Why Modi 2019 Is Not Indira 1971

It was the last week of April in 1971. Delhi's dusty summer was just beginning to set in. Army Chief Sam Manekshaw had been summoned to the Prime Minister's Office. He sat listening as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi read out telegrams from the Chief Ministers of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. They all wanted her to do something to dam the flood of refugees from Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan: men, women and children, with their animals in tow, trying to escape the Pakistani army's brutal Operation Searchlight.

Indira wanted the army to march into East Pakistan. Manekshaw refused. The monsoons were about to hit the east, and the General wasn't going to send his men across, unprepared. Indira Gandhi, too, knew that she needed to go slow. Her close aide, PN Haksar, was already working on a covert plan to back Mukti Bahini, the home-grown liberation army of Bangladesh.

Although Manekshaw's boys and India's intelligence agencies were believed to have entered East Pakistan by late autumn, the official war with Pakistan took place only in December. It was a short, swift war, lasting just 13 days till Dhaka fell and the Pakistani army surrendered. A victorious Indira Gandhi became the biggest national icon of post-independence India.

But contrary to what impromptu pundits proclaim at dinner parties, the war had nothing to do with Indira Gandhi's victory in the Lok Sabha election of 1971. The Bangladesh war began a full nine months after Indira Gandhi got a massive mandate, winning nearly 70 per cent of all Lok Sabha seats. Although the rumblings of discontent were already being heard at India's eastern border during the election campaign, the possibility of war with Pakistan did not become an election issue.

In fact, Indira Gandhi won on a purely economic platform. In the previous election of 1967, she was seen as a mere puppet in the hands of the powerful satraps of the Congress party. The opposition called her 'goongi gudiya' (dumb doll). But, in just two years, she turned the tables on the old men of the syndicate, most of whom were pro-big business and close to landed interests.

Indira decided to checkmate them by taking a sharp left-turn. In those days, except for SBI, most banks were controlled by big corporates. This gave a few business houses control over nearly 70% of what Indians were saving. Indira first presented her 'stray thoughts' on bank nationalisation to the Working Committee of the Congress Party. Along with that, she proposed aggressive land redistribution, a ceiling on the income and property of the rich, and restrictions on the operations of big business.

The syndicate was unhappy, but growing income inequality had become a hot political issue. It had already cost the Congress several state elections in 1967. Indira pushed home her advantage and managed to get the old guard to back her economic policies. Her economic agenda became even more aggressive after the Congress split in the winter of 1969, and her government became dependent on Left parties.

In Indira's own words, bank nationalisation was "only the beginning of a bitter struggle between the common people and the vested interests in the country." It wasn't going to be smooth sailing. Almost all her decisions were challenged legally, and the courts made it tough to implement them. The breaking point came in 1970 when the Supreme Court struck down a Presidential order derecognising princes and ending their privy purse.

An incensed Indira Gandhi dissolved the Lok Sabha and called for elections one year early. In the face of a hostile press and a united opposition, Indira turned the election into a referendum on her 'pro-poor' economic policies. She summed it up in one famous slogan - "Woh kahte hain Indira hatao, main kahti hoon garibi hatao (They say banish Indira, I say banish poverty)".

In a sense, Narendra Modi had his garibi hatao moment more than two years ago. Demonetization was Modi's version of bank nationalisation. It won him every local election in its immediate aftermath. A combination of schadenfreude and a faith in Modi's intentions helped the BJP make huge inroads amongst the poor.

That is one reason why psephologists got the UP assembly elections of 2017 so wrong. For the first time, the BJP was underestimated in opinion and exit polls because the lower-income, silent voter who gets undercounted by pollsters had switched to the party. Narendra Modi understood. He played on it by paraphrasing Indira's old slogan, turning it into"woh kahte hain Modi hatao, main kahta hoon bhrashtachar hatao (They say banish Modi, I say banish corruption)".

And just like Indira Gandhi's economic policies started unravelling just two years after her decisive victory in 1971, Modinomics has also backfired in the past two years. Demonetization, GST and deflation in farm products, has led to an unprecedented jobs crisis, farm distress, and a slowdown in corporate earnings. It has cost the BJP a series of state elections since the winter of 2017. The very fact that the Modi government has had to handout doles to small farmers shows that it understands that its policies have failed.

In other words, there's no parallel between Indira Gandhi's wave election in 1971 and the coming Lok Sabha polls. Indira was riding on economic populism, Modi is trying to capitalise on anti-Pakistan nationalist fervour. Will war clouds on the western front help him tide over the bad news coming daily on the economic front? If he manages to pull it off, he would have written a brand new chapter in the history of electoral politics in India.

(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels. He now anchors Simple Samachar on NDTV India.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.