A Tale of Two Dictators

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What sets Modi apart from his Gandhi family soulmate, and the great yearning among Indians for an autocrat ‘who gets things done’
Vinod Mehta’s biography of Sanjay Gandhi, titled ‘The Sanjay Story,’ was originally published in 1978 by Jaico Publishing House, and reissued in 2012 by HarperCollins

Sanjay Gandhi was the creation of a peculiar set of circumstances. His power was derived almost exclusively from his relationship with his mother, who happened to be Prime Minister of India. He had no independent power. He was an extra-constitutional authority. His power was directly proportional to his mother’s power, and when she fell, he also fell.

A Sanjay Gandhi kind of figure is unlikely to emerge now—he’d have to be sitting in the Prime Minister’s house. But you could have a leader with the same motivations that he had, a leader who is elected democratically with a huge majority, whose great appeal to the public lies in the fact that he has a reputation for getting things done, even in India. There is today a growing public demand for a leader who can cut through all the messy procedures, all the necessary mechanisms, all the approvals that you need to implement policy, and, famously, ‘get things done’. People are frustrated by the pace at which things move, they complain about policy paralysis, and say that the Government is not able to take decisions quickly out of ineptitude or because of the ‘system’.

This is the main criticism of the UPA Government—that there are too many delays across the board, even in implementing basic social sector programmes. Many of these delays could be cut short by a strong leader.

Some of these systemic delays can be eliminated—they come from inefficiency, incompetence, ineptitude, not knowing how to work the political process. There is an art to decision-making in a coalition government, which the Congress is not good at; which the BJP under Vajpayee, for example, was very good at.

There is a feeling now that delays in implementing policy can be easily short-cut by a strong leader who can get things done. There is a school of thought that you don’t actually need any more laws, you just have to implement the ones that are in existence. In the recent gangrape matter, there is a feeling that the laws were there, but there were too many of them and they were not implemented.

What I fear is that a so-called strong leader could come and misuse this public hunger for fast development. This anxiety for getting things done can be exploited. Who’s going to argue with the fact that we need to get things done fast? But people may not always understand the price that is to be paid for that, and on many occasions they may find that the price is concealed.

What people want is a strong, decisive leader who comes in with a magic wand and manages to get things done. Take Narendra Modi, for instance. He allegedly has a good record of governance—he gets things done. Ratan Tata took his project to Modi on the night the Singur project failed in West Bengal, and in three or four days, all the permissions were laid before Tata on the table.

This sounds very attractive. The middle-class voting public is enamoured of Narendra Modi’s success in Gujarat. I meet many people who, when asked if they think Modi will come to power, respond, “I hope he does because he’s going to be good for the country.” I’m alarmed by the number of people who think that. It seems, especially in the past few months, after the Gujarat election, that people are really yearning for it. There is a Narendra Modi constituency, and it extends beyond the BJP. In some ways, it is an insult to Narendra Modi to compare him to Sanjay Gandhi. Modi is a very intelligent man. Gandhi was a mediocre man, too much of an introvert to have a cult following like Modi.

Sanjay had a very simplistic idea of how things are to be done. He would say, ‘Why can’t Muslims see that compulsory sterilisation is a good thing? We’re doing it for them. If they have less children, they’ll have a better family life’. It was the same with the slum demolitions. ‘It’s done in their interest, I’m surprised they can’t see this. They’re living in horrible conditions. I’m giving them something thirty miles away which is much better and has many more civic amenities.’ But alas there were no civic amenities. It was a mirage.

The great tragedy of Sanjay’s personality was that he was hopeless in everything he attempted. He couldn’t express himself. He couldn’t lead a team. He had no ideas—even simplistic ideas need to be fleshed out. He couldn’t even flesh out his own ideas. He just had some notions that ‘India needs education, India needs population control, India needs to have no slums, so I’ll do this and this and this. He never had a serious, workable plan.’

On his own, without his mother, he was absolutely appeal-less. That’s why a Narendra Modi kind of figure becomes more dangerous, because he is not appeal-less. He is much more of a demagogue, much more of a populist, much more of a communicator. And his power comes from his own, independent base. He would be able to justify a short-cutting of the system in a much more compelling way than Sanjay Gandhi ever could. But Gandhi could never justify it. He seldom gave an interview, or spoke publicly.

The Emergency remains important because somebody might try to repeat the exercise, though it would be horrendously difficult. Back then there was single party rule. The Cabinet had to pass an ordinance and it had to be sent to the President—you didn’t have to consult any allies. Now, we have 22 parties, and any government that comes to power is made up of multiple parties. For example, the UPA Government is made up of 14-16 coalition partners. So if you wanted to impose an emergency, you would first have to convince your own allies. And if your ally happens to be the DMK, or Sharad Pawar and the NCP, they’re unlikely to agree to it. To that extent it’s become much more difficult. But you never know, somebody might try it, and might be able to convince his allies.

