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‘The Paradox of Populism: The Indira Gandhi Years, 1966-1977’ review: Looking back at Emergency and a turning point in the Congress

A historian argues that during the Indira Gandhi years, the party witnessed a downfall of the hegemony it had maintained after the formation of the Indian republic

In The Paradox of Populism: The Indira Gandhi Years, 1966-1977, historian Suhit K. Sen traces the downfall of the hegemony that the Congress party system had maintained in the decade after the formation of the Indian republic. The consensus that had operated under Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru began breaking down, Sen argues, as early as 1962, following the Indo-China war. Tension between the Congress organisation and its elected governing core mounted in subsequent years, such that by the time of Indira Gandhi’s installation in 1966, the rift had widened to the extent that a split in the party, which eventually came in 1969, was almost inevitable.

Sen outlines the dysfunction that a lack of consensus fostered in terms of weakened institutional cohesion and failures in policy implementation, which Mrs. Gandhi’s electoral victory in 1967 did little to mitigate.

Lack of consensus

With the atrophy of consensus also came a shift away from Nehruvian socialism, leaving Mrs. Gandhi walking a tightrope between polarised wings of the party. In this context, Sen writes, Mrs. Gandhi “increasingly asserted the autonomy of the ministerial wing in running the government;” which necessitated a considerable amount of horse-trading with both left and right factions, as well as with party bosses at the organisational level. Sen looks into the question of bank nationalisation, in particular, as a fulcrum around which these tortured negotiations revolved.

The factionalism, infighting and dysfunction at the Centre, Sen illustrates, was endemic to the Congress as a whole. In the second chapter of the book, Sen examines the byzantine inner-party fragmentation that characterised Congress politics in Bihar in the late 1960s and early 1970s. If there was a lack of coordination between party organisation and governance at the Centre, at the State level, things were worse.

Moreover, a lack of coordination between the States and the Centre led to a mutual attenuation of governing effectiveness at both levels. While in Bihar, Sen notes, dysfunction was at its most extreme, in many other States as well, factionalism, instability, failures of implementation and inter-personal rivalries had rendered consensus-building a distant dream. In Bihar, neither President’s Rule, nor frenetic coalition-building could stem the tide of organisational disintegration. All across northern India, in fact, the once vaunted cohesion of the Congress was in shambles. By the end of the decade, party defections and “floor-crossing” exacerbated the slide into chaos. As Sen demonstrates convincingly, ideological considerations played much less of a role than is often imagined. Rather, it was political process that fostered polarisation, fragmentation and disunity.

In 1971-72, Mrs. Gandhi won a landslide electoral victory, but the devil was still in the detail of party fragmentation. Even widespread popular support could not reverse the centrifugal forces behind dysfunction.

Fragmented organisation

In chapter four, Sen examines the extremely deleterious impacts that this prevailing dysfunction at both the Centre and in the States had on food policy, and particularly food procurement. Far from being able to wield an autocratic diktat from Delhi, considerations of food policy were again fraught with contingency and a decided lack of federal coordination. Emergency, when it came on June 25, 1975, then, Sen argues, should not be understood as the culmination of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian personal trajectory, but rather as the end result of her failure to translate her mandate into effective governance based on organisational consensus.

Emergency, Sen argues, was a much more radical departure from the playbook of Gandhi’s politics than is often assumed. In this sense, Sen seeks to highlight process above personality. It is most often due to policy failure, dysfunction and disunity that authoritarianism arises. In The Paradox of Populism, Sen’s use of extensive archival material and intricate analysis is an important contribution to the study of modern political processes, a foundational work on the Indira Gandhi years, in particular.

The Paradox of Populism: The Indira Gandhi Years, 1966-1977; Suhit K. Sen, Primus Books, ₹995.

The reviewer is Associate Professor of History, Ryerson University, Toronto.

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Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 1:47:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-paradox-of-populism-the-indira-gandhi-years-1966-1977-review-looking-back-at-emergency-and-a-turning-point-in-the-congress/article31922241.ece

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