Elections 2019: Will Modi Pull Off An Indira (1971) Or Fall Like Vajpayee (2004)?


For those who haven’t heard, a political debate is raging on whether the 2019 elections will be modeled on 1971, when Indira Gandhi trounced a hasty, ill-matched opposition alliance; or on 2004, when the ‘invincible’ Atal Bihari Vajpayee crumbled before a seemingly weak, incoherent patchwork of parties.

As with Narendra Modi in 2019, both elections were fought by towering incumbents against a bevy of disparate, but united, opponents. Arithmetically, it was a one-on-one contest in most Lok Sabha constituencies. But the two outcomes were like chalk and cheese.

In 1971, the Tigress remained unconquered; in 2004, the Colossus fell.

What will be Modi’s fate? Before you can answer that question, you need to know the ‘how, what, why’ of the landmark general elections of 1971 and 2004.

Elections 2019: Will Modi Pull Off An Indira (1971) Or Fall Like Vajpayee (2004)?

1971: When Indira Gandhi Went From ‘Fall Girl’ To Indomitable Leader

Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in January 1966, after a traumatic half-decade in which India fought two wars (1962 with China and 1965 with Pakistan), lost two iconic prime ministers (Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964 and Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966), and battled two years of severe drought against a hostile American regime. In a sense, Indira was the ‘fall girl’ (aka “gungi gudia” or “silent doll”, a slur cast by her detractors) for the powerful Syndicate of older Congress stalwarts who thought they could manipulate her. But she proved a deceptively shrewd risk-taker.

In May 1967, she convinced a recalcitrant Congress Working Committee to adopt a radically socialist agenda: nationalisation of private banks and general insurance, state control over foreign trade, ceilings on urban property and income, public distribution of food grain, curbs on business monopolies, and abolition of princely privileges.

Right-leaning and conservative Congress leaders, led by arch-rival Morarji Desai, were incensed.
Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai. (Photograph: Government of India)
Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai. (Photograph: Government of India)

To neutralise her rising political clout, they fielded Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy for President of India. Indira retaliated by canvassing for an independent trade unionist, VV Giri, who won. Eventually, the Syndicate expelled her from the party, causing the Congress split of 1969. Except for 31 Syndicate MPs—known as Congress (O)—the majority of the sitting Congress members supported Indira Gandhi—now called Congress (R)—who continued as the Prime Minister, propped up by support from Communist MPs.

As her fiercely leftist politics caught the imagination of people, Indira, in a famous line to her cabinet, asked “how long can we walk on crutches?” She dissolved the Fourth Lok Sabha one year ahead of its term, ordering India’s first mid-term general elections. Just as an aside, the phenomenon of non-simultaneous parliament and assembly polls was born on that day.

Here are five tangents of the 1971 elections with the upcoming polls of 2019:

  • The opposition parties enunciated the principle of “one constituency, one candidate”. A four-party alliance of Congress(O), Jana Sangh, Swatantra Party and SSP, called the National Democratic Front, was formed. It had a formidable presence of 150 members in the outgoing parliament.
  • The entire election pivoted around Indira Gandhi, as the NDF conflated her removal with the “saving of democracy”. Either you were with her or against her. But she cannily coined the slogan “they say Indira Hatao (remove Indira), while I say Garibi Hatao (remove poverty)” and swept the polls, bringing the NDF down to a paltry 49 seats in the 5th Lok Sabha
  • Like Modi, Indira was an indefatigable campaigner. She is thought to have travelled 33,000 miles by air and road, addressing 252 regular and 57 wayside meetings all across the country. An estimated 2 crore people attended her rallies.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi campaigning. (Photograph: Indian National Congress)
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi campaigning. (Photograph: Indian National Congress)

Also read: From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers

  • Indira’s newborn Congress (R) made strategic alliances with regional titans like DMK in Tamil Nadu, and CPI in Kerala. The electoral phenomenon of national parties tying up with regional forces to win key states took roots from there on.
  • Finally, Gujarat was critical. The erstwhile Congress (O) had managed to retain the state government under Hitendra Desai, a powerful Syndicate leader. Indira’s Congress began with a fledgling presence of five MLAs under Kantilal Ghia. But Indira rapidly gained ground to wrest 11 of the 24 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat in 1971.

So you think that there is an uncanny resemblance between Indira in 1971 and what Modi is fighting in 2019? Wait, just check out what happened to another political heavyweight, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in 2004.

2004: When Vajpayee Went From “Shining” To The Vanquished Leader

As with Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister Vajpayee’s christening was turbulent. He was first sworn in for 13 days in 1996, but had to quit because his right-wing party was a pariah for prospective alliance partners. Then he got into office in 1998, but fell within 13 months to a one-vote defeat on the floor of the house! Finally, he got a stable five-year majority from 1999 through 2004. His tenure was marked by hitherto untested and bold free-market policies, including the privatisation of large public sector companies like VSNL and Balco.

Vajpayee hosted President Bill Clinton (the first such visit after President Carter in 1978), took a ‘peace bus’ to Lahore, fought a mini-war against Pakistan in Kargil—I write this in the week in which Prime Minister Modi is up against his own Pulwama challenge—and blasted five underground nuclear devices at Pokharan.

No wonder he was thought to be a shoo-in for the 14th Lok Sabha in 2004. But fate had something else in store.
A BJP supporter carries a picture of then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after an election rally in Aligarh, on April 29, 2004. (Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg News)
A BJP supporter carries a picture of then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after an election rally in Aligarh, on April 29, 2004. (Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg News)

Also read: What Modi Can Learn From Indira, Rajiv, And Vajpayee’s Defeats

Here are five tangents of the 2004 elections with the upcoming polls of 2019:

  • The early opinion polls gave Vajpayee an aura of invincibility. As with Modi, his popularity was consistently higher than the BJP’s. Vajpayee seemed set to win over 350 seats in parliament. His jaunty confidence was appropriately captured in the campaign slogan of “India Shining”
  • But then the tide began to turn. A weak Congress struck state-level alliances with several parties to somehow hold back the Vajpayee juggernaut. In a remarkable blow of arithmetic, the Congress got precisely the same number of votes in 2004 versus 1999, as did BJP. But the Congress had fought on 36 less seats in 2004, leaving those for allies. Astonishingly, it won 31 more seats to hit a match-winning 145 Lok Sabha seats, up from 114 in 1999. The BJP tally fell by 44 seats.
  • As Modi is course correcting now, even Vajpayee had begun to downplay India Shining to trot out the ‘stability card’, once it was clear that the ground reality was far more adverse than imagined earlier in the campaign.
  • Exactly as Modi is facing now, Vajpayee blundered with allies. He virtually committed suicide in Tamil Nadu by ditching DMK and aligning with Jayalalithaa. The DMK delivered all 39 seats to the Congress! Vajpayee also ignored the anti-incumbency against Naidu’s TDP, allowing Congress to romp home in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Finally, there was the spectre of Gujarat. Vajpayee chose to gloss over the vicious riots of 2002. The Congress won 12 seats in the communally blighted state, its highest since 1991.
And so the most astonishing upset occurred in India’s polls. Vajpayee lost. Sonia Gandhi’s Congress won.
File photo of Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Sonia Gandhi. (Photograph: PTI)
File photo of Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Sonia Gandhi. (Photograph: PTI)

Now to the billion-vote question…

Will 2019 be like 1971 or 2004 for Modi, the mighty incumbent?

You have enough material above to take your own call.

As for me, the key differentiator is that Indira Gandhi entered the 1971 polls as the underdog.

Modi is anything but that.

So go figure.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.