a) Timely recognition: on the Moody’s upgrade

Moody’s decision to upgrade India’s sovereign credit rating by a notch after a gap of almost 14 years is undoubtedly a welcome recognition of the country’s enormous economic potential. It has been driven by some of the recent structural reforms — including the implementation of a long-delayed nationwide goods and services tax (GST), and moves to address the logjam of mounting bad loans in the banking sector through an Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. These are expected to help ensure a healthier enabling environment to realise this potential over the longer term. The ratings agency has said the reforms undertaken until now would “advance the government’s objective of improving the business climate, enhancing productivity, stimulating foreign and domestic investment, and ultimately fostering strong and sustainable growth.” And viewed in conjunction with the sizeable foreign exchange reserves, India’s overall capacity to absorb shocks is now seen as much better. The market reaction — with the stock indices and the rupee posting handsome gains intraday — signals that local businesses and overseas investors see the upgrade as a vote of confidence in the economy and the policy approach to economic management and reforms, especially at a time when momentum has slowed to a 13-quarter low. Still, as Moody’s has flagged in explaining why it has opted to change the ratings outlook to ‘stable’ from ‘positive’, the “high public debt burden remains an important constraint on India’s credit profile relative to peers.” At 68% of its GDP in 2016, general government debt in India is significantly higher than the 44% median for other similarly ranked economies, according to the New York-based agency, which sees the debt-to-GDP ratio widening by about 1 percentage point this fiscal year to 69%. Moody’s cites “the large pool of private savings available to finance government debt”, the steps taken to enlarge the formal economy by mainstreaming more and more businesses from the informal sector, and measures aimed at improving spending efficiency through better targeting of welfare measures, as all broadly supportive of a gradual strengthening of the fiscal metrics over time. But it is this very same ‘time’ element that holds the key to how the macro-economic situation could evolve. With economists and monetary authorities warning of the likelihood of fiscal slippages as a consequence of farm loan waivers by States, the Centre’s implementation of the pay commission’s award and even weaker tax receipts amid teething issues with the GST, there is a danger that the government may end up missing its fiscal deficit targets in the near term. And therein lies the challenge. For the economy to capitalise on this upgrade, the political leadership must stay the reform course, electorally alluring temptations to resort to populism notwithstanding.

b) Such a long legacy: on Indira Gandhi

The term populism has acquired considerable currency these days, and is widely used to describe a distinctive mode of politics. Though populist leaders are democratically elected, they betray scant respect for the procedures and institutions of democracy, civil liberties, and dissent. Appearing like a veritable messiah onto the stage of politics, they attack elitism, establishment politics, and corruption. Disdaining the rules of constitutional democracy, they prefer to concentrate power in their own person, and directly speak to and for an inchoate entity called the people. Populism neatly captures the political style of Donald Trump in the U.S, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Narendra Modi of India. These leaders have attracted attention, but their populist politics can prove dangerous for democracy.

Standing up to ‘big men’

Consider Indira Gandhi, whose birth centenary it is on Sunday. She single-handedly wrote and enacted the script of populism in India, amidst a struggle for the control of the Congress party. Jawaharlal Nehru had steered the party to impressive victories in the first three elections to Parliament after Independence. This gave the government an edge over the party leadership. Nehru’s death in 1964 restored power to the ‘big men’ in the Congress. They were more than familiar with political strategies, and were adept at manoeuvring their way through the thickets of politics. They decided to put Indira Gandhi, who had acquired a fair deal of popularity, in her place. Her biographers tell us that she was unbearably patronised by the ‘Syndicate’ peopled by powerful Congressmen — Atulya Ghosh, K. Kamaraj, S.K. Patil, N. Sanjiva Reddy, S. Nijalingappa and Biju Patnaik. As a member of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet, Mrs. Gandhi was handed the inconsequential Information and Broadcasting Ministry, was heckled in Parliament and was disparagingly referred to as a ‘goongi gudiya’ (dumb doll) by Ram Manohar Lohia. Yet, when Shastri passed away the Congress, wracked by political rivalries, decided that Mrs. Gandhi should be the next Prime Minister. She was sworn in as the first woman Prime Minister of India on January 24, 1966. From the late 1960s to her assassination in 1984, the same woman who had been regularly belittled by her male colleagues dominated the party as well as the country. And these ‘big men’ who had assumed that they would control power in a government headed by a mere woman vanished into the mists of time.

