Amit Shah's campaign reminiscent of Sanjay Gandhi

The first six months of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term have heralded the coming of age of trusted lieutenant Amit Shah. Without doubt the face of Modi 2.0, strong parallels can be drawn between his style of functioning and that of Sanjay Gandhi, the bete noir of the Emergency and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son. 

Of course there are differences between the cast of characters then and now. Unlike Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, neither the Prime Minister nor his Union Home Minister Amit Shah, come from ‘entitled’ political families. They have had to work their way up, dedicating themselves in the service of the ideology of Hindutva. Prime Minister Modi’s faith in his Home Minister, unlike that of a mother in her darling son, has been built on his good counsel and excellent performance in both party organisation and elections. And, while Sanjay Gandhi was an unconstitutional centre of power, Amit Shah has risen by democratic processes.

The political situation is also different even though some have referred to the Modi regime as an “undeclared Emergency”. No articles of the Constitution have been suspended this time around. They have nonetheless been changed through parliamentary procedures and their interpretation influenced by the loudness of the dominant political discourse. Nor are the government’s actions extra-legal. It uses existing laws to invoke sedition against the regime’s critics and provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act against parents who allow their children to protest against the government. The obiter dicta of the judiciary lend further legitimacy to the Executive’s unprecedented misuse of law. Just as the Emergency was backed by big business, they too are backed by some of the largest corporates for reasons of expediency, the aging scion Ratan Tata, being the latest to join in singing paens to the “visionary” duo.

The strongest similarity with the Sanjay Gandhi moment however, is the persona of the man spearheading PM Modi’s national agenda, Amit Shah. Sanjay Gandhi was driven by a “development” agenda – promote adult literacy (with slogans like “Each one, teach one”), abolish dowry and the caste system, save the environment (clear slums and plant trees) and most contentious of all, population control (through the infamous “nasbandi” or forced vasectomy). This, Sanjay Gandhi thought, would perpetuate his mother in power. 

Shah’s driving vision is to build a Hindu majoritarian state. 

His means are as ruthless and as bereft of any understanding of how long-term changes can be brought about as Sanjay Gandhi’s. All opposition must be pulverised into submission. While Sanjay Gandhi and his mother jailed only individuals, Shah ‘jailed’ the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir for nearly five months and is forever looking out for “Urban Naxals” and illegal immigrants to put behind bars. If Sanjay Gandhi asked state governments to organise sterilisation camps, Amit Shah would multiply detention centres for “illegal” entrants across the country. 

Both are/were men in a hurry, willing to bend the power of the state to their ends. However, the Prime Minister and Home Minister are able to maintain the veneer of legality and democratic process, unlike during the Emergency. The Citizenship Amendment Act has been created by Parliament, and the collection of data of citizens by the National Population Register follows a “census-like” procedure (but without any of its safeguards) and has the National Register of Citizens embedded in it. The sequence of enfranchising the select and disenfranchising of “others” can proceed legally helping Amit Shah to sculpt an electorate of a ‘people’ that the BJP can trust. 

As they beat India into desired shape, politicians of the past are projected as having been “slothful” or worse, politically compromised, in not completing what they call “the unfinished business of Partition”. By contrast they are the “doers”, with the charge led by Union Home Minister doing what Prime Minister Modi could not do in his first term. He has broken with the methods of his mentor to give greater momentum to “cleaning up the mess” created by Nehruvian socialists. The  message to his “saheb” is that tremendous usurpation of power by the government is useless unless directed to propelling forward their political agenda and perpetuating them in power.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah along with Delhi BJP President Manoj Tiwari during a roadshow ahead of Delhi Assembly polls in New Delhi. Photo: ANI

The ruthless remaking of governance has increased several-fold after he assumed power as Union Home Minister. Pragmatic individuals have been actively sought and appointed heads of crucial institutions, so that the bureaucracy, politics and some would claim, even the judiciary, danced to his tune as they once did to Sanjay Gandhi’s baton. 

Another dangerous parallel with the Emergency is patronising radical elements to discredit the centrist politics. Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi patronised Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale to shrink the middle ground in Punjab. Modi and Shah too have promoted extremists with criminal antecedents in public life. A hate-monger like Adityanath, implicated in several criminal cases, has been promoted as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. 

Although Bhindranwale’s challenge to the Akali leadership of Punjab was extra-constitutional and Adityanath’s militancy was promoted through electoral processes, the radicalisation is similar. Once placed in legislatures and appointed to the Executive, extremists can use the laws of the land and the machinery of government to marginalise political opponents. They do not need to be themselves armed or even call upon armed vigilantes. 

Just as Sanjay Gandhi’s power overshadowed “Mummy”, the Union Home Minister has also put his “saheb” in the shade. His aggressiveness shows no sign of abating before the rage of public protests across India. The damage is evident in the UN criticism of India’s move towards a discriminatory citizenship regime and the European parliament’s resolution against India for moves towards a majoritarian state.

Indira Gandhi initiated her own denouement by announcing elections which pliant intelligence agencies told her she would sweep. How the cookie might crumble for Prime Minister Modi is uncertain. Can he rely on what wags call, his “paseena-facial” (literally, the sweat of his brow) – a la his advice to students recently -- to preserve the sheen of his visage?

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