The only moment which was of interest in Consultant Editor, TVTN Rajdeep Sardesai’s interview of Congress President Sonia Gandhi on November 21, 2016 was when he asked her whether she thought Prime Minister Narendra Modi was like former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was the only time Sonia Gandhi seemed a little stern, and appalled, during the interview, and said “I don‘t think so”. But is the comparison really so odious and incorrect?
Actually not. Especially if you pay attention to Indira Gandhi’s functioning as prime minister – and Modi’s functioning. Yes, she was a dynast and Modi isn’t. We’ve been told that ad nauseam by now. But it’s strange that he seems to be following in the footsteps of the very person he and his ministers denounce.
Let’s just count the ways.
Both have few confidantes
First off is the functioning style of working in a silo. With only one or two confidantes. Indira was known for not taking her Cabinet into confidence while taking decisions ranging from the Emergency to the Bangladesh war or Operation Bluestar. The one person who had her ear was Sanjay Gandhi – the prodigal son.
Similarly, Narendra Modi – especially with the note ban and appointments to his Cabinet– has shown that only Amit Shah has his ear.
The good of the country can justify anything
Yesterday’s Nasbandi is today’s 'note bandi'. The speed and lack of warning with which the sterilisation drive was implemented is comparable only to the note ban. According to BBC, “an astonishing 6.2 million Indian men were sterilised in just a year, which was ‘15 times the number of people sterilised by the Nazis’, according to science journalist Mara Hvistendahl. Two thousand men died from botched operations”.
Why was this done? For the greater good of the country, because otherwise people would not have enough to eat. I didn’t say that. Indira Gandhi did. Much like Modi today is telling us how the demonetisation drive is for the greater good of the country - with no compunction or seeming awareness about the disastrous effects on the country.
Did Indira check with anyone before letting Sanjay Gandhi run riot on the streets of India, cleaning up slums and forcefully vasectomising people? No. Did Modi check what the effects of the note ban would be? We all know the answer to that.
'Don't trust the media'
There’s a persecution complex at play and a deep distrust of the media. The only reason we can’t all be thrown into prison is because today’s connected world with international media keeping a close eye on any sort of press censorship, is very different from the India of the Seventies and Eighties and an India where journalists, politicians, any dissenter could be picked up and locked away by the government – without fear of criticism from international quarters.
There is a deep distrust of the media. While Indira Gandhi simply locked people up and threw away the key during the Emergency, Narendra Modi gripes about the media at any given opportunity. The media criticises him, we are presstitutes (said by his merry men), we have an agenda, everyone is out to get him.
Both have seen the rise of yoga gurus
If anyone other than Sanjay Gandhi held Indira Gandhi’s counsel, it is is Dhirendra Brahmachari. The bearded yoga guru who was given enormous powers during Mrs Gandhi's regime and was sanctioned huge government funds. An India Today report on him says: “ In 1977 Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari had become Rasputin and Tsar rolled into one. In a period of fifteen years he had become the confidante of the Nehru family. The only person Sanjay would listen to was the swami, who camped with him during the fateful days of the Lok Sabha elections from March 16 to 21.
After the 1971 election the swami told his confidantes - and word leaked out - that he knew the exact composition of the cabinet. When he proved 100 per cent accurate, people with power and money took the hint. Simultaneously his visits to 1, Safdarjung Road continued. In fact Sanjay and Sonia were regular visitors to the ashram, Sonia spending on an average an hour to an hour-and-a-half every day”.
For Dhirendra, we have a good Babji of our own, Ramdev. Dhirendra even had a Garden Of Eden in Manthalai, quite similar to the lavish Patanjali Ashram. Much has been written about Ramdev’s importance to the prime minister. And we’ve all learnt how to do the downward dog thanks to the yoga poses that are beamed into our homes.
'Someone's coming to kill me'
There is of course the unfounded threats to life. Modi told us that we could forget about the trouble of standing in queue to withdraw money. His problems were bigger than ours. At his first speech upon his return from his Japan trip, Modi told us that his life was at threat.
When Indira Gandhi was justifying her decision to announce a state of Emergency, she’d written to the President and said that her life was under threat. She never managed to explain how she came to this conclusion – even when interviewed about it by Jonathan Dimbleby of Thames Televisions in 1978, post-Emergency. Dimbleby asked her, “What was the precise nature of that danger?” To which she had no answer.
There is one difference though. Indira Gandhi was as obsessed with her family and vice versa as our current prime minister distances himself from his.
But most importantly, it is the vocabulary and justifications provided by the duo which makes them look like mirror images of each other.