Congrats Indira Gandhi.
We live in a polarised country that has a clear dichotomy: fervent supporters of our dear prime minister who place him on a pedestal and the rest of the country which decries him and his rule with the same passionate fervour. Love him or hate him, in 2014 he accomplished a feat that no party had since the Congress 1984 – they won a majority as a singular party. He then achieved it again in 2019, offering such few seats to the opposition that it was rendered redundant.
The twenty-year period where the diverse nation was ruled by tense coalitions, the autonomy and independence of state governments, the rise of the BJPs right-wing Hindu nationalist agenda and of course the downfall of India’s political establishment and the political royalty who ruled it can all be traced back to one individual.
The divisive ironwoman of India who first became Prime Minister in 1966: Indira Gandhi.
The second longest-serving prime minister, daughter of the longest-serving Indian prime minister and mother of the next prime minister was a force to be reckoned with.
Elected to the highest office at a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote in many places around the world, she ruled by draconian decree, abusing systems and institutions built up around her family.
While today, critics decry the BJP’s gross violations of democratic institutions and their destruction of the separation of powers, the very man leading this charge seems to have happily relegated his grandmother to the mists of time.
The explanation for the BJP’s brazen attitude towards electoral law comes from a singular action of Mrs Gandhi. Breaking election law and the moral code of conduct resulted in Mrs Gandhi’s election result being declared null and her appeal to the Supreme Court losing in an even more embarrassing blow. Deciding that the people’s will, law and the constitution were puny mortal things in front of a great Gandhi, she took the arbitrary step of declaring an emergency and firmly cementing herself in power by snatching it from everyone else.
This autocratic coup de tat rendered the checks and balances of democracy irrelevant and plunged the future of our democracy into the precarious situation it is in today. Of course, there was resentment and anger to her actions, the press was muzzled, the courts restricted, and the constitution itself amended. The election of 1980 was a brutal referendum on Gandhi with the Congress losing its first election ever to an upstart coalition helmed by Gandhi’s very own deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
He went on to establish the first-ever coalition government. This was, from its very inception, a laughable idea with political parties on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum uniting in their common hatred against Gandhi. This failure of a government did two critical things: first, it leads to the creation of ‘Congress offshoots’ – ideologically similar regional parties that are headed by those who left the Congress which reduce the INC’s power – and second, it set the stage for 1984 and the return of the autocrat.
India Gandhi, now a far cry from the rousing figure of political unity she had been in her first campaign was deeply polarising figure stepping to take back her throne on the broken backs of the Desai government. This final election was monumental for she was fated to die, assassinated by her own bodyguard in October of 1984. That death marked a unique turning point, having two radical impacts which would ripen through 1984 and 1989 and finally come to fruition following that fateful election.
In 1989, riding on the sympathy of his mother’s death, Rajiv Gandhi rose to power winning over 400 seats in a manner never seen before and hopefully never seen again. The scandals of the Rajiv Gandhi era and a fear of returning to an Emergency lead to a crushing defeat with Rajiv dying while running his campaign. The two pillars, which were the guiding pillars of Indian politics till 2014, of Gandhi’s legacy had finally been built: the power to the regional parties and the death of Congress.
With the Congress having split and no other party yet powerful enough to take on its mantel, 25 years of uneasy coalition governments followed. Regional parties thrived, building rabid fan bases and choosing to represent state not country thereby locking out the bigger parties while simultaneously being unable to form a majority due to the lack of a message of broad appeal. States like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal developed strong regional identities and became virtually unwinnable for the national parties.
Meanwhile, the Congress was decaying, headed by an uninterested Gandhi family stuck in a prison of their forefathers making. While the elite kept them in power, no one else found a path to power and support for India’s political royalty waned.
The stage for 2014 was set for a showdown between the two largest parties: the Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party. The Congress party filled with yes men for the Gandhi family was no match for the formidable duo of Shah and Modi who crafted a message of broad national appeal. Distilled from the party’s core Hindutva belief, a Hindu majority desperate for united leadership after the unstable governments of the past decade voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP.
Now we’re governed by a nationalist party that is slowly dismantling the institutions of our nation. We have leaders who wield considerable influence in states and effectively lock out other national parties but cannot mount a challenge against the BJP. And we have the opposition party which is led by a circus of resignations, reappointments and sham party elections that render it incompetent and ineffective in questioning the government.
Congratulations Mrs Gandhi, you have locked a singular party into power for who knows how long. It’s just too bad that the sky is saffron, not blue.