“Elect a Government That Works”: A Case Study in Populism and Corruption from India 

As the United States was reeling from President Richard Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal, another imperiled leader—Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—was fighting for her political life thousands of miles away. Although Gandhi and Nixon never got along, their stories overlap. Both barely squeaked into power after close elections in the late 1960s, but then won resounding reelection victories in the early 1970s. Gandhi’s political fortunes, like Nixon’s, took a turn for the worse shortly after reelection, in light of substantiated accusations of illegal campaign activity. But at this point, Nixon and Gandhi’s stories diverge. Unlike Nixon, Gandhi stayed the course and refused to resign. And in the end she prevailed: Gandhi was popularly elected three times with some of the largest governing majorities in Indian history.

How did Gandhi convince the public to reelect her, despite her known, widespread abuses of authority? How did a leader ensnared in scandal and corruption hold onto power to become one of the most beloved leaders in the world’s largest democracy? The answer to these questions may lie in Gandhi’s concentrated emphasis on left-wing populism. She argued to voters that she alone was most capable of effectuating change for India and its most needy citizens by enacting social programs and redistributing wealth. Additionally, Gandhi spent much of her time as Prime Minister consolidating her power within the party and the central government. This enabled much of the corruption that marked her rule but was also what allowed her to argue to the public that she was uniquely capable of fixing the nation’s problems.

Gandhi’s autocratic tendencies, combined with her government’s firm control over the private sector and a complete ban on corporate political donations, ushered in a new era of “briefcase politics” in India. Under this regime, Gandhi’s party—the Indian National Congress—and its leaders were able to extract vast sums of “black money” from businesses in exchange for licenses and permits. This enabled the Congress party to raise money for elections while starving rival parties of essential funds. Trade and industry representatives who refused to give predetermined sums to the government were threatened with tax raids. The government even awarded contracts and exclusive production rights to Gandhi’s preferred companies, including, maybe most infamouslyMaruti Motors, of which Gandhi’s son Sanjay was the first Managing Director.  Moreover, Gandhi solidified control over the Congress party by halting intraparty elections and replacing disloyal party members in powerful regional positions with her supporters, turning the party into her own “personalized machine.”

These abuses did not go unnoticed. As the public became more aware of the government’s excesses, a powerful anticorruption movement grew in prominence, led by activist Jayaprakash “JP” Narayan. JP sought to galvanize the public against Gandhi and her party, whose autocratic policies he believed were enabling public corruption on a vast scale. At first, this movement posed no threat to Gandhi’s government, but by 1974 India was facing an economic crisis fueled by droughts, inflation, famine, and rising oil prices. Without anything to show for her not-so-subtle power grab, Gandhi’s popularity had dropped to an all-time low, and JP saw an opening to finally defeat her. Critics framed the economic disaster as the result of Gandhi’s “misuse of authority, corruption and . . . erosion of moral leadership,” arguing that corruption was the root of inflation. As JP later wrote: “We have always raised our voice against corruption. Prevention of corruption was the main aim of our movement.” 

JP’s anticorruption rallying cry led to a massive, nationwide “march on parliament.” Hundreds of thousands of Indians of all political stripes took the streets to push for a “total revolution” against the “corruption and maladministration” of Gandhi’s government. This movement reached its zenith on June 12, 1975, when an Indian high court found Gandhi guilty of corrupt practices, including several minor counts of election fraud. The court invalidated her commanding victory in the 1971 election and gave her twenty days to leave office or appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of India.

