What happens when great crises in history don’t bring forth a great leader? That’s what I’m asking myself, as I read about Indira Gandhi and hear the name Cory Booker in reference to 2020. It seems, in history, there are times when a great idea doesn’t occur, and so we exist in a battle of bad choices. The 2016 election was one of these, in my opinion, as was the 2014 elections in India that led Modi becoming prime minister (and no doubt will return him to the throne in this year’s election.) In the 1930s you had Soviet-aligned Communists fighting Nazis in the streets — if there hadn’t been concentration camps, would there be gulags instead? If Gandhi hadn’t turned up at a crucial time, one wonders, would India even be a democracy at all?
I’m thinking of the Indian “Emergency,” which lasted from 1975–1977, a time in which democratic processes were suspended by Indira Gandhi, leading the sneering New York Times commentators to say Indian democracy was finally dead. However, it recovered: In 1977 Indira called an election, and was justly voted out. But here’s the strange thing: despite the horrors of the Emergency — which, amongst other things, included mass, politically-motivated imprisonment and forced sterilization of the poor — Indira was voted back in 1980. How did it happen?
The answer is simple: It was a time of bad choices.
The Emergency began when Gandhian veteran Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as ‘JP’ launched a campaign against Indira’s party, the Congress. JP had been increasingly concerned with corruption in his native state of Bihar, and the increasing corruption in the ruling party in general. Some critics see JP as being an old revolutionary who didn’t know when to quit: the aims of democracy had been largely achieved, but JP became disillusioned and mistook the need for reform for the need for ‘Total Revolution.’ To do so he organized a coalition of Marxists, along with the the Janata Party, the political arm of the RSS. (The RSS was a Hindu nationalist organization, often known as being affiliated with Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin.)
I see JP as a good man who lacked true vision. Like most of us, he knew something was wrong, but didn’t quite know what to do. He didn’t have personal ambitions, or greed for political power, but he didn’t have answers either. You often saw this in the years after the death of Gandhi, and Nehru as well — old Gandhians who lacked the great thinker capable of turning a time of bad choices into a time of revolutionary ideas. Many Gandhians would show their lack of vision by using satyagraha methods for relatively petty aims. The beautiful simplicity of the salt march was followed in post-Gandhi years with people using similar methodology for narrow political ends. People who aren’t motivated by an idea beyond themselves are liable to confuse their own aims with that of history, and this is something we saw in Gandhi’s wake. JP was not an egoist, but a longing for romantic revolution caused him to see a time for patient reform as one for dire action, with himself at the lead and not just a gentle voice of conscience on the other side.
Such clouded vision led to a very obvious irony: JP teamed up with the party that represented the very opposite of everything Gandhi represented: Hindu nationalism. The Janata party would later become Modi’s BJP, a party associated with communal violence (a euphemistic way of saying ‘lighting Muslims on fire.’) He did so to combat another individual who was far from visionary: Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. Though not without her own talent and intelligence (Hannah Arendt, for instance, was particularly impressed by her handling of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 that created the country of Bangladesh, and as far as foreign interventions go, was pretty restrained) Indira was a political vacuum. She stood for things like non-alignment and socialism, but really stood for whatever was convenient to her reign. More than anything she is responsible for turning Congress, Modi’s modern opposition, into a dynastic regime run, even today, in her name (Gandhi, confusingly, because she has no relation.)
So it was a battle between bad choices: On the one hand Indira Gandhi, representing an overstep of the executive and corruption of a monopolistic party, and on the other hand JP, who aligned himself with a hodgepodge set of parties that were opportunistic at best, ideologically dangerous at worse (I’ll say as an anti-nationalist.) The movement, called ‘Total Revolution,’ gained power but was a democratic movement. Indira thought otherwise — seeing, as narrow people do, a threat to their interests as a threat to the world — overreacting, and declared an ‘Emergency,’ which gave her dictatorial powers.
Doing so, of course, endangered India’s democracy, a democracy that both critics of the West and East thought was doomed from the start. JP was jailed, along with many members of his coalition, turning a dubiously necessary revolution into one that was essential to maintain the mangled constitution. When Indira — either hearing the voice of conscience, or because she thought she’d win for sure — called elections she was justly swept out of office by the same coalition of RSS people, Marxists — similar to 1930s Germany, ehem ehem — and followers of JP. The prime minister position went to Morarji Desai over Charan Singh, who represented a slightly smaller chunk of the coalition. Justice had arrived!
Within hours of winning offices members of the Janata Party were already raiding government offices for air conditioning units. Turned out the party of anti-corruption had been even more corrupt. In the same way lock-her-up rednecks sacked one corrupt institutionalist for a petty gangster (the image always comes to mind of Ivanka using her access to world leaders to sell jewelry, like some kind of Avon Lady of geopolitics) the Indian nation sent even hungrier criminals into the heart of government. JP died a broken man, watching the movement he’d spearheaded descend into petty infighting. In 1980 Indira didn’t bother running on beliefs: she ran on the fact that she could govern at all.
And so she was swept in, easily, in 1980: the former dictator who’d risked the fate of the nation for her own political ends. In many ways election after election in India is an echo of an echo: increasingly diluted ideas in an increasingly diluted genetic pool of great individuals. Many Western commentators — John Oliver made a video about the Modi election that made me permanently lose respect for him — failed to see this dilemma. They focused on Modi’s connection with the Ahmedabad massacre, and not on the other option: Rahul Gandhi, grandson of Indira and basically heir apparent. What you had was a choose-your-own-adventure of threats to democracy: on the one hand, a genocidal nationalist and on the other, a prince. I will always vote for a prince over a nationalist (sigh, Hillary) but we have to admit that there was no good choice.
Modi vs. Rahul and Trump vs. Clinton had many similarities. Both pitted an outsider politician against a nationalistic, redneck-backed racial worldview against an ideologically-vacuous nepotistic contender. Both pitted economics against identity politics. All four lacked any true visionary ideas.
And now two new elections are coming towards us: I can feel the hot, acrid breath on my face. Until I see any evidence to the contrary, Modi and Trump will be the respective leaders. Until we see new ideas and not merely echoes (there is no reason socialism, an ideological dinosaur, should be the most virile ideology of modern America) we will see a repeat of 2014/2019. It is not enough to be a good man, such as JP or Bernie, or to be an heir apparent such as Rahul or Hillary. It is not enough to sell us identity politics from corporate-reeking minority candidates like Cory Booker or bland centrists like Kamala Harris.
This moment in history is an opportunity for the Democratic Party in America, and the Congress in India to come up with some real answers. And maybe it’s better, for the world, that both parties are deprived of power until they do.