Baahubali - India’s Strong Man Prime Minister

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Babu Charan wept when former Indian prime minister (PM) Indira Gandhi was killed but howled when Sanjay Gandhi died. Sanjay, Indira’s prodigal son, died in a plane crash four years before Indira was assassinated.

Babu Charan wept when former Indian prime minister (PM) Indira Gandhi was killed but howled when Sanjay Gandhi died. Sanjay, Indira’s prodigal son, died in a plane crash four years before Indira was assassinated.

“Sanjay,” said Babu, flexing his biceps in admiration, “if he was PM, he’d either have made or broken India.”

Ignoring conventional advice, I often talk politics with strangers, particularly taxi drivers. If you want to understand the politics of a region and you have time, visit the library. If you don’t have time, speak with a taxi driver. My train from Patna, Bihar, to New Delhi was leaving in 90 minutes. Babu Charan was driving me to the station. I wanted to understand his reverence for Narendra Modi, India’s incumbent prime minister.

Man Crush on Sanjay

“He reminds me of Sanjay Gandhi” – said Babu.

The younger and more politically astute son of India’s second longest serving PM, Sanjay was heir apparent to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and his mother’s right-hand man. Not known for moderation, Sanjay was an intemperate lad and once he got an idea in his head, he executed it, regardless of the collateral damage.

Feeling that India’s population was out of control, and that if India didn’t control her population she couldn’t prosper, he encouraged young men to have vasectomies; particularly poor men whose only entertainment was sex and more sex.

Sanjay’s party workers, thugs with a purpose, would visit villages and round up young men, many of whom had yet to sow their oats, for sterilization; sometimes by bearing gifts, such as radios, and sometimes by threats and beatings. Young men in the villages were so scared of getting a vasectomy that they’d get their wives to claim that they were impotent. This wasn’t fascist Italy in the 1930s or communist Soviet Union in the 1950s – but the world’s largest democracy in the 1970s.

For political contraception to succeed you need a strong man at its helm. It was Sanjay’s despotism Babu Charan admired.

“Only one other PM was a mard (male)”, said Babu cryptically.

I was unsure where Babu Charan was going with this. I asked hesitatingly, “assuming Narendra Modi is one of the two male PMs, who was India’s other male PM?”

“Indira Gandhi,” replied Babu.

Insurgency and Emergency

Babu Charan was uncommonly well read for a taxi driver. He wasn’t just a taxi driver, but a business owner. He owned a fleet of cars and would loan chauffeur-driven cars. Demand for his services peaked during weddings and conferences. He personally drove me to the train station because I was a “special guest” – being from abroad. I thought it was too much of a gesture but Babu was having none of my half-hearted objections.

“I wanted to be an IAS officer and be driven around by classy chauffeurs”, said Babu with a tinge of sadness, “so now I give educated people educated drivers.”

Babu grew up in rural Bihar with only one thing on his mind – that he’d one day become an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer – the king of bureaucrats who had every imaginable perk money couldn’t buy. He dreamt of playing golf in Patna Golf Club. He dreamt of a personal chauffeur who’d salute him every morning, as if he were an English Babu.

Babu came to Patna in the 1970s to study history and prepare for the Union Public Service Commission – one of the most competitive examinations in the world. Over 500,000 people take the test, but only 500 are selected for the most prestigious bureaucratic posts. Babu wasn’t one of the 500. He claimed to have missed the selection by a whisker.

“I used to study 18 hours a day. But then my preparations were derailed because of student unrest”, Babu recalled.

During Indira’s third term a fiery activist burst on the political scenes - Jayaprakash (JP) Narayan. Indira was on a sticky wicket. She’d been found guilty of electoral malpractice by the Allahabad High Court, which barred her from running for political office for six years. Indira refused to quit. JP Narayan, a double stranded replication of Mahatma Gandhi, and a former freedom fighter, was aghast at Indira. Twenty-five years after India’s independence, India had little to show, despite Indira’s lofty rhetoric and Nehru’s multiple five-year plans. JP Narayan blamed corrupt politicians, specifically Indira. He felt India needed another revolution, an internal revolt led by India’s students, what he called Sampoorna Kranti, “total revolution.”