Despite mounting public pressure and the JP-led protests that ensued, Gandhi refused to resign. Instead, she doubled down. Knowing that her message of “getting things done” had helped her fend off accusations of corruption in the past, she was determined to prove to the public that she could still fulfill her promises. But to do so, she needed to buy herself some time. On June 25, 1975, Gandhi invoked Article 352 of the Indian Constitution—a special provision that had only ever been invoked during times of war—to declare a state of emergency in light of alleged “internal disturbances” (mainly, JP’s protests against Gandhi). With the stroke of a pen, the Constitution was effectively suspended. Gandhi was now free to suppress the media and suspend elections until she could make her case to the people that her policies were in the country’s best interests. In addition, Gandhi shepherded through parliament a half-dozen constitutional amendments that weakened the courts and state governments, strengthened the executive, and gave herself retroactive immunity for election offenses. Most brazenly, Gandhi ordered the incarceration of hundreds of vocal political opponents—the first of whom was JP. JP remained in solitary confinement for over four months. Facing declining health, he was released only after Gandhi feared that his death in prison would further energize his movement. While in recovery at a hospital, he wrote an open letter to Gandhi, accusing her of “making a show of doing here and now what you failed to do in nine years” and opined that “in a democracy the people, too, have the right to ask for the resignation of an elected government if it has gone corrupt and has been misruling.” 

To combat JP’s anticorruption message, Gandhi wielded her newly unfettered emergency power to enact populist economic reforms for the “common man and woman of India.” She framed protesters like JP as fascists who only sought rebellion to prop up corporate interests. Nonetheless, the corruption and cronyism problem of Gandhi’s administration only worsened during the emergency period: Gandhi, with the help of her son and heir-apparent Sanjay, filled the party ranks with loyal mobsters. Sanjay also ordered the demolition of shops and other property owned by political opponents. But Gandhi calculated that this would not matter if she could convince a critical mass of voters that her autocratic rule was essential to lifting low-income Indians out of poverty. After all, much of JP’s anticorruption movement was led by English-speaking, upper-class university students—not exactly the “common man.” With this in mind, Gandhi emphasized the values of government effectiveness and, above all, getting things done. Meanwhile, she blanketed the country with propaganda to increase her popularity and garner backing for her drastic emergency measures

Her gambit seemed to pay off, at least in the short term. Only a year later, the economy was booming again, for which she took credit—whether deserved or not. Believing she would win handily, Gandhi abruptly called an election in 1977. But when the ballots were counted, Gandhi’s party suffered a devastating loss. Her iron grip on the country crumbled in an instant as a fractured coalition of opposition parties loosely aligned with JP’s anticorruption movement kicked the Congress out of power for the first time since Independence, making Morarji Desai the new Prime Minister. Even worse, within six months of her defeat, Gandhi was unexpectedly arrested for her prior election-fraud charges.

Before Desai, India had known nothing other than a Congress-led central government. Desai’s motley coalition promised voters something new: a clean and democratic, yet still productive, form of governance. But before too long, the Indian population became dissatisfied with his government, which was beset with internal squabbling and failed to meaningfully improve conditions in the country. Despite its noble intentions, Desai’s coalition failed to provide voters with a competent alternative to the Congress. As a result, Gandhi’s popular support rebounded, especially among the poor. Although she had been ousted from her party, she successfully formed a new faction in her name—Congress (I), for Indira—and plotted her comeback using her left-populist playbook. In November 1978, Gandhi won a seat in parliament in an obscure southern district and proceeded to launch a nationwide campaign to “Elect a Government that Works”—a return, she promised, to stable and effective governance. 

She succeeded. In 1980, Gandhi returned to power as Prime Minister in an electoral landslide even bigger than her triumph in 1971. Her popularity continued to rise, and, for a moment, she looked unstoppable. But if Gandhi’s story began like Nixon’s, it ended like Kennedy’s. Shortly after the 1980 election, Gandhi’s son Sanjay died in a sudden plane crash. Just a few years later, on October 31, 1984, Gandhi was shot and killed by two of her bodyguards. Yet her political dynasty endured, as Gandhi’s eldest son Rajiv became Prime Minister later that year with the largest ever governing majority in Indian history. While opponents ran a campaign to “save democracy,” Rajiv and the Congress ran a campaign about efficacy, stability, and—perhaps most surprisingly—anticorruption. Having largely avoided politics during the Emergency, Rajiv proudly donned the nickname “Mr. Clean” on the campaign trail.

