Is 'note ban' Modi's 'Mandal' moment, or is he more likely to meet Indira Gandhi's fate?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI
There are some similarities in what Indira Gandhi did from 1969 onwards, within two years of just about winning the 1967 Lok Sabha elections, and the tasks that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken upon himself to accomplish after completing half of his five-year term on November 26.

The Indira government abolished privy purses of princes and unveiled bank nationalisation – two steps that endeared her to the poor. She fought and handsomely won the 1971 Lok Sabha elections on the plank of ‘Garibi Hatao’.

In her election campaign, Indira Gandhi famously said: ‘wah kahate hain Indira hatao, hum kahte hain garibi hatao’, they (the Opposition) say remove Indira Gandhi, we say remove poverty’. Her opponents, including the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, came up with the following slogan: “Dekho Indira ka yeh khel, kha gayi rashan, pi gayi tel”. But that didn’t work.

That Lok Sabha election was in February-March of 1971. By December of that year, even Opposition leaders were calling her Goddess Durga as she led India to a famous victory in the Bangladesh war. But trouble was around the corner. The Indira government had promised too much, and delivered little.

By 1973, inflation and increase in cost of essential commodities led to students’ protests, first in Gujarat and then in Bihar. In 1974, her government defied the US to conduct India’s first atomic test in Pokhran. But this failed to arrest the downslide in her popularity. She imposed an Emergency in 1975, called for elections in March 1977, and was defeated by a united Opposition.

Modi’s strategy has been somewhat similar to that of Indira Gandhi’s – a mix of nationalism and anti-rich discourse. Since April 2015, Modi has stuck to his campaign of welfare of the poor. On September 29, there was a ‘surgical strike’ by the Indian Army on terror camps on the Line of Control (LoC). Cross-LoC shelling has continued ever since.

Then came the PM’s ‘note ban’ decision. Modi has repeatedly said how all those against the move support black money, and how the rich have been looting the poor all these years. The PM, as Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’Brien said in the Rajya Sabha, has portrayed himself as the messiah of the poor, and his opponents as devils.

The man on the street supports him. Results of civic body elections in Maharashtra and Gujarat indicate the support that people have for ‘note ban’. Much of the opposition has pointed to the inconvenience that the people have faced, and to over 70 deaths due to ‘note ban’. The intelligentsia, which has never supported him in the past, has also opposed the ‘note ban’.

In his ‘note ban’ decision, Modi has met with opposition from his traditional supporters, including the middle classes and traders. It is somewhat similar to the protests that then prime minister, VP Singh, met with in August 1990 after announcing the implementation of the Mandal Commission report to provide for a 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in central government jobs and educational institutions.

The student community, much of which was upper caste, turned against Singh. The media pounced on him for ‘defeating meritocracy’. In 1989, Singh had become the PM with support from the middle classes, who had then seen in him a leader who could provide corruption-free governance. Modi was supported by the middle classes for his promise of reform and jobs. Modi has now, at least ostensibly, turned more pro-poor than even the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments.

After 1991, Singh remained on the margins of power politics. He is remembered by a large majority as a symbol of empowerment of backward castes, but is seen as a villain for a voluble minority. After 1971, Gandhi failed to keep her promises. She made a comeback in 1980 but her legacy remains sullied by the Emergency and her cynical politics in Punjab.

Modi’s test begins now. He has raised expectations of the man on the street. His government has the money for welfare schemes. Can Modi deliver upon his promises, or will a failure lead him to take ever audacious gambles?

The next few months could decide his political future.

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