish the hydra that is black money. As a candidate for election in 2014, he had promised an electorate (convinced that everyone in the previous government was sleeping on mattresses of notes) Rs15 lakh each of the illicit cash he recovered. As prime minister, rhetoric has obviously not evolved into action. Something else that is “visible” and dramatic could shore up support in the face of impatience, even if it makes no difference to the problem itself—a Mumbai jeweller described to me how many in that business are back-dating bills to cater to cash-rich customers streaming in since 8 November.

Whether this is about herding people from a massively cash-driven economy into formal banking and executing a structural reform is not clear. The government should have been better prepared if this were a grand “plan”, though this would hardly be the first time a major exercise began and ended in chaos in this country. For now, though, despite queues, alleged deaths, and confusion, large numbers of people seem willing to tolerate the situation. The sheer audacity of the move has suggested that perhaps the Prime Minister knows what he is doing. Either way, for Modi, who rose to power with the 21st century “aspirational” equivalent of what garibi hatao proposed in 1971, this could buy time.

The difference, however, is that while abolishing privy purses was also dramatic in effect and in terms of the political dividends it yielded, its casualties were an obscenely wealthy minority, in whose decline the voter saw justice. Today it is not Bollywood-style villains with suitcases of cash who face the repercussions of demonetization but also rural men and women and the urban poor who are suddenly cast adrift. And when they find out that actual villains have real estate and gold and other parking spots for black money and that none of them sweat in queues, as the Prime Minister claims, they might be somewhat less supportive of being taken for a ride. One hopes Prime Minister Modi does have a plan.

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