Back in 1980, just before she sent the home secretary home without a posting, Indira Gandhi asked him his view of her 1977 defeat. He had been the home secretary in the Janata government.
They had got along well before. He had first been a joint secretary and then an additional secretary in the home ministry during 1967-75. She used to consult him frequently on political matters.
He was as frank with her in January 28, 1980, as he had been at a meeting at her house on June 28, 1975, two days after the Emergency had been declared. That frankness had not gone down well, and by July 3 he had been sent back to his cadre, Madhya Pradesh.
In 1980 he had just this to say. “You stopped listening in 1974 and when you did listen, you listened to the wrong people.”
Who were the wrong people she asked. The Intelligence Bureau, said the officer. She nodded and after some brief chit chat ended the meeting.
They never met again. He was relieved of his post and not given another posting for 18 months when he retired.
Happens to all
Mrs Gandhi was not the first, and will not be the last, prime minister who stopped listening or listened to the wrong people. The global list – led by Richard Nixon – is depressingly long.
Indeed, her own father had fallen victim to this problem which led to war with, and walloping by, China in 1962. The same thing, of listening to the wrong people, happened to his grandson Rajiv after the disastrous summer of 1987.
By 1995, P V Narasimha Rao had also cut himself off and listening only to yogis and self-seeking officers. Vajpayee was something of an exception but he too had his favourites. Manmohan Singh doesn’t count as prime minister in any real sense of the word.
Now it is Narendra Modi’s turn. And as the Gujarat and Rajasthan results show, it is becoming abundantly clear that he is listening to the wrong people.
He is also making the mistake that Mrs Gandhi made during 1975-77: of annoying everyone at the same time. Farmers, middle class, rich people, Muslims, Dalits, even his own rank and file – you name the group – and it is upset with him.
There are two major reasons why people are upset. One is that everyone – not just the farmers – has suffered a decline in spending power. As a result everyone is feeling worse off.
The other is that Mr Modi has handed over power to mobs and bureaucrats. As a result, everyone is feeling unsafe.
You just don’t know what will happen to you when: who might beat you up, who might send you a tax notice, which policeman might harass you. This is exactly how it was during the Emergency: a sense of pervasive apprehension, if not fear.
It is not as if Mr Modi doesn’t know just how oppressive the lower bureaucracy can be. He used to make enough references to it during his campaign speeches in 2013 and 2014.
And given his experience of the Gujarat riots of 2002, nor is he unaware of the effect of mobs. Indeed, he has also seen what happened in Delhi in 1984.
So why is he doing nothing about it? The answer is simple because his people – sycophants and the Intelligence Bureau – are telling him that all these reports are exaggerated and that whatever is being said is propaganda by the Congress. But the problem is that while until now this might have been true, it is no longer so.
In such situations both sycophants and intelligence people become afraid of annoying the boss if they tell the truth. So they keep reassuring him or her that there is nothing really wrong.
According to Devdutt Patnaik, Chanakya is once believed to have told Chandragupta Maurya: “A king has a sword in his hand and everyone who stands around him is acutely aware of the sword. So to save themselves they end up lying and flattering the king. It is fear of a king’s moods and opinions that shapes the behaviour in court.”
Mr Modi now needs to start listening to others. He has to call off the bureaucracy – in the misuse of Aadhaar to start with – and the mobs. If he doesn’t, he should not be surprised at the election result of 2019.