In November 1988 I moved from Bangalore to Delhi, to take up a job at the Institute of Economic Growth. The next general election was a year away, and the incumbent government was in trouble. Investigation into the Bofors scandal was gathering pace, and fingers were being pointed at people close to the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Just the previous month, Rajiv’s confidant-turned-rival VP Singh had formed the Janata Dal, seeking to bring together all Opposition parties on a common anti-Congress platform.
Earlier this month I was in Delhi, this time as a visitor. The mood was eerily similar to that in November 1988. Once again, with a year to go before the general elections, a majority government headed by a once admired PM was mocked and derided by those who had once supported it. A scholar who had enthusiastically welcomed Narendra Modi’s victory in May 2014 had now turned very hostile to the government. He thought it had lost its legitimacy so completely that it would not win more than 120 seats whenever the elections were held.
Narendra Modi and Rajiv Gandhi belong to different generations. They were reared in very different social circumstances. And no parties could have more different and indeed opposed histories than the BJP and the Congress. And yet, in terms of India’s democratic history, there are some significant similarities between these two PMs.
The first similarity is that both tried to carve a distinct space for themselves in their party’s history. This was easier for Rajiv, who of course had joined the Congress only three years earlier. After becoming PM he critiqued the cronyist culture of the Congress, and went so far as to indict previous Congress governments for corruption (as in his remark that only 15 per cent of development funds actually reached the poor).
Modi, on the other hand, had to work much harder to re-brand himself, since he had been in politics for decades already. Yet he did so with quite spectacular success. The longer the time that elapsed since the Gujarat riots of 2002, the more easily was he able to persuade potential voters that (a) he had no personal culpability in the violence; (b) he had since focused relentlessly on development and development alone. Given Modi’s own past and his party’s own history, it is noteworthy that the 2014 election campaign did not foreground Hindu pride. Further, because he had spent so long as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was able to present himself as an outsider to the world of intrigue and innuendo that is Lutyens’ Delhi.
The second similarity is that both appealed above all to the young. Once more, this was easier for Rajiv since he was so young himself. Although he was past 60 himself, Modi adroitly targeted the much older PM, Manmohan Singh during his campaign, and by focusing on job creation was to able to bring many young voters to his side.
The third similarity is that, by offering themselves as candidates who exuded hope, both were able to achieve comfortable majorities in the Lok Sabha. Rajiv got more than 400 seats in an election held soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Modi had no such sympathy wave to help him; but he was able to get his party 282 seats, and with the allies providing him some 50 more, his government likewise had a comfortable cushion in Parliament.
The fourth similarity is that, once they were elected PM, both Rajiv and Modi centralised almost all power with themselves. Examples of this in our current PM’s tenure are numerous and easy to remember; but for the young and those with fading memories I might recall how Rajiv effectively sacked both a foreign secretary and the chief minister of a major state at press conferences. More substantively, like Rajiv, Modi largely (and often wholly) disregards his own MPs and his own Cabinet in the framing of policies of vital importance to the nation. Rajiv tried to run the country with the help of a set of old friends and loyal officials; Modi has followed pretty much the same template.
It is this lack of a wider consultation that helps explain why Rajiv fell so fast from such a high perch. It is said a week is a long time in politics; and much can happen in the weeks that remain until the next general election. It will be for future historians to judge whether Kathua and Unnao will be to Narendra Modi what Bofors was to Rajiv Gandhi. But there is no doubt that the halo around the PM has been decisively punctured. For months already he has been subject to satire on social media; and now, after the complicity of his party’s legislators in the making of these terrible tragedies, satire is rapidly turning to anger, even in circles considered to be the BJP’s core constituency. A young entrepreneur told me recently in Coimbatore that in his professional WhatsApp group, at least 80 per cent were critical of Modi.
From 400-plus seats in 1984, Rajiv’s Congress fell to a mere 197 five years later. No one can predict how far, the fall will be for Modi’s BJP from its 2014 tally of 282. Yet the parallels are striking indeed. Many people who were not traditional Congress voters saw hope for Rajiv in 1984; many past critics of the BJP voters saw hope for Modi in 2014. With so much goodwill behind him, Rajiv threw away the chance to take the country forward; and it increasingly seems that Modi has done the same.