Central & South Asia

An Indian Revolution: From Indira’s Congress to BJP’s Modi

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Narendra Modi © Frederic Legrand – COMEO

March 12, 2017 13:12 EDT

Narendra Modi has given the opposition a thrashing and emerged as the most powerful Indian leader since Indira Gandhi.

On March 11, India’s rambunctious democracy took a new turn. Five states had gone to the polls. Of these, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur are relatively electorally insignificant in a country of over 1.2 billion people. Everyone was waiting for the result in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the 800-pound gorilla of Indian democracy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a historic victory in India’s most populous state. Over 200 million people now inhabit UP, more than 16% of the Indian population. Even after all the influx of refugees and migrants, the population of Germany was below 83 million at the end of 2016. The number of people living in the United States was a touch more than 323 million on July 4, 2016.

With its population, size and location, UP has always held the key to power in Delhi. Every pan-Indian emperor from Samudragupta to Akbar rose to power by conquering and controlling UP. Once India won independence in 1947, no Indian prime minister has become powerful without winning elections in UP. Indira Gandhi ruled India like a queen because she had UP in her back pocket or, to use an Indian analogy, tied away in the end of her sari.


Modi has emulated Indira and won a landslide in UP. While Indira’s Congress party won 309 seats in 1980, Modi’s BJP has set a new record by winning 312 out of a total of 403. So, what is going on?

First, Modi has short-circuited traditional channels of power that have long held sway in Indian politics. Like India’s infamous caste system, power and patronage in the country have been deeply hierarchical. It works like this: The chief minister lords it over his ministers. They in turn like bureaucrats to kowtow to them. These bureaucrats then dispense goodies to relatives, loyalists and favorites of their political masters. They dip their hands in the cookie jar in the process.

Power brokers play an important role in this traditional dispensing of spoils. Industrialists such as those of the Bombay Club once had the power to make and unmake ministers and even prime ministers. For too many journalists in Delhi have long given up speaking truth to power and focus on brokering deals with the purveyors of power. The Lutyens’ media, as this jet set group of journalists is termed, has been in bed for decades with politicians and bureaucrats who operate out of the imposing edifices that Edward Lutyens once designed for the British Übermensch.

Not only national but also local power brokers abound. They range from India’s fabled holy men to local financiers. The latter bet on candidates and aim to back the winning horse. The entire retinue of such brokers clogs India’s political system and ensures that little gets done. With Modi’s emergence as prime minister, many power brokers are in hot water. In fact, the prime minister connects directly with the voters, and such is his popularity that the BJP did not even announce a chief ministerial candidate for UP.

As the BBC rightly points out, the UP election was a referendum on Modi as prime minister, and the former chaiwalla (tea seller) has won big time. The very fact that Modi began life as a chaiwalla has played to his advantage. He connects directly to the voters. This makes power brokers redundant. It also makes regional leaders of the BJP irrelevant. Modi has inaugurated a new experiment in Indian politics of a de facto presidential style of government within the de jure Westminster model of parliamentary democracy—and people are voting for it.

Second, Modi has emerged as a man of action that Indians are so enamored of in their movies. While Barack Obama pitched the audacity of hope, Modi has successfully sold his energy. Voters see him as someone with the clarity of mind and the courage of conviction to implement tough decisions such as surgical strikes against Pakistan and demonetization of high-value currency notes. Over the last three decades, such decisiveness has become alien to India. The last bold and decisive leader of India was none other than Indira, who nationalized banks, conducted a nuclear test and broke Pakistan into two during the 1971 war.

Third, Modi is first right-wing politician with several firsts to his credit. The man who began life as a chaiwalla is the first person of a backward caste to head a traditionally Brahmin-led party. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the last BJP prime minister, was a classically educated Brahmin who wrote poetry and loved culture. Modi has little time for such luxuries and is infamous for being a hard driving taskmaster who works round the clock.

For the first time, Modi is marrying the fervor of Hindu nationalism to the muscle of capitalism. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi pushed forth industrialization and courted foreign investment. In more ways than one, Modi is the Indian version of Margaret Thatcher. Like her, he has taken over a party of the established elite and commandeered it to embrace markets more closely. Like her, he has made the bet that private enterprise is the way forward for the economy. And like Thatcher, Modi believes in a muscular foreign policy backed by a robust military strategy.