Like the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the Student Mutiny of 1974 spread like wildfire. Campuses ceased to be places of teaching and became centers of hectoring. Student politics in India is politics at its rawest, a West Point for future politicians. Several student leaders at the time, such as Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, would go on to have successful careers as the very politicians JP Narayan rallied against.

Babu Charan watched helplessly as classrooms smoldered into flames of activism and his ambitions of becoming an IAS officer rapidly evaporated.

“There were no classes. Even professors became activists. I had nowhere to study. Wherever I went fellow students would distract me with talks of revolutions. JP told students to boycott exams – my career was being decided by a revolutionary with delusions of being Mahatma Gandhi,” recalled Babu.

Indira was on the ropes and as anarchy spread, she became increasingly cagey. Then, in 1975, she declared an emergency – a temporary suspension of democratic privileges and censorship of the press.

“The emergency,” smiled Babu, “was Ram Rajya (utopia). Government workers would arrive at the office on time. Even the Punjab Mail ran on time.”

There’s an old joke about the Punjab Mail – the train which travels languidly from Calcutta to Amritsar –if it is on time it must be 24 hours late. For a brief period in India, during the emergency (1975-1977) trains ran on time, banks opened on time, telephones were installed on time, and India’s monstrous bureaucracy became monstrously efficient. Indira showed during the emergency what Benito Mussolini had shown a few decades earlier – that with a touch of iron-fisted fascism, the state can do wonders.

The state also created havoc – the emergency was the time when millions of men became infertile because of Sanjay’s overzealous population control program.

“She imprisoned all those trouble makers, even JP Narayan. She was a loha (iron).”
Babu flexed both his biceps in political reverence, taking both his hands off the steering wheel, which gave me jitters.

Indira treated JP Narayan the same way the Brits had treated the freedom fighters from the Congress party a few decades earlier. History was like fancy dress parties in which people changed their costumes, but the costumes remained the same.

JP Narayan incited a mob to overthrow a democratically-elected government. Indira used her constitutional powers to suppress the mob. Both made mockery of political sciences and political institutions. For a while, Indira wore the pants and JP Narayan wore the dhoti.

But not everyone agreed with Babu that the emergency was “Ram Rajya.” Congress was ousted in the 1977 elections. Even Indira lost her seat. JP Narayan had the penultimate laugh. But Indira had the last laugh. The coalition government, fractured by personal ambitions – everyone wanted to be PM – dissolved into a school of bickering teenagers. Indira returned with a vengeance in 1980.

“Those political jokers, they couldn’t even last a single term”, scorned Babu.

Infrastructure and Prosperity

By the late seventies, Babu had given up his ambition of becoming an IAS officer. He bought an Ambassador – a sturdy, unaesthetic, car built by Indians for Indian roads. He offered personal chauffeuring, and his business grew rapidly but not rapidly enough. The scale of his services was limited by Patna’s poor infrastructure, and as competition emerged, his business hit an asymptote.

“People wanted to be driven in Rolls Royce, but the potholes in Patna will break Rolls Royce into pieces,” laughed Babu, as he swerved to avoid an incoming rickshaw.

Babu’s business was born again up when flyovers were constructed in Patna under the reign of Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s most honest chief minister (CM). “If Modi had been our CM, Bihar would have the same infrastructure as Gujarat, and we’d be even more prosperous than Gujarat, because Biharis are the smartest people on this planet,” said Babu enviously.

I was inclined to agree with Babu – being a Bihari myself. Though Gujaratis might object.

Nevertheless, his point was that a touch of infrastructure does wonders for the free market and economic prosperity. Democracy doesn’t guarantee free markets and free markets don’t guarantee infrastructure. Patna’s flyovers remained in a state of semi-completion for over a decade, until someone at the helm had the vision and will to complete them.