Turning point in 1967

The story of Prime Minister Gandhi’s ascent in politics begins in the 1967 elections, when she campaigned for the party across the country. She travelled thousands of kilometres in an open jeep, addressed crowds, and secured acclaim. She quickly grasped that older power equations in rural India had given way to palpable tensions between the landed and the landless. Displaying considerable political acumen, and a great sense of timing, Mrs. Gandhi positioned herself firmly for the poor — garib — the new politically significant factor in Indian politics. Appealing directly to this section of Indians, and deploying dexterously the slogan ‘garibi hatao’ (remove poverty), she assiduously forged and nurtured a national constituency over the heads of regional leaders. After Mahatma Gandhi it was Indira Gandhi who was seen as the saviour of the poor, and over time as ‘Mother India.’ Following distinctively pro-poor policies, she nationalised 14 commercial banks in 1969, and abolished the privy purses of the erstwhile royals. In the process, she exposed the pro-rich stand of existing leaders, their incompetence and their advancing age that pre-empted any radical move. Shortly thereafter the party split, and Mrs. Gandhi became the undisputed leader of the dominant wing of the party. In retrospect, ‘garibi hatao’ rhetoric appears unpretentious and simple. But used for the first time in Indian politics to directly address the concerns of the poor, it contributed to the consolidation of authority. In the 1971 elections, the Congress came back to power with an overwhelming majority. And Mrs. Gandhi secured the sort of legitimacy her father had enjoyed. Mrs. Gandhi was adept at emotionally mobilising the masses. The electoral successes of her party gave her the authority to select which leader she catapulted into, or dismissed from, ministerial posts. Under her leadership, India secured food self-sufficiency, and made gigantic strides in developing nuclear and space technology. The Indian Army won a decisive victory over Pakistan in 1971, and opposition leaders began to hail her as Durga, the vanquisher of all evil. Conversely her disdain for procedures and parliamentary proprieties led to the rapid decline of democratic institutions. Prime Minister Gandhi changed the rules of Indian politics by calling for a committed judiciary and a committed bureaucracy. Above all, she changed the Congress party. As her stature rose in the eyes of Indians, her party declined dramatically. The same Congress that had specialised in addressing, negotiating, and resolving demands of different groups within the framework of its organisation became captive to the leader. This was at a time when popular expectations of parties and of the government had escalated. The lasting mystique of Indira Gandhi: Sagarika Ghose speaks about her book ‘Indira, India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister’ By the late 1960s, disgruntlement had coalesced rapidly under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan. Mrs. Gandhi imposed an internal emergency from 1975 to 1977 in response. Civil liberties were suspended, opposition leaders were jailed, petty rulings censored films, with songs of Kishore Kumar banned from All India Radio. The government tried to legitimise the Emergency by issuing a 20-point programme for economic and social reform. This did not work. The Emergency regime was voted out in the 1977 elections.

A brave woman

The saga of Indira Gandhi tells us of a woman brave enough to breach ramparts fortified by the old elite, establish her own brand of politics based on a direct and unmediated relationship with the electorate, succeed in banishing the very men who had at one time treated her patronisingly and shabbily, and become a loved Prime Minister. Her politics epitomised populism. However, her efforts to marginalise opponents and party colleagues bred a bitter harvest. By the mid-1970s she had become suspicious of everyone, and could rely on no one except her son Sanjay. The consequences were disastrous: the imposition of the Emergency that pulverised political life in the country. Mrs. Gandhi was voted back in 1980 but she seemed to have lost her ability to judge the political moment, and mislaid her famed acumen. The decision to storm the Golden Temple was a historic blunder. The Prime Minister who moved the hearts and minds of millions would die at the hands of her own guards in 1984.