And if that somebody is elected democratically, he’s infinitely more dangerous, because he has public consent behind him. In Sanjay Gandhi’s case, his power was fundamentally questioned. He had no democratic sanction for the power he exercised.

No leader will come out and say, “I am going to bypass democratic norms.” He will pretend, in the beginning, that he will follow all norms. He will merely promise to get things done much faster, and that could get him elected.

Even Sanjay Gandhi, in the first five or six months of the Emergency, followed all democratic norms, and those first few months were quite good. As Mrs Gandhi said, “Sanjay is making the trains run on time.” LIC clerks came to work on time, people took a lunch break of one hour, and this was all cited as one of the great benefits of the Emergency—discipline.

Slowly but surely, that ‘discipline’ turned to compulsory sterilisation, or the slum-clearance programme. You can argue that there’s nothing wrong with either of those, if they’re done properly, through the right procedures. But that’s not what was done. They did a vasectomy on a 70-year-old man with no teeth to fulfil a quota. It was a kind of tyranny.

Such power begins by following all procedures and norms, then you start shortcutting them. And then you tell the country that ‘It doesn’t matter if some of these norms and some of these procedures are being by-passed, you’ve given me a mandate to get things done, and I’m getting things done, so don’t ask me too many questions about how.’

The most frightening aspect of that scenario is that it would all be done initially with public consent—the consent of a public that is prepared to overlook or pardon some excesses, because the end purpose seems to be good for the people. This brings us back to the old question of means versus ends. The argument is that if the ends are so important—and they are, who would deny it—then please don’t worry too much about the means. This is how it starts. You start justifying things in the name of ‘ends’. And that’s very dangerous. You’ve embarked on a journey, where you do it once, then you do it again, and each time you do it in a more audacious manner. First you say, ‘The displacement of 10,000 is alright’, then you say, ‘20,000 is okay’, then you say, ‘100,000 is okay’.

If you have national consent behind you, based on people wanting things done, they might even look the other way while you’re breaking the law, because they’re in tune with you as far as the ends are concerned. They agree that FDI must come in, this or that project must go on. If you have to displace some tribals, if you have to put them in trucks and take them away, that’s alright, just make sure they have some food to eat and are given some compensation.

Politicians today are too smart not to know that the only way they can come to power is through elections, there’s no shortcut. They may have a sense of entitlement to rule the country, but they know that the first thing they have to do, by hook or by crook, is to win elections. And since their voting appeal rests with the so-called aam aadmi, they are constantly concerned not to do anything to alienate him. Sanjay Gandhi had no interest in that, because he had to win no elections.

Someone like Narendra Modi would have to win elections, and therefore would try harder to get public consent for his policies. He will say, ‘This project was held up for six years, I have come and I have got it done in one year. This road was not built for three years, it has now been started. FDI in the country was 20 per cent below, I have brought it to fifty per cent.’ He will throw statistics at you. I’m not saying those statistics will be false, but I’m saying we will constantly need to question how they have been achieved. Because once public consent is given, how he would use and manipulate it to bypass and violate human rights and the laws of this country is something that must worry us.

Institutions of democracy must constantly be vigilant. If a leader comes to power democratically, you have to give him space, but make sure that he is constantly reminded of the limits to his power, the lakshman rekha. The lakshman rekha is something like Enron. That was a scandal! Crony capitalism in Gujarat is already rampant. That is one area that you have to be careful about, that may get an all-India profile. Another area we have to be very careful about is the mineral wealth of this country, which is open to all kinds of exploitation and corruption. There are poor people sitting on top of that mineral wealth. So to get to it, you have to displace millions and millions of people. Until now, you have succeeded in some places because some compensation norms have been set up, civil society vigilance is there, so those people have got at least 70-75 per cent of what’s due to them. And in a couple of cases they have actually said, ‘We don’t care about how much money you give us, we are not giving up our land’, and the government has had to bow down.

Precisely how this will operate on the ground I can’t tell you. But one may convince the courts, convince the people that these 100,000 tribals being displaced are being given a fair compensation and it is being done in the national interest.

Even though you know that whenever this happens it’s a recipe for disaster, because they never get what they have been promised. And why should those people with their own culture and heritage have to move out anyway? That’s also important. Whatever compensation you pay them, they have lived there for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Their gods are there, they worship those mountains. You can say this is all very antediluvian, but there’s a case to be made for it.

But you might do your electoral arithmetic and say you don’t need the votes of these tribal people, and you don’t care what happens to them, as long as you satisfy the middle-class voting public. You might say any Muslim having more than one wife or two wives is against the law, or anybody who has more than so many children is going to be denied a ration card, and say that it’s being done in the interest of curbing population.

One of the tragedies of the Emergency was how quickly so-called people of integrity, character—well-respected people who had a sense of their own worth— fell into line. Like LK Advani’s famous statement about the press—when it was asked to bend, it crawled.