As the flyovers were constructed, Babu bought foreign cars, leaving the Ambassador to less deserving customers. He drove me in his Audi – the mark of ultimate respect. Babu played Bach in a mark of supreme deference. But I hadn’t travelled all the way to India to listen to Bach.

“Can you play Bollywood?” I requested.

Babu played the songs from Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin – from 1991, the year Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.

The Last Good Fellow of the Dynasty

“He was a good guy. Not as steely as his younger brother, but a good guy. He never wanted to be a politician. He was just doing the job of the elder son.”

In Indian tradition, when the father dies the burden of the father’s work falls on the eldest son. When Indira died, Rajiv – a former pilot who entered politics at his mother’s behest when his younger brother died - was asked to pick up the mantle by the rudderless Congress Party. Riding on the sentimental wave induced by his mother’s untimely death, he went on to win in a landslide in 1985. When Rajiv was assassinated, the still rudderless Congress party asked his widow, Sonia, to become the party leader. The grieving Sonia Gandhi declined.

“That was a shameful moment for my country. The Congress leaders should never have asked Sonia to become leader of the Congress Party,” Babu reflected.

“Why? Because she’s of Italian origin?” I provoked.

Babu hesitated. “No. Because they shouldn’t have asked a widow, who hadn’t even cremated her husband, who never held a political position, to lead the party. Out of crores of Indians, was there really no one else to lead the Congress Party?”

Because of the depravity of the Congress leaders, Babu was permanently put off by the Congress Party – a party he once loved more than a wayward son.

What about Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition and son of Rajiv? Did he not see in him either Sanjay or Indira?

“He’s a bachcha (little kid)”, laughed Babu. “He looks like one of those IIM (Indian Institute of Management) graduates who run multinational companies. He’s marriage material, not PM material,” laughed Babu.

Ouch! If someone made those observations about me, I’d be flattered. But, at 48, Rahul was hardly a kid. Babu projected Rahul’s youthful exuberance, which had a touch of Obama’s “hope and change” enthusiasm, onto his chronological age.

The Politics of Cows

We were stuck in a traffic jam in Dak Bungalow Road – in the center of Patna. The road had only two lanes, but was partitioned by the traffic into six lanes – much like the New Jersey turnpike but without its real estate. It was a snapshot of India’s wealth gradient. Each lane represented a different group in India’s economically factious population. The innermost was used by carts and cyclists – India’s working class (hardly anyone cycles for pleasure in India), middle by scooters and motorbikes, the middle of India’s middle class. We were in the outermost part, along with other cars. The motorcycles occasionally dared to go into the outer lane. The cyclists stayed in their lane.

Only the cows occupied every part of the road. The cows were the most socially mobile. Babu horned angrily at a stubborn cow which was in our path. The cow smacked its feces-infested tail, with flies hovering about it like the confidence interval of a box plot, against the side view mirror of the Audi. Babu pressed the horn again. The cow seemed underwhelmed.

“Thanks to Mr. Modi?” I asked cheekily. Cows had assumed special status under Mr. Modi’s government and had become more audacious than ever.

“No. Thanks to Lalu Prasad Yadav.” replied Babu. “The cows came onto the streets during his time as CM.”

Lalu Prasad Yadav is arguably Bihar’s most memorable CM – a unique cocktail of malice and humor. A devotee of JP Narayan, Yadav became one of Bihar’s most corrupt politicians – with the scale of corruption reaching comical proportions. Bihar, a state never known for literacy and infrastructure, regressed and law and order deteriorated, making Bihar at one time barely safer than ISIS-controlled Syria.

The “Yadav” caste traditionally looked after cows and distributed their milk. Lord Krishna – Vishnu’s 8th incarnation - who tended cows and fought serpents and demons in his spare time, was also a Yadav. Lalu was no incarnation of Vishnu. But he used the cow expeditiously. Whilst Modi uses the religious reverence for cows politically, Lalu used imaginary cows for one of the greatest embezzlements in India – the Fodder Scam – where nearly $500 million was swindled for imaginary food for imaginary livestock. He literally made the cows up. Lalu was convicted of the fodder scam and placed in jail.

