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1,095 Days Each Of Political History

An analysis of three-year report cards of prime ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi

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Denizens of new India probably think that a towering, popular and deeply polarising leader is a common phenomenon in Indian politics. That’s thanks to the phenomenon called Narendra Modi. They are wrong. Only two other prime ministers in independent India have towered over rivals and supporters the way Modi does: Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. Only one other prime minister has been as deeply polarising as Modi: Indira Gandhi. No other prime minister has faced as much scrutiny as Modi. But that’s not because of any deliberate prejudice as Modi fans would have us believe. Modi (and Manmohan Singh during the later half of his second term) belong to the age of noisy 24x7 news media and of vicious social media. No wonder then, the media coverage — as Modi and his NDA regime complete three years — looks often like a circus.              

But while the entire focus is on the three years gone by, it would be interesting to look at what was happening to India and Indians when other prime ministers completed their first three years.

Going back in history is not just a break from the vaudeville of the present, but also an exercise that offers insights into how Indian politics has evolved since Independence. Seven prime ministers: Nehru, Indira, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Modi have completed at least three years as prime minister. Seven prime ministers: Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, Chandra Sekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral never got the chance. Out of these 14 (not counting ‘caretaker’ PM Gulzarilal Nanda), only three: Nehru, Indira and Manmohan could serve for more than a single full term of five years. Will Modi be the fourth one? That’s for the voters to decide in 2019. Meanwhile, let’s go back in history
to examine “three years” of prime ministers.

Undisputed Kings Of India
In 1950, Nehru completed three years in office as prime minister. This was unique because India would witness General Elections more than a year later. It was also historic because India formally became a constitutional republic in 1950. Nehru was immensely popular and even towering. But between 1947 and 1950, he was still the first among equals. Sardar Patel, B.R. Ambedkar and the founder of Jan Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, were members of his Cabinet. But Patel died in 1950 and Nehru started graduating from first among equals to overwhelming dominance. The euphoria of freedom from the British was still high and India was marked more by optimism than cynicism.

As mentioned earlier, Nehru had no “rivals” after Sardar Patel died in 1950. In 1955, when he completed his second “three years”, Nehru was like an undisputed monarch. Leaders like Ambedkar and Mukherjee had revolted against Nehru and their impact on Indians in 1955 was minimal (of course, the long term impact of the two has dealt a death blow to Nehru’s Congress).

By 1955, it was also clear that Nehru was determined to follow an Indianised version of Soviet-style socialism when it came to economic policies. A 1956 industrial policy reserved the “commanding heights” of the Indian economy for the “public sector”. In hindsight, Nehru’s economic policies do look naive, if not disastrous. But make no mistake, socialism was the flavour of the season back then and most Indians supported Nehru in his quest to build modern temples of India.
It was in 1960, when Nehru completed his third “three years”, that doubts had begun to creep in. The venerable C. Rajagopalachari had openly revolted against socialism and formed the Swatantra Party. Nehru had started losing his “democratic” halo by dismissing an elected Communist government in Kerala. The Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1959 exposed the frailty of his “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” credo. And an overwhelming majority of Indians remained as poor as they were in 1947. And yet, Nehru remained popular.

It was another decade before a prime minister could complete three uninterrupted years as prime minister. That was Indira Gandhi in the tumultuous 1969. By then, the Congress had started losing its hegemony in India. The Congress itself was deeply divided with Indira fighting a bitter battle of control with the old guard led by Morarji Desai.

Surprising and even shocking her opponents, Indira lurched deep left to attract voters. The princely privy purses were abolished. Banks were nationalised. And Indira propped up a “rebel” candidate V.V. Giri for presidential elections. Inevitably, the Congress split. The real historical and malignant legacy of that year is the consequences of the hard left turn of Indira. India lost two decades of growth opportunities as a result of stifling economic policies. It was also the genesis of crony socialism.

Unlike Nehru, Indira always faced turmoil while completing three years of a term. If 1969 was bad, the year 1974 was terrible. From Goddess Durga in 1971, Indira had become a reviled figure by 1974. The protests led by Jayapraksh Narayan were political; but the root causes were economic. Widespread inflation, food shortages and rampant corruption had completely eroded public trust in the Congress brand of politics and economics. The rise of the angry young man in Hindi movies is testimony to the level of public anger.

By 1974, it was also clear that the old Congress was becoming a family fiefdom with younger son Sanjay Gandhi emerging as an extra constitutional authority with his own band of Youth Congress goons. The year marks the beginning of the end of Congress as a party that fought for India’s freedom. This formality was completed the next year when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency and jailed all opponents. The only saving grace was that unlike other “dictators” of her era, Indira voluntarily lifted the Emergency and called for free and fair elections which she lost badly in 1977. In 1983, Indira competed her third “three years” in power. And frankly, the violence and divisiveness of 1974 looked harmless compared to the convulsions of 1983 which led to the monstrosity of 1984. Assam was burning and in probably the worst massacre of Muslims in independent India, more than 3,000 were butchered in a few hours of madness in Nellie.