Modi is also the first right-wing Indian politician who has been able to set a benchmark for good governance vis-à-vis his left-wing rivals. He has championed his abilities as an administrator, while pointing to his rivals’ record of corruption, patronage and incompetence. Pre-2013, the BJP was like the Indian cricket team of the 1960s and 1970s with upper caste genteel leaders who lacked the killer instinct. Under Modi, the BJP has turned into a mean if not lean fighting machine.

Unlike Vajpayee, Modi has made the BJP into the natural party of power and transformed himself into the leader of the nation. It helps that his rivals have lost the plot. Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has been in a hurry to win elections in other states before establishing a track record in Delhi. He wants to run before he can walk and acts not as chief minister of Delhi, but of the entire country. The AAP began with much promise, but is now a one-man band that has now become a caricature of monumental proportions.


The parties of the socialist fold that have produced two of the last five prime ministers are in disarray. When they unite as they did in Bihar, they can still win. But the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are locked in a fratricidal battle of mutual annihilation. Furthermore, they are too narrowly focused on the interests of a few castes and capturing the Muslim vote. This has proved to be their undoing, allowing the BJP to change what the BBC calls “the social arithmetic of Indian elections.”

donate to nonprofit media organizationsThe SP, until recently the ruling party of Uttar Pradesh, is primarily a party of Yadavs. They are members of the agrarian landholding caste who have taken over the instruments of the state over the years. Identity politics is the name of the game, and caste matters, not merit. While Yadavs get to be illiterate teachers and dancing policemen, the SP buy the Muslim vote by roping in powerful leaders from the community, patronizing the Urdu press and handing out subsidies to Islamic institutions. It is not without surprise that Mulayam Singh Yadav, the founder of SP, is often called Mullah Mulayam.

Apart from identity politics, the SP is infamous as a party of trigger-happy thugs. Even The Wall Street Journal has reported on SP’s “goonda raj” (rule of goons) and its wanton record of violence. SP’s reputation for brutality is matched only by its record of venality. SP’s own legislators such as Mohammad Ziauddin Rizvi have bemoaned that “corruption is at its peak” in UP with administrative and police officers demanding bribes even from legislators. Some of this money purportedly goes right to the top in UP. It is little surprise that one of Yadav’s sons drives a Lamborghini. Democracy is messy even in America, but it is downright dirty in UP.

In the 1970s, India experienced a great wave of socialism. Leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan, Satyendra Narayan Sinha and Karpuri Thakur campaigned against corruption and misrule. Narayan—popularly known as JP—led the JP movement and the fight against Indira when she assumed dictatorial powers during the Emergency from 1975 to 1977. JP was locked up for his protests and so were thousands of others. These socialists were honest, upstanding and principled. The same cannot be said about their successors.

The socialist parties of northern India have been taken over by landholding agrarian castes. Once, they wanted liberation from the top castes such as Brahmins and Rajputs. Once in office, they developed a taste for power and realized that India’s colonial state could serve their selfish interests. Ironically, instead of these landholding castes turning socialist, they have transformed socialist parties into feudal bastions of pelf and patronage.

All of these parties have also turned dynastic. The Indian National Lok Dal is dominated by the Devi Lal clan; the SP by Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family; the Rashtriya Janata Dal is run by Laloo Prasad Yadav’s household; the Biju Janata Dal is run by Biju Patnaik’s son; and the Janata Dal Secular is the fiefdom of the sons of Haradanahalli Doddegowda Deve Gowda, a former prime minister. This is worse than the caviar communism that has made communist parties in India unelectable.


The election results of March 11 have demonstrated that the Indian opposition is in disarray. The historic Indian National Congress may have won Punjab, but it has no presence in UP. The party’s base has largely been decimated and is led by fifth generation scion who lacks ideas, energy and verbal fluency. Rahul Gandhi is a modern-day Louis XVI who lacks the ability to lead, the energy to campaign or the interest to govern.

For all their faults, it is India’s socialist parties that are the only challengers to the BJP. They are the only obstacle in the path of Modi and his utter domination of the Hindi heartland. However, until socialists curb their venality, brutality, nepotism and divisions, the field is clear for Modi for a second term in 2019.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand – COMEO

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