Among the many planks on which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is resting its election campaign is ‘Mission 272+’. The party is appealing to voters to ensure that it wins a majority on its own in the forthcoming Lok Sabha, presumably because only then will Narendra Modi be able to fulfill his promises to the people.
Although the idea might be noble and logical but, as Indian political history has demonstrated, a rather misleading one. In 1971, riding on the back of her Garibi Hatao slogan and after splitting her party, Indira Gandhi won 352 seats in the Lok Sabha. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which emerged as the principal opposition, came second with 25 seats. She rounded off that stunning electoral success with a military victory for India after the 1971 war with Pakistan, prompting Atal Bihari Vajpayee to equate her with Goddess Durga.
But come 1972-73, Gandhi’s government went off-track. Along with bureaucrat PN Haksar, her trusted aide with Marxist leanings, she reduced India to a license-permit-quota system and coloured the economy in socialist shades. The Arab-Isreali war of 1973 resulted in a drastic increase of crude oil prices, which meant that India’s oil import bill also quadrupled. The economy was further crippled when, In 1974, India conducted nuclear tests at Pokhran and the West slapped sanctions. Finally, that same year, there were railway strikes led by George Fernandes and Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for ‘Total Revolution’. What shines through in these examples is that, despite her brute majority in the Lok Sabha, Mrs Gandhi failed to manage India as it tumbled through crisis upon crisis
History repeated itself again in 1984-85 when, in the aftermath of his mother’s death, Rajiv Gandhi swept the Lok Sabha polls with 414 seats. Using the largest electoral mandate in India as his springboard, Rajiv announced that he’d initiate sweeping reforms in the Congress party – an indication that the old guard would be replaced by his Doon School buddies. That announcement at the party’s centenary celebrations in Bombay in 1985, stung the veterans so sharply that they sabotaged some of this ‘disrespectful young man’s’ policies. That was followed by the Shah Bano crisis, the misadventures of Operation Brasstacks and the IPKF in Sri Lanka and finally the Bofors scam in 1987 – a toxic combination which resulted in the Congress being reduced to less than 200 seats after the 1989 Lok Sabha elections. Where was the largest electoral mandate in independent India when its youngest prime minister, full of hope and promise, was being besieged by crisis upon crisis?
Compare these two governments to those of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s six years in Narasimha Rao’s 1991 minority government and even UPA 1 under Manmohan Singh. None of these regimes had the brute, single-party majorities like their predecessors and yet, embarked India on some of its most path-breaking initiatives. Rao started the economic reforms and established diplomatic relations with Israel – possibly our most important partner in all matters defense. Vajpayee carried forward Rao’s economics reforms process, set a new template for Indo-US relations and resumed the peace process with Pakistan. UPA1’s hallmarks include the Right to Information ACT, MNREGA, the Indo-US nuclear deal and, most importantly, the de-saffronization of NCERT’s history textbooks.
All of these governments have collectively demonstrated that in strength lies weakness and, in weakness, strength. That merely gaining a large mandate isn’t enough but the real achievement lies in how you use it. Vajpayee, Singh and Rao blended relatively limited mandates with their shrewd political instincts to do what they did whereas Indira and Rajiv were misled by their victories. It is these chapters from history that the BJP and Narendra Modi must read as it strives to make ‘Mission 272+ a success.
Aayush Soni is a journalist based in New Delhi. He has written on arts and culture for such publications as The Caravan, India Ink – The New York Times, India Real Time – The Wall Street Journal and Mumbai Boss. Follow him on Twitter @aayushsoni.