We have a strong civil society today, we have a strong Supreme Court today, we have a strong media today. But what happens when we have our coveted strong leader? The only hope is that the institutions of democracy keep a hawk’s eye on any strong leader when he comes to power.

Narendra Modi’s case is not entirely hypothetical. If I were a betting man today, I would say chances are at least 60 per cent that he will lead the NDA combination in the next election. Whether it wins or not, he is going to be the leader of the NDA.

There are two or three other leaders in his own party who are viscerally opposed to him, but I think they have no power base. His greatest strength is that the rank and file of the BJP is behind him. There’ll be a revolt in the BJP if they try to stop him. The last time he came to Delhi, when he went to the party office, they were shouting “PM! PM! PM!” Still, there is a very strong body of opinion in this country today that is opposed to Narendra Modi—civil society, minority groups, secular Indians. I don’t know how strong they are, but the hope is that these people, when he is in power, are able to exercise enough vigilance over him to keep him in check.

The question is whether a BJP-led government with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister can rule this country with a huge chunk of the Indian population opposed to it, just waiting to get rid of him on any pretext.

He would be well advised to make peace with them, but he’s a very stubborn man. He will need not only to apologise for what happened in Gujarat. Though he may not succeed, and some people may be permanently aggrieved, he must show a desire to carry everybody along with him, and he must demonstrate that through concrete action, even if it seems like tokenism—for instance, through the appointment of ministers in his government. He gave no tickets to Muslims in Gujarat. There might be an inclination to stop the Haj subsidies and he will have to resist that, maybe even increase them. But that’s against the grain of his personality.

There’s a dormant feeling amongst Hindus in India that ‘these people’ get away with a lot. That Muslims are a votebank who are always being appeased, that they are privileged despite all the poverty they live in. So go for them. And Narendra Modi’s natural tendency would also be to go for them. If, say, Nitish Kumar were to become Prime Minister and develop authoritarian tendencies, it would be unlikely that he would use the communal card. But that is something Modi has done before, and he might do again when he is PM.

Some sensible people might advise him that if he’s got prime-ministerial ambitions, he can’t replicate the Gujarat formula nationally, but I’m not sure he’ll listen. He will try to prove that he doesn’t need them, saying ‘They don’t vote for me or my party anyway’. But if Muslims are permanently aggrieved and hostile to you, it’s going to be very difficult to rule this country.

There will also be some Hindus who are aggrieved because they are secular in their thinking. You will have quite a large chunk in a 1.2 billion population who are permanently against you. The only time a BJP-NDA government worked was under Vajpayee, who Muslims and minorities didn’t mind so much, although they may not have liked the BJP. Why do you think Advani, who led the whole Rathyatra movement, threw himself out of the race in 1998 and promoted Vajpayee as leader instead? Because he realised they couldn’t get the allies otherwise.

Nothing can be gained by alienating people, but I don’t think you can jump to the conclusion that he cannot govern without appeasing them. I think it is possible that an NDA government can come to power led by Narendra Modi with a huge chunk of people against him. It will lead to a potentially dangerous situation, but it’s not necessarily true that it can’t happen. If 15-20 per cent of the Indian population is against him, and he carries 60-70 per cent of the people with him, I think it’s possible he could rule the country. It’s going to be a difficult country to rule, but once you win it democratically, you can do it.

But if you look at both the Congress and BJP, they came to power with 27-28 per cent of the national vote. Everybody is still saying that if the BJP comes to power, all it has to get is 180-200 seats and it has won the game. We’re not looking at a one-party scenario. Vajpayee ruled India with 24 coalition partners.

And as the general election approaches, I see nothing but more problems for the UPA Government. I don’t see them being able to salvage the situation. I can’t see a set of circumstances that would bring them back to power. I think it would be a miracle after all they’ve done, given their record in the past five years, or even the past three years. And things will become worse. By the time 2014 comes, the country will be ripe for a strong leader.

I don’t think there is any inconsistency between good governance, democracy, and fast implementation. We have all become convinced that democracy and a strong civil society and keeping a hawk’s eye are impediments to progress. You have to be able to work the system, and I think the UPA has not been able to work the system.

The fact is, we don’t have a particularly imaginative and efficient Prime Minister. If you put together a government that has people with energy, enthusiasm and imagination, and people who are not constantly scared about losing the election, at least 30 per cent of the system can be cleaned up through perfectly democratic means. It’s not necessary to go outside the system to get things done.

In Sanjay Gandhi’s time, it was never attempted. And Sanjay Gandhi never had the imagination. And while his mother had a mandate to do it, he didn’t. Narendra Modi has the capacity to get things done within the system. But he knows it’ll be slow. It’ll be hard going. And if he has come in with a reputation of speeding things up, then he will want to retain that reputation. So while he knows it can be done within the system, he also knows that if he bypasses the system he’ll get them done much faster. That’s the danger.

As told to Devika Bakshi