Punjab too was burning and a religious preacher named Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale had issued a  challenge to the Indian state. Terrorists in Punjab were killing openly and indiscriminately. The holy Golden Temple became a fortress where proponents of Khalistan held sway. All this camouflaged the good that was gradually visible on the economic front by 1983. Motorcycles, colour TVs and brave new serials along with the Maruti car gave glimpses of a new and vibrant India that would emerge eventually. But at that moment, it did appear as if India was tottering on the edge. With former pilot Rajiv Gandhi having replaced the late Sanjay Gandhi as the heir apparent, the Congress was now a fully family-owned enterprise.

Rajiv Gandhi was the last of the Gandhis to be a prime minister of India (though many argue that Sonia Gandhi did effectively rule India from behind the scenes between 2004 and 2014). He was blessed with a popular mandate that even his mother and grandfather would have been envious of. He represented hope for a generation of young Indians tired of old slogans. And yet, by 1987, when he completed three years, the fall of brand Rajiv was spectacular. Popular historians would single out the Bofors scandal as the event that destroyed both credibility and popularity in 1987. But Bofors became the outward manifestation of the anger of Indians who felt betrayed. Shah Bano and Babri Masjid were two monsters unleashed by Rajiv that were running riot by 1987. A severe drought that year and starvation in Kalahandi in Odisha revealed the deep rot in the system. In hindsight, one can also argue that the economic policies pursued by Rajiv — of borrowing recklessly — drove India to the precipice. Because of his tragic assassination in 1991, some Indians are nostalgic about what kind of leader Rajiv could have evolved into. But in 1987, it was clear that Rajiv had lost the trust and faith of the average Indian.

The Non-Congress PMs
Nothing much was expected of P. V. Narashima Rao when he became prime minister in 1991. But in hindsight, it is clear that his economic legacy surpasses that of Nehru and Indira in the manner it benefited India and lifted tens of millions out of poverty. But Rao was never charismatic and had to deal with many ambitious rivals within Congress, apart from a suspicious and sometimes hostile Sonia Gandhi.

By 1994, when he completed three years, the Congress had begun its terminal decline. Scandals marked the regime and it was clear that the future belonged to regional chieftains and Hindutva. Just like his personality, there was nothing really remarkable about 1994 except a feeling among Indians that the time had come to explore other parties.

Vajpayee became the first non- Congress prime minister to complete a full term. Of course, he survived about two weeks in 1996 and one year in 1998 as prime minister before becoming PM for the third time in 1999.

Like Rao, there was much good that Vajpayee did in terms of engaging with the world and in terms of economic policy. But for most Indians, the year 2002 is marked by the Gujarat riots. India has seen many riots since Independence, quite a few far worse than the 2002 Gujarat riots. But for some reason, it is the Gujarat event that attracts the most attention and commentary. For BJP critics, 2002 offered a chance for “soft” saffron represented by Vajpayee to prevail over hard saffron represented by L.K. Advani and the RSS. According to them, Vajpayee lost. Vajpayee did pay a very heavy political price for the Gujarat riots. Allies such as the TMC, NC, TDP and DMK left the NDA and this cost dearly in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Politics is full of ironies. The man allegedly “responsible” for the 2002 incident is now the prime minister and a towering national leader.

If Narashima Rao becoming prime minister was a surprise, Manmohan Singh becoming one was actually a shocker. He remains the only prime minister of India to have never won a Lok Sabha seat. And yet, he is the only prime minister who was liked and admired like Nehru when he completed his first three years in 2007. The Indo-US nuclear deal was Singh’s  triumph. The economy was growing at a rate like never before. The “game changing” NREGA was unveiled to widespread praise, and some criticism. While there were murmurs of cronyism, hardly any Indian doubted the personal integrity of Manmohan Singh in 2007. Of course, the worst of the scams that continue to haunt the Congress even today were seeded around that time. But they had not been revealed. Most Indians also seemed happy with the unusual arrangement where Sonia Gandhi wielded the real power even as Singh ruled as prime minister.

By 2012, when Singh completed his second three years as prime minister, he must have wondered nostalgically about the good old days of 2007. By 2012, even Singh’s own reputation was in tatters. He appeared, at best, a helpless puppet who couldn’t check the rampant corruption and cronyism that marked his government. The Commonwealth, 2G and Coal allocation scams became symbolic of the UPA regime. Worse, even the economy started tanking in 2012. One unforgettable image from that year is of the entire northern grid collapsing, bringing even moving trains to a screeching halt. The other haunting image is of the brutal gang rape and murder of Nirbhaya in Delhi. This tragic event destroyed whatever little credibility was left of Singh after the Anna movement that was launched in 2011. Singh, by 2012, had sadly become a subject of anger as well as derision. And of course, by then Modi’s name started emerging on the national scene as a serious contender for the PM’s role. Barring Rajiv Gandhi in 1987, no other prime minister has attracted as much rebuke and scorn as Singh did in 2012.

The Modi Wave
What about Modi? He resembles Nehru when it comes to towering over all others as he completes three years. He also resembles Indira as a deeply polarising figure. That he towers over others and polarises, camouflage both his successes and failures in the last three years. His legions of fans still think of him as a new age messiah, who has come to deliver a new India to the world. His legions of critics are even more convinced he is a fascist who will destroy the idea of India. But one thing is for sure: you can’t ignore him.


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