She left behind a shaky legacy, on the one hand personalisation of power and on the other diminished institutional capacity. The results were painfully evident in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. After her death, bloodthirsty crowds ran amuck to kill and maim innocent citizens of India. The country paid heavily for political populism in the form of personalised power, neglect of institutional propriety, disdain for procedures that contain the otherwise unabashed exercise of power, and the reduction of ministerial colleagues to courtiers. Have we learnt anything from this history of the rise and fall of one of the most admired leaders of Indian politics? Or are we going to let the past repeat itself again and again and again, in the fascination for populist politics. For it is not the populist leader, but the country which has to pay the wages of populism.


1) Logjam

Meaning: A situation that seems irresolvable.

Example: “the president can use his power to break the logjam over this issue”

Synonyms: A backlog

2) Enhancing

Meaning: Intensify, increase, or further improve the quality, value, or extent of.

Example: “his refusal does nothing to enhance his reputation”

Synonyms: Increase, Intensify

Antonyms: Diminish, Mar

3) Fostering

Meaning: Encourage the development of (something, especially something desirable).

Example: “the teacher’s task is to foster learning”

Synonyms: Encourage, Promote

Antonyms: Neglect, Suppress

4) Conjunction

Meaning: The action or an instance of two or more events or things occurring at the same point in time or space.

Example: “a conjunction of favourable political and economic circumstances”

Synonyms: Concurrence, Coincidence

5) Therein

Meaning: In that place, document, or respect.

Example: “it shall be sufficient evidence of the facts therein contained”

6) Temptations

Meaning: The desire to do something, especially something wrong or unwise.

Example: “he resisted the temptation to call Celia at the office”

Synonyms: Desire, Impulse

7) Distinctive

Meaning: Characteristic of one person or thing, and so serving to distinguish it from others.

Example: “juniper berries give gin its distinctive flavour”

Synonyms: Typical, Individual

Antonyms: Common

8) Veritable

Meaning: Used for emphasis, often to qualify a metaphor.

Example: “the early 1970s witnessed a veritable price explosion”

9) Messiah

Meaning: A leader regarded as the saviour of a particular country, group, or cause.

Example: “the club’s supporters have been tempted to regard him as a messiah rather than a manager”

10) Disdaining

Meaning: Consider to be unworthy of one’s consideration.

Example: “he disdained his patients as an inferior rabble”

Synonyms: Scorn, Deride

Antonyms: Respect, Value

11) Inchoate

Meaning: Just begun and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary; confused or incoherent.

Example: “a still inchoate democracy”

12) Steered

Meaning: Guide or control the movement of (a vehicle, vessel, or aircraft), for example by turning a wheel or operating a rudder.

Example: “he steered the boat slowly towards the busy quay”

Synonyms: Guide, Direct

13) Manoeuvring

Meaning: Move skillfully or carefully.

Example: “the lorry was unable to manoeuvre comfortably in the narrow street”

Synonyms: Guide, Navigate

14) Thickets

Meaning: A dense group of bushes or trees.

Example: “a horned owl perfectly camouflaged in a dense thicket”

Synonyms: Grove, Covert

15) Patronised

Meaning: Give financial or other support to (a person, organization, or cause).

Example: “she patronizes worthy causes”

Synonyms: Sponsor, Support

16) Heckled

Meaning: Interrupt (a public speaker) with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse.

Example: “he was booed and heckled when he tried to address the demonstrators”

Synonyms: Taunt, Disrupt

Antonyms: Cheer

17) Disparagingly

Meaning: Regard or represent as being of little worth.

Example: “he never missed an opportunity to disparage his competitors”

Synonyms: Belittle, Denigrate

Antonyms: Praise, Overrate

18) Wracked (past tense of rack)

Meaning: Cause extreme pain, anguish, or distress to.

