Sorry, Rahul. Modi wants to capture Indira's legacy

Sorry, Rahul. Modi wants to capture Indira's legacy

Prime minister Naredra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI file photo

The story goes that when Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash June 1980, a heartbroken Indira Gandhi went to the scene of the crash not once but twice on that fatal day, perhaps as a way to come to terms with the untimely and shocking death of her beloved son and political heir. Were she alive today, it would be interesting to find out what she thought of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's style of functioning or indeed whether she, in an unguarded moment, would admit that Modi might be the renegade heir to her political bloodline. But while Indira Gandhi’s thoughts on this question will never be known, Modi himself seems to have no doubt about who should be seen as the inheritor of her legacy.

Modi appears to have indirectly laid claim to Indira's political lineage in a couple of speeches made after the Balakot air strikes. Sample what he said at a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rally in Patna on March 3 : "They (the Opposition) say let us together eliminate Modi. Modi says come let us together eliminate terrorism....I am trying to build new roads and they are trying to remove me from their paths.” Modi repeated the words at a political rally in Jamnagar on March 4, suggesting that his invocation of Indira Gandhi's famous retort to a united Opposition aginst her, 'woh kehte hain Indira hatao, mein kehte hoon garibi hatao', from her 1971 election campaign was no coincidence.

Modi, it would appear, has decided to quite deliberately signal the similarities between him and Indira Gandhi after the Balakot air strikes and India's bid to respond with force to the deadly attack on the CRPF jawans in Pulwama. Look closely and it’s obvious that Modi and Indira share many similarities in terms of their leadership style: a cult of personality and centraliseddecision-making are just two examples. The use of ingenious devices to unify a fractious electorate behind them is another: While Indira would invoke the famous ‘Foreign Hand’ at will, Modi points at the ‘internal enemies’ who have the temerity to question his government’s policies.

The latest hostilities with Pakistan have underlined Modi’s conscious effort to refresh memories of Indira Gandhi's 'strong leadership' that won India the 1971 war and led to the creation of Bangladesh – without actually acknowledging her achievement in so many words. His message, it would be safe to assume, would not be lost speaking as he did in the Hindi heartland (Patna) first and then in his home state of Gujarat.

Modi's appeal to the people to back a strong leader of the Indira variety is rich in irony, given that he will soon be going head-to-head against Indira’s family in the 2019 general election. The forthcoming polls are the first in which all three main members of the Gandhi family are involved: Party president Rahul, favoured scion and prospective PM candidate; his sister Priyanka, touted as a key weapon in electorally vital Uttar Pradesh and a spitting image of Indira herself; and their mother and Indira’s daughter-in-law Sonia, the anchor for all political alliances forged before and after the polls.

But at another level. Modi is doing more than just alluding to Indira Gandhi and himself in the same breath. He is inventing a political lineage for himself that bypasses the stalwarts of the BJP – the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the sidelined LK Advani -- and effectively conjouring up a political family tree that comes down from fellow Gujarati Vallabhbhai Patel to him, via Indira Gandhi, conveniently poached from the Nehru clan he detests.

If the world's tallest statue of the Sardar erected last year made no attempt to hide Modi's gargantuan ambitions in terms of how he wants to be remembered by future generations (a man who will not shrink from taking strong action, if needed, to unify India) then the invocation of Indira must enlarge the scope of this further (a man will also not hesitate to retaliate when India is threatened from the outside.)

If a new generation of Indians will buy this tenuous re-description of history, then Modi may not need spell out for them what he seems to be saying covertly anyhow: Modi is India and India is Modi.


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