The Gandhis’ electoral success may seem shocking given their widespread notoriety for corruption, not to mention their vitiation of civil liberties during the Emergency period. But Gandhi promised stability and prosperity in a period rife with hunger and unrest. Scholars have observed that voters may be willing to vote for corrupt, autocratic leaders if they believe it will make them personally better off in the long run. Gandhi’s emphasis on electing a “government that works” for the average Indian citizen helped her sell her authoritarianism to the electorate over and over again as something to be desired rather than feared. Leading up to the landslide 1980 election that swept Gandhi back into power, villagers explained to reporters that they were supporting Gandhi, despite her abuses, because “along with freedom, one also needs something to eat.” So maybe if it means putting food on the table—quickly—voters are more than happy to look the other way in the face of corruption and despotism.

10 thoughts on ““Elect a Government That Works”: A Case Study in Populism and Corruption from India 

  1. Thank you for this very engaging piece! I can’t help but see a resemblance between the arc of India’s history under Gandhi’s rule and the arc that Malaysia is still currently on: despite the massive 1MDB scandal in Malaysia, there remains support for the UMNO party – especially among certain subsets of the poorer (“B40” community) to whom UMNO makes targeted promises.

    I would be interested to find out what role the Anticorruption Commission played in India during this time, if it existed. I am also intrigued by Rajiv Gandhi’s capture of the anticorruption cause in his campaign, and how that panned out during his tenure and beyond (and the effect that that “political capture” – if it can be called that – had on national anticorruption efforts in general).

    • It really is fascinating to see how India’s story during this time mirrors the arc of countless other countries, past and present. There are so many possible takeaways, but a key one for me is the importance of viewing antipoverty reforms as anticorruption reforms as well. Eliminating corruption is certainly the goal, but how can we do that without governing effectively and making sure citizens’ basic needs are met?

  2. Josh, I found this piece fascinating, particularly what it says about our liberal political assumptions that people want an honest, effective, and lawful government. As your account of India under Gandhi suggests, the promise to deliver material benefits or get things done can often be more politically powerful than accusations of corruption. That means that those of us who hope that popular democracy can curtail corruption need to reckon with the fact that corruption may be of concern to voters only in so far as it undermines their well-being. Fighting corruption without addressing inequality, crime, education, healthcare, etc. may ultimately prove self-defeating.

    • Agreed! I really appreciate your comment because it is helping me start to see a few different ways of understanding this history; there’s a more pessimistic view (“promising the people material benefits always outweighs desire for honest government”) and a more optimistic view (“people ultimately want uncorrupt governance but only after their basic needs are met”). I like to think the second view is perhaps also the “realistic” (and less cynical) view, but maybe I’m just an optimist!

  3. If you draw a two by two matrix – one dimension representing bribe and no bribe situations and other representing performance and no performance situations, you end up with four quadrants: (1) no bribe, no performance, (2) bribe, no performance, (3) no bribe, performance and (4) bribe, performance. Obviously, situation (3) is an ideal situation while (2) is worst case scenario. When one cannot get into these two situations, one ends up looking remaining two options, namely, situations (1) and (4). In the context of poverty and hunger, situation (4) that is taking some bribe and doing some performance is better than situation (1), that is, squeaky clean but doing nothing.

    • This is such a great way of looking at the scenario–thank you! Below I attempted to make a “prisoner’s dilemma” type table based on your 2×2 matrix idea. I have very little game theory background, so all of this should be taken with a grain of salt and mostly as an imperfect thought experiment!