“But there were no Hindu-Muslim riots when Lalu was CM – even when there were riots elsewhere.” I said, trying to put a silver lining to Lalu’s reign.

“There hasn’t been a single Hindu-Muslim riot since Modi became PM”, Babu rejoined.

Sanjay 2.0

The Audi turned into the heavily terraced road leading to the station. It’s one of Patna’s most overcrowded road, not just because of the train station. The iconic Mahavir Hanuman Mandir is near the station. And standing next to the Mandir is Patna’s Mosque. It’s a miracle (knock on the wood) that in such a crowded space there has never been any riots between Hindus and Muslims. Babu bowed in reverence to Lord Hanuman. Reflexively, I did, too.

“There is no Hindu-Muslim problem. It’s exaggerated by people with vested interest” said Babu in a sweeping generalization, as if reading my mind. “In India, there are only two types of people – chutiyas (assholes) and non-chutiyas. Chutiyas have no religion. And chutiyas are trying to rule over non-chutiyas.”

If I were a statistician, I’d have cautioned Babu that dichotomization leads to loss of information. Surely, there are sub-groups in both chutiyas and non-chutiyas. But the country needed a dichotomy, and better a secular than a religious dichotomy.

“Is Modi a chutiya or a non-chutiya?” I asked earnestly.

“Neither,” replied Babu contradicting his own dichotomy. “He’s a baahubali (strong man). You need a baahubali to control assholes. Sanjay Gandhi was a baahubali. Indira was also a baahubali. She saved East Pakistan and created Bangladesh. She also put Sikh separatists in their place.”

“Does Modi remind you of Indira?” I asked.

“Modi reminds me of both Indira and Sanjay. He’s Sanjay’s reincarnation.”

Modi was born before Sanjay died. Technically Modi couldn’t be Sanjay’s reincarnation – though he could be possessed by Sanjay’s ghost, and carry his poltergeist. But I didn’t want to get into the technicalities of reincarnation with Babu. We were only a few minutes from the station. So, I let it go.

“We need a strong leader. We have too many problems. We can be better than China”, said Babu, as the traffic mildly dispersed after we passed the temple.

A common refrain against Modi is that he’s a mini-fascist who’ll kill democracy in India. That may well be true. But what is missed in the analysis is that many Indians crave for a mini-dictator – someone who they believe will get stuff done, someone who is authoritarian but builds flyovers, railway lines and hospitals, and makes sure that electricity is available. If democracy arises from the howls of totalitarianism, dictatorship arises from the bowels of democracy. Democracy dies when it fails to meet the people’s expectations. Indians want their prime minister to deliver more. They want their prime ministers to be baahubalis.

The car swerved around an elevated platform. There were two banyan trees on the platform. The platform was inundated with travelers; many rested their backs against the tree.

“Did you know that Sanjay Gandhi went around planting trees?” Babu asked matter-of-factly. “He wanted India to be green. He cared about the environment long before westerners cared about the environment.”

If Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi were torchbearers, their legacy isn’t Rahul Gandhi but Narendra Modi – another authoritarian leader, a baahubali, a leader with a vision who gets stuff done, but over reaches in doing so. Many Indians believe authoritarianism delivers infrastructure.

Like the tempestuous Sanjay Gandhi, Modi will either make or break India.

I watched the Audi slowly drive off, fighting its way through an unregulated mass of cyclists, cart pullers, rickshawallahs, pedestrians, beggars, street vendors, stray dogs, and cows. Babu Charan rolled down his window and shouted at the masses to get out of the way. Slowly, the people formed an orderly file. And the Audi escaped into another swell of traffic.


About the Author

Saurabh Jha is an Associate Professor of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached on Twitter @RogueRad

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