A few days back I saw an advertisement of Indira Gandhi.
It was a half-page photograph in black-and-white of a younger Indira Gandhi on a swing.
A swing provides a different dimension to a personality. It lets you float, feel more playful, convey a sense of reflexiveness and reflectivity.
Mrs Gandhi looked vulnerable, her face appeared gentler and there was no sense of the all-conquering Durga look, nor was there a sense of sycophancy which led DK Baruah to claim “Indira is India, India is Indira”.
The photograph could be out of any family album, a touch of nostalgia, a fragment of memory.
Nostalgia, I realise, creates mellowness, it softens the grains, mutes the harder textures of power. The photograph could have been of a family aunt, who everyone was fond of.
There was an aesthetic sense to it, inviting memory and anecdote. The contrast with Narendra Modi’s pictures strewn over the newspaper was obvious.
Modi looked like a Kim Il-sung, with a dozen photographs scattered like epidemic across the paper.
The first thing that struck one was the aesthetic contrast: Mrs Gandhi evoked a sense of grace and dignity, an aristocrat’s ease despite her insecurities.
Modi looked like a Tussaud’s dummy. The picture reminded you of the slightly touched up pictures of successful IAS, IPS candidates that tutorial academies flaunt.
Indira Gandhi with son Sanjay Gandhi. (Photo credit: Google)
Both conveyed a sense of the success story, of successful mobility, a reminder of the new aspirational class haunting the Indian imagination.
There was a second difference. Mrs Gandhi had a flair for dress. Her choice of saris was immaculate. She wore them with a natural ease, a grace which increased as she became older.
Modi is particular about dress but his clothes look like something on a tailor’s dummy. It is almost as if he is in costume, and the PM’s post is a costume ball he is getting used to.
His choice of colours is a bit disappointing. He looks ambitious with none of the ease Mrs Gandhi had. It is as if Mrs Gandhi sensed that she was a piece of history. Modi feels he has gate-crashed into history.
Time, of course, becomes an important issue here. One confronts the immediacy of Modi, while 1984 for all its violence seems far away. Time mellows memories, adds a fragrance of respect.
In fact, thinking about Mrs Gandhi, one feels one’s memory like a family album, stopping occasionally to describe an event to an absent audience.
There is also a sense of the period. Mrs Gandhi belongs to the photograph; Modi I think prefers the hologram, the selfie.
For Modi, memory will be an assembly line of pictures, industrialised and not very discriminating. Mrs Gandhi appears vintage, like a collector’s item.
I think the aesthetic is a crucial part of how power is constructed and remembered. Mrs Gandhi’s personality could nudge memories of myth and history.
She did not have to worry about being commodified. Modi at the most can be a brand. There is a semiotic distance between their two images that Modi’s image makers have to worry about.
Yet there are similarities between the two. Both are obsessive about power, both desperate to cling on to it. And, of course, how to manipulate others to stay in power.
Emergency marks that sense of evil and brutality that stained Mrs Gandhi. Her indifference to suffering and her promotion of Sanjay Gandhi added a surreal quality to her politics.
Her high point was the handling of the Bangladesh crisis, where she confronted Nixon and Kissinger till they blinked first.
Suddenly Mrs Gandhi’s photograph which had halos now acquires the greyness of shadows. There are too many unanswered questions.
The numerous acts of torture during Emergency, the arbitrariness suddenly reminds us of the Dorian Gray picture as it ages.
Mrs Gandhi’s pictures too have this sense of shadows, unanswered questions. Her world of shadows still needs a detailed study.
Modi’s life also casts long shadows. The history of 2002 destroyed India as much as Emergency. Emergency at least had the eloquence and integrity of the Shah Commission report.
While 2002 is embroiled in bureaucratic and judicial enquiries which merely cloud issues. It is almost as if the spectre of violence haunts both of them.
They become siblings under the skin as violence takes over their lives. In fact, Mrs Gandhi and Modi become the two starkest epochs of violence in India.
Yet the irony of democracy, or at least populist democracy, is that such demagogues voted back to power. It is as if the stigma of violence adds to the aura of power, making a leader look more masculine, decisive and ruthless.
Both Mrs Gandhi and Modi capture this aura of decisiveness. Both had a deep sense of nationalism, which makes them love the bomb and demand for India, a seat in the UN Security Council.
The one sense of secondariness both had was about India’s presence in the pecking order of power.
Neither of them could give India a sense of its primariness. The struggle against being a second rate power, despite India’s potential, haunted both leaders.
The pity is that there is no major psychological study of either leader. A psychologist of Ashis Nandy’s calibre could have done a brilliant comparison of the two personalities.
What one misses is a classic study of the two like Erikson did of Gandhi or Woodward did of Nixon. Till then both remain alien and distant.