Example: “he was racked with guilt”

Synonyms: Torment, Afflict

19) Belittled

Meaning: Dismiss (someone or something) as unimportant.

Example: “she belittled Amy’s riding skills whenever she could”

Synonyms: Disparage, Denigrate

Antonyms: Praise, Magnify

20) Mists of time

Meaning: Used to show that something happened a very long time ago and is difficult to remember clearly

Example: The precise details of what happened have been lost in the mists of time.

21) Palpable

Meaning: (of a feeling or atmosphere) so intense as to seem almost tangible.

Example: “a palpable sense of loss”

Synonyms: Perceptible, Visible

Antonyms: Imperceptible, Intangible

22) Dexterously

Meaning: The ability to perform a difficult action quickly and skillfully with the hands, or the ability to think quickly and effectively

Example: He caught the ball with great dexterity.

Synonyms: Ability, Accuracy

23) Assiduously

Meaning: With great care and perseverance.

Example: “leaders worked assiduously to hammer out an action plan”

24) Privy purses

Meaning: (in the UK) taxed funds provided by the Duchy of Lancaster to meet some official expenditure incurred by the monarch, plus his or her private expenses.

25) Unpretentious

Meaning: (of a place) pleasantly simple and functional; modest.

Example: “a friendly and unpretentious hotel”

Synonyms: Ordinary, Humble

Antonyms: Pretentious, Showy

26) Overwhelming

Meaning: Very great in amount.

Example: “his party won overwhelming support”

Synonyms: Enormous, Immense

Antonyms: Small

27) Vanquisher

Meaning: Defeat thoroughly.

Example: “he successfully vanquished his rival”

Synonyms: Conquer, Annihilate

28) Mystique

Meaning: A quality of mystery, glamour, or power associated with someone or something.

Example: “the mystique surrounding the monarchy”

Synonyms: Charm, Mystery

29) Disgruntlement

Meaning: Unhappy, annoyed, and disappointed about something

Example: A disgruntled former employee is being blamed for the explosion.

Synonyms: Grieving, Miserably

30) Coalesced

Meaning: Come together to form one mass or whole.

Example: “the puddles had coalesced into shallow streams”

Synonyms: Unite, Merge

31) Ramparts

Meaning: A defensive wall of a castle or walled city, having a broad top with a walkway and typically a stone parapet.

Example: “a castle with ramparts and a moat”

Synonyms: Embankment, Earthwork

32) Banishing

Meaning: Send (someone) away from a country or place as an official punishment.

Example: “a number of people were banished to Siberia for political crimes”

Synonyms: Expel, Deport

Antonyms: Admit, Readmit

33) Patronising (ly)

Meaning: To speak to or behave towards someone as if they are stupid or not important

Example: Stop patronizing me – I understand the play as well as you do.

Synonyms: Overbearing

34) Shabbily

Meaning: In a way that is unfair or does not show respect

Example: Lawsuits arise when people feel that they were treated shabbily.

35) Epitomised

Meaning: Be a perfect example of.

Example: “the company epitomized the problems faced by British industry”

Synonyms: Embody, Incorporate

36) Pulverised

Meaning: Defeat utterly.

Example: “he had a winning car and pulverized the opposition”

Synonyms: Annihilate, Vanquish

37) Shaky

Meaning: Unstable because of poor construction or heavy use.

Example: “a cracked, dangerously shaky table”

Synonyms: Unsteady, Unstable

Antonyms: Stable

38) Bloodthirsty

Meaning: Having or showing a desire to kill and maim.

Example: “a bloodthirsty dictator”

Synonyms: Violent, Bellicose

Antonyms: Peaceful

39) Amuck (adverb of amok)

Meaning: Behave uncontrollably and disruptively.

Example: “stone-throwing anarchists were running amok”

Synonyms: Rampage, Riot

40) Unabashed

Meaning: Not embarrassed, disconcerted, or ashamed.

Example: “he was unabashed by the furore his words provoked”

Synonyms: Shameless, Confident

Antonyms: Ashamed, Sheepish