An attempt at reimagination – How relevant is Indira Gandhi in 2017?

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2017 marks the birth centenary of former Prime Minister Late Smt. Indira Gandhi. While it is usual for people to author biographies about leaders, it is unusual to have 3 books written in the first half of 2017 by leading members of society. In 2014, the victory of BJP was attributed to development politics as opposed to the perceived scam-tainted image of the Congress. Notably, Congress has failed to win state elections since 2014 except in Punjab. In the case of Bihar, it is a minor member in an alliance controlled majorly by two regional parties. Congress should be driven to identify new possible strategies to counter its corrupt image.

Despite arguments by Congress loyalists in favour of celebrating Indira Gandhi’s life on the occasion, a logical question that follows is about the political relevance of Indira Gandhi in the upcoming general elections in 2019.

According to the Census in 2011, 29.5% of Indians were below 14 years of age and about 60% of Indians are aged 40 or below. This age group was either very young or weren’t even born when Indira Gandhi was in power. A pertinent question therefore would be to see if her history or image is even relevant for such a young population. Contrary to logic, the last few years have shown that her persona has persisted. When Narendra Modi swept the elections in 2014, the liberal and left leaning section of society rushed to compare him to Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian style of governance. Apart from the authoritarian image, the other narrative commonly associated with her is her popular pro-poor slogan of “Garibi Hatao”. This is commonly used by the Congress to counter the BJP on poverty alleviation.

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Figure 1 – Google Search Trends 2004 – Indira Gandhi vs. BJP Leaders

Looking beyond the characterisation of her personality, search trends of Google provides an insight into the reach that Indira Gandhi still maintains. In 2004, the average search count for Indira Gandhi was higher than former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the then BJP President L K Advani combined (Figure 1). Despite the fact that Narendra Modi’s scale of social media presence, Indira Gandhi appears to regain popularity on the internet which has steadily been growing in the last six months (Figure 2). This is similar to the trends in 2004, when the Congress lead United Progressive Alliance came to power.

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Figure 2 – Google Search Trends – All Time – India vs World – Indira Gandhi

Beyond Google, Wikipedia has become the common man’s first tool to understand or learn about any topic. Wikipedia’s platform uniquely allows users to edit content at free will. These edits are then moderated by admins. This has resulted in regular edits both in favour and against popular political leaders. The number of edits has also seen a rise. In the first six months itself, the number of edits has nearly reached the average (Figure 3).

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Figure 3 – Wikipedia Edit History – Indira Gandhi

Biographies & Movies – Recollection or Reinvention?

In early 2017, the congress itself launched a book “India’s Indira – A Centennial Tribute Book Review” commemorating her achievements including the industrialisation, liberation of Bangladesh, poverty alleviation. The second book “Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister” authored by Sagarika Ghose is an attempt at interpreting her life in 2017. While a major part of the book covers aspects of Indira Gandhi’s life that is already known, a closer look brings in several parallels to the current Prime Minister.

Indira Gandhi’s decision to aid East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) militarily, have stark similarities to the military intervention against terrorists across the border in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and in Myanmar. Apart from the similarity in their intentions to protect India’s sovereignty and security, their aim at being pro-poor is also interesting. In a discussion about the book in the NDTV, Nalini Singh points out the similarity of intent between the 20-point formula proposed by Mrs Gandhi to Mr. Modi’s speech announcing demonetisation. Quoting him, “This step(demonetisation) will strengthen the hands of the common man. The rich and the poor will be on the same tangent.”

In stark contrast to the earlier books, former Union Minister and Congressman Jairam Ramesh paints a more environmentaly aware attitude of Indira Gandhi. During the panel discussions held during the launch of the book in Hyderabad and Chennai, the moderators questioned the author on Indira Gandhi’s involvement in Cow Slaughter ban again comparing it to modern day debate on the same issue. He attributed Mrs. Gandhi with the setup of a high-level committee to decide on the issue which even had the then head of RSS as a member. He also remarked that this issue had socio-economic repercussions beyond the religious and environmental angle. Surprisingly, the committee failed to come to any conclusion before its shut down. The image of Mrs. Gandhi with a deep sense of environment protection plays well at downplaying the authoritarian persona usually attributed to her.

Beyond the three books, the movie “Indu Sarkar” directed by Madhur Bhandarkar was also in the news. While the movie hasn’t been released yet, its setting during the emergency period portraying adaptations of the curbing of free-speech, the role of the RSS and the JP movement definitely bring back the memories from the past into the modern day political discourse. Only time will tell us the outcome of the elections in 2019, but Indira Gandhi’s persona will definitely play a role during the campaign trail.