Indira Gandhi and Theresa May: Masters of Self-Sabotage

theresa, may, indira, gandhi
Blinded by hubris, both Indira Gandhi and Theresa May suffered self-inflicted electoral defeats.

On January 23, 1977, nineteen months into her State of Emergency, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced the dissolution of parliament and the holding of fresh elections. With infinite magnanimity, she also decreed the release of all political prisoners, by that stage numbering tens of thousands (100,000 by the reckoning of Amnesty International).

Two months later, all was gone.  Gandhi’s shot at dictatorship, with all its execrable facets (the mass arrests and torture, the crushing of civil liberties, the press censorship, the ghastly toll exacted by mass compulsory sterilisation and the forced ‘relocation’ of millions of slum-dwellers in the name of city ‘beautification’) had been reduced to Ozymandias-style rubble by perhaps the greatest of all India’s election campaigns: the national uprising of March 1977. In the Lok Sabha, the Congress party was confined to a dismal 154 seats, its weakest showing ever. Its imperial leader was routed in her own constituency, Rae Bareli, by a margin of 55,202 votes. In neighbouring Amethi, the heir presumptive, the egregious Sanjay, was seen off even more emphatically. For the ruling party, much of northern India – the heartland of Congress Raj – was rendered a political desert where:

Round the decay/Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Why did Indira Gandhi, in the full flush of tyranny, make the fatal error of calling elections in 1977? Among the various explanations that have been mooted, three possess particular plausibility. The first emphasises Gandhi’s discomfort at the international criticism that her upending of democracy had attracted. The second highlights the role played by her sycophantic entourage, in particular, the political advisors who, on the basis of a ‘survey’, assured her that electoral victory would incontestably be hers. And the third harkens back to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, specifically the toxic results of the combination of excessive confidence with arrogance and pride. In other words, hubris.

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On April 18, 2017, eight months into her leadership of the country, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a ‘snap’ general election to be held on June 8. Against her previous claims that such a move would be distracting to the Brexit process, May now argued that ‘unity’ at Westminster on the basis of a larger working majority for the Conservatives (at that point only 17 seats) was essential to the success of her ‘hard’ Brexit negotiations. All seemed propitious:  polling data unanimously gave the Tories a 20-plus percentage point over the Labour Party, whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was dismissed out of hand as thoroughly unelectable. It was going to be a walk in the park, a piece of cake.

If I should happen to lose as many as six seats,” chortled Mrs May, “I’ll step down as leader.

Just short of two months later, a rather different reality dawned. Instead of a substantially boosted working majority, Theresa May confronted no majority at all. Although her party was still the largest in the House of Commons, her election gamble had resulted in a ‘hung’ parliament where no party could prevail alone.  As for seats lost, well Mrs May had managed to mislay a dozen, among them – Kensington and Chelsea, home to Harrods, Peter Pan and London’s extremely rich and privileged. Most astonishing of all, Jeremy Corbyn, the opponent for whom no ridicule was to be spared, had ignited a campaign (“We are many – they are few”), that inspired many in their thousands while propelling Labour upwards in the polls. Labour’s manifesto set out an alternative vision of Britain. On June 8, Labour emerged with 262 parliamentary seats and 40% of the national vote.

Why did Theresa May, with a working majority already in hand and complex Brexit negotiations to prepare for, make the fatal error of calling a snap election? There are parallels to be drawn here with Indira Gandhi’s catastrophic (for herself and her party, if not for India) misreading of the situation. Once again, a leader’s international image seemed to play a role: May sought to stiffen her profile as a ‘tough’ negotiator on the basis of a strengthened mandate. As before, ill-judgment, sycophancy and political illiteracy fed the illusion, egged on by the mainstream British media with its pathological hostility to Corbyn,  his programme and supporters. And, sure enough, there was that familiar combination of excessive confidence, arrogance and pride. As imperious as Indira Gandhi, although lacking her chutzpah, Theresa May declined to take part in debates. Just as Indira Gandhi helicoptered over India in search of poverty, May floated above the election fray, content to do little beyond robotically intone the mantra ‘strong and stable government’. The gods were not impressed; hubris awaited.

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