      Voters have two choices: (A) elect an effective government, or (B) elect an ineffective government. In this scenario, rational voters will always choose (A):
      A: Voters +1 (Less poverty, less hunger); Government +1 (More legitimacy)
      B: Voters -2 (More poverty, more hunger); Government -4 (Loses re-election)

      The government also has two choices: (A) govern cleanly, or (B) govern corruptly:
      A: Voters +1 (Higher Morale); Government +1 (More legitimacy)
      B: Voters -1 (Lower Morale); Government +2 (More money and power)

      https://ibb.co/P5Wyv82

      Unlike voters, the government will benefit to some extent no matter which option they choose. What they choose will depend on whether or not the government started corrupt or started clean. In other words, per this matrix, a clean and effective government (A,A) is Pareto Optimal, meaning that no side could make another choice without hurting the other party. Here, the government couldn’t go from clean to corrupt without hurting its people, and the voters would not trade an effective government for an ineffective government. (A,A). On the other hand, a corrupt and effective government (A,B) is at Nash Equilibrium, meaning that no side could make another choice that makes it better off, assuming the other side stays the same. Perhaps one could argue this represents Gandhi’s government. Lastly, neither side would want a clean but ineffective government (B,A) or a corrupt and ineffective government (B,B).

      In summary, per this experiment:
      (A,A): JP Narayan’s Vision
      (A,B): Gandhi’s Government?
      (B,A): Desai/Coalition Government?
      (B,B): “Worst Case Scenario”

  4. Thank you for this fantastic historical case study! Like Emily, I also couldn’t help but find parallels between Gandhi’s tactics with those used by other populist world leaders, such as Lula in Brazil. Indeed, populist tactics have been an often wielded tool by government officials involved with corruption. Like Gandhi, many such politicians have downplayed their corruption as a mere “means to an end” so that they may “get things done.” In Brazil, for instance, Lula’s supporters have argued that the PT’s corruption is shadowed by the social programs he instituted, and the economic boom Brazil underwent during his presidency. Are such arguments mere tactics to deflect blame, or could it actually be the case that, in places like Brazil and India, corruption is simply more efficient?

    In other words, the clear link between corruption and populism leads me to a sort of “chicken or the egg” question: does populist leadership lend a government to being more vulnerable to corruption, or do corrupt officials find populism to be an effective political strategy to shield themselves from accusations?

  5. Josh, thank you for this enlightening piece. I appreciated this historical case study with clear applications to contemporary dynamics worldwide (other commentators have mentioned parallels in Southeast Asia and South America, but I would also add some mid-20th century MENA countries to that list). I think your piece captures a salient point about public perception (or, rather, acknowledgment) of corruption: when populations are materially comfortable, their appetite for an anti-corruption movement wanes. I wonder if this case study offers some clarity about what an “optimal” level of corruption looks like in India—in other words, a balance of corruption and provision of public benefits and services.

  6. “Along with freedom, one also needs something to eat.” Wow! Among the many lessons this post offers, it shows that anticorruption advocates must caution against mistaking the forest for the trees. In working to expose and develop solutions to governmental abuses of power, we must also keep in mind that these efforts are not an end in themselves—they must fit into a larger scheme of providing for the social and economic support of the populace. It’s worrying to think that sometimes corrupt, autocratic governments are in a better position to provide popular programs, at least in the short term. I wonder what lessons we can learn from governments that have made strides in reforming corrupt institutions while simultaneously securing immediate economic and social support for their people.

  7. Great historical piece. Very illustrative of Gandhi’s legacy in India. I can’t help to bring up the resemblance to the story of Former Guatemalan President, Alfonso Portillo. He came to power on a populist platform and won the 2000 election by a landslide against the then right-wing incumbent party candidate. He also consolidated control over Congress as his party won three fifths of congressional seats. His tenure was characterized by rampant corruption and constant episodes of public embezzlement. After his presidency, he was extradited to the United States, at the request of the Attorney General for Southern District of New York, and was convicted on money laundering charges. He returned to Guatemala after his time in prison and tried to run as a Congressman. Polling at the time, as well as public perception, signaled strong support for Portillo, especially from rural areas of Guatemala. Fortunately, the Electoral authority negated his candidacy and he has abstained to run ever since. Nevertheless, he is still called upon by “progressive” parties in Guatemala to garnish support from his followers. This show, as the piece highlights, that corruption sometimes plays a secondary role if they believe that certain political figures are going to make them better off in the long run. This is a sad reality and we are seeing that trend pick-up steam in many Latin-American countries.

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