Shekhar Gupta: Back to the inglorious past

In the non-stop hail of worsening economic indicators, one stands out. That the unemployment levels today are the worst they’ve been in 45 years. It takes us right back to 1974.

Indira Gandhi was still popular but some disillusionment was building up. Yet, even disappointed voters were still caught in a There Is No Alternative (TINA) trap. All economic indicators were in free fall, inflation was at almost 35 per cent and yet nationalism was still rampant and high.

Sounds familiar? Barring inflation, much else looks, sounds, and feels more than a bit like 1974. A phenomenally popular leader, with a party of unquestioning followers, a broken opposition, a nationalist high and never mind an economy in free fall, crippling joblessness. India isn’t just a land of paradoxes, it is capable of producing the same mega paradox twice within a generation, under radically different ideologies.

Let’s explore a little backwards, to 1971. Early in the year, Mrs Gandhi had won a famous election, defeating the formidable old guard of the Congress she had just broken up, in spite of the fact that all opposition parties had joined hands against her.

In early 1971, she was riding the “Maa Durga” incarnate, having defeated and dismembered Pakistan. She could walk on water.

The twin-engine populism of socialism and nationalism, however, was masking the harsher realities of India. The economy was already collapsing under the weight of her maniacal nationalisations; entrepreneurs were fleeing an invasive licence-quota raj; super-high taxation (97.5 per cent ultimately) created the black economy that still hasn’t been defeated; and the expense of the war didn’t help. But, remember, political fortunes are determined not by statistics, but the mood or what we call the “hawa”.

It was in 1971 that poet-lyricist Gulzar made his first film, Mere Apne. It was built around Meena Kumari, a poor and abandoned old woman in a city who becomes a central figure of affection and refuge for a bunch of young men played by some who’d become big names later. They have degrees, aspirations, but no jobs and nothing to do except while away time in desperate hopelessness, play some pranks, or get into street fights.

But they could laugh at themselves and Gulzar wrote for them the anthem for those years of decline: “Haal chaal theek thaak hai...” Play it, listen to the lyrics. Almost every line would make you pause and figure out why I take you back there.

Sample: “BA kiya hai, MA kiya, lagta hai woh bhi aiwein kiya/kaam nahin hai varna yahan, aapki dua se baaki theek-thaak hai...” (We’ve got our BA/MA degrees, looks like it was all a waste/there’s no job, nothing to do, yet, with your benevolence all’s well with the world.) Gulzar might as well have written it for 2019. Or he can re-release it and pretend he just wrote it. You wouldn’t know.

Before we discuss how we got here from the world-conquering optimism of 2014, it is instructive to see how India and Indira Gandhi reached the collapse of 1974 from the high of 1971. That March 1971 landslide and the destruction of all opposition was so heady, she and her deeply ideological (of the chic Left) advisors kept sinking ever deeper into toxic socialism.

Then, when India’s economy was at its most vulnerable, two Black Swan events struck. One — the Yom Kippur war (October 1973) and the resulting oil shock — was beyond her control. The second, nationalisation of the wholesale wheat trade, she wrought upon herself. Her Communist cabal said, if it works in the Soviet Union, it shall work here. It didn’t.

A disaster followed, with wheat prices rising, farmers furious, traders and private rural middlemen jobless. It could have become her equivalent of Mao’s war on the sparrows of China. Alarmed, she reversed it, but too late. By the last quarter of 1974, India’s inflation peaked at 34.7 per cent and Mrs Gandhi’s popularity had declined deeply. Protests, Navnirman Andolan, all essentially comprising jobless youth and angry students, broke out nationwide. Sounds familiar and a bit more current?

Pushed to the wall, Mrs Gandhi fell back on her tested old ploy: Nationalism. First came the Pokhran-1 nuclear test (May 1974). That euphoria lasted only a few weeks as people by now were hurting deep down. The last throw of the dice was the integration of Sikkim, in May 1975. But angry people were not willing to go back from the pickets. A month later, we ended up with the Emergency.

Once again, because you need to qualify and idiot-proof everything these days, I am not suggesting or predicting we will end up that way again. My point is minimal for now: That once people have suffered joblessness and economic stall for a length of time, nationalism will no longer calm their anger.

At which point we take you back to the movies again because we well know that our film-makers can sniff the popular mood, their market, before any of us pundits can. After baaki kuchh bacha toh mehengai maar gayi was a mega hit), and the jobless underdog as protagonist. Again, this later dovetailed neatly into the “Angry Young Man” phase. But I am not going there at this point.

Where do you think did this repeat of history begin? Some of you might think it was the victory in the latest general elections that made the Modi government smug, despite a declining economy. If people vote for us despite the messed-up economy, it means all they need is a constant socio-nationalist high. You can fortify it further with religion. So, rather than go all-hands-on-the-deck with the economy, unleash Article 370, the Temple, the Citizenship Amendment Act. Never mind that economic data is looking worse by the quarter.

Would you consider, instead, putting this calendar back somewhere early in Narendra Modi’s first term and the twin blow of “suit-boot ki Sarkar” and defeat over that too-early-in-the-day land acquisition law? 

Mr Modi immediately shifted direction to more nationalism and deep socio-populism, and to being a corruption fighter. Demonetisation was the first of his self-wrought Black Swan events. This CAA-NRC-NPR jumble looks like his second. One, because it divides the country as nothing else did in decades. Second, because it has drawn total global disappointment if not direct criticism and you can’t just toss it now. We live in a globalised world where India’s stakes are different from those in 1974. And third, because unlike Mrs Gandhi’s heyday, India is now governed federally. You can’t order chief ministers around. Or fire them using Article 356.

Where do we go from this back-to-1974 feel now? We know where Mrs Gandhi took us by the summer of 1975. The choice lies with Mr Modi. Just that, even if he’s more popular and powerful than Mrs Gandhi then, it is a very different world — and India — than in 1975.
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