Indira (1971) or Vajpayee (2004) - Which Way Will Modi Go in 2019?

Will Modi pull off an Indira-like victory, or fall like Vajpayee? Here’s the ‘how, what, why’ of both the polls.

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Prime Minister Modi, the mighty incumbent, is up against a largely united opposition challenge in 2019. A similar political circumstance has occurred twice before: first in 1971, when in an “Indira Gandhi vs everybody else” poll, she trounced a hasty opposition alliance; and then again in 2004, when the “invincible” Vajpayee crumbled before a seemingly weak, incoherent patchwork of parties.

So will Modi pull off an Indira-like victory, or fall like Vajpayee? Here’s the ‘how, what, why’ of the landmark general elections of 1971 and 2004.

1971: From ‘Gungi Gudiya’ to ‘Iron Lady’

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. She split the Congress party on a radically socialist agenda: nationalisation of private banks and general insurance, ceilings on urban property and income, and abolition of princely privileges.

As her fiercely leftist politics caught the imagination of people, she dissolved the 4th Lok Sabha one year ahead of its term.

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

  • The opposition parties fought on the “one constituency, one candidate” principle. A four-party alliance of Congress (O), the older Congress Syndicate leaders who had split from Indira, Jana Sangh, Swatantra Party and SSP, called the National Democratic Front (NDF), was formed. It had a formidable presence of 150 members in the outgoing parliament.
  • The entire election pivoted around Indira Gandhi - 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 20 million people attended her rallies.
  • Indira’s newborn Congress (R) made strategic alliances with regional titans like DMK in Tamil Nadu, and CPI in Kerala, a first for national parties tying up with regional forces.
  • Finally, Gujarat. The erstwhile Congress (O) had managed to retain the state government under Hitendra Desai, but Indira rapidly gained ground to wrest 11 of the 24 Lok Sabha seats.

2004: From ‘India Shinning’ To Being Overshadowed By Congress

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.

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

  • The early opinion polls gave Vajpayee over 350 seats. As with Modi, his popularity was consistently higher than the BJP’s. 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. In a remarkable blow of arithmetic, the Congress got precisely the same number of votes in 2004 (10.34 cr) vs 1999 (10.31 cr), as did BJP (8.65 cr in 1999 vs 8.63 cr in 2004). But the Congress had fought on 36 less seats (leaving those for allies); astonishingly, it won 31 more seats to hit a match-winning 145 (vs 114 in 1999) in Lok Sabha. 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 adverse information began to pour in.
  • Exactly as Modi is facing now, Vajpayee blundered with allies. He virtually committed suicide in Tamil Nadu by ditching DMK and aligning with Jayalalitha. The DMK delivered all 39 seats to the Congress!
  • 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.

Now to the billion-vote question: Will Modi win like Indira, who was an underdog, or lose like Vajpayee, who seemed unconquerable? Watch this space!

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