Over the decades, India has experienced pivotal moments coinciding with years ending in the digit 4, delineating a narrative of transformative events that have influenced the country’s political, social, and economic landscape. From the inception of the Republic in 1950 to the contemporary era, these changes are not usually visible amidst the din and noise of daily news. But a longer-term perspective does reveal tectonic shifts
By Sutanu Guru
- Decades ending in “4” signify transformative shifts in Indian politics, society, and economy, often obscured by daily news clamor
- By 1974, hope dwindled, evident in Bollywood’s shift from romantic ballads to the “angry young man” challenging corruption
- In 1994, Jammu & Kashmir faced a challenge as Pakistan-backed terrorists waged a brutal war for “Azaadi” against the state
- 2014 witnessed Congress’ sharp decline in Lok Sabha elections and marked the historic moment of a non-Congress party securing majority since independence
FOR decades since independence, the calendar year ending with 4 has seen many significant milestones. One might well wonder if years ending with other “numbers” have not seen similar milestones. For instance, 1950 marked the beginning of the Republic of India. The year 1962 marked the military humiliation of India at the hands of China. The year 1967 marks the year in which the Congress dominance over Indian politics began to erode. The year 1971 marks the high point in the life and career of Indira Gandhi as she forged Bangladesh out of East Pakistan. The year 1975 will always be a blot as Emergency was imposed. The years 1979 and 1990 marked the collapse of anti-Congress coalitions. One can go on and on. Yet, look at it this way. Years with 4 as the last digit represent fundamental changes in Indian politics, society and economy. These changes are not usually visible amidst the din and noise of daily news. But a longer-term perspective does reveal tectonic shifts. For instance, 1964 marked the end of an era in India. The death of Jawaharlal Nehru signalled the beginning of the fading away of leaders, ideas and inspirations that constituted the freedom struggle against the British Empire. The Nehruvian “model” has survived decades even after his death. But in many ways, it was the end of a gentler and less polarised India.
1974 : Frustration, Despair & Anger
Within a decade of the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, the harsh realities of India were visible in plain view. By any yardstick, 1974 would be a year that most Indians would like to forget. The early promise of an independent India emerging as a reasonably proud and prosperous nation had started fraying even during the 1960s. By 1974, the disappointment and disillusionment were complete. There was plenty of pride. But it faced harsh realities of an economy in perpetual crisis and shortages. Food grains production in India simply failed to keep pace with growing population. Barring small islands of public sector fed jobs, educated youngsters simply could not find jobs. Since India had consciously chosen inward looking economic policies, there never was enough foreign exchange to pay for even food grain imports. There was a shortage of everything and inflation was relentlessly merciless and cruel. It seemed virtually all hope for a better future was dissipating by 1974. This was reflected in how Bollywood movies changed from romantic ballads to the era of the “angry young man” who rails against the corrupt system. The frustration and anger was compounded by rampant corruption as socialist controls and rules gave enormous discretionary powers to politicians and bureaucrats.
This inevitably led to a storm of protests across the country. To that extent, 1974 marks the end of the era of idealism and optimism in India. It all started with a group of students in Gujarat organising protests against hikes in prices of hostel food. That seemingly small protest spread like wildfire and engulfed Bihar. An ageing Gandhian and freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan led a massive movement against the Indira Gandhi regime and declared a “Total Revolution”. A young socialist maverick named George Fernandes paralysed the railway network by leading an all-India strike of Indian Railways employees. Thousands were arrested.
Unknown to many, a new class of “aspirational Indians” started emerging in 2004. Loosely defined, they were largely young Indians whose families had recently climbed out of poverty. For this emerging class of Indians, economic aspirations became as important as class and caste identities
Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her popularity in 1971 after winning Lok Sabha elections and defeating Pakistan in a war. But in less than three years, she had become deeply unpopular in large swathes of India in 1974. But the year, despite all the protests and political upheavals, also signalled a huge milestone. In a remarkable act of secrecy and assertiveness, India exploded a nuclear device in 1974 and became a de facto nuclear power. It faced decades of sanctions and technology denial because of this daring decision before India and the United States became strategic partners in the 21st century. We all know what happened after Jayaprakash Narayan called for Total Revolution. Indira Gandhi plunged Indian democracy into darkness by imposing an Emergency in 1975.
1984 : A Year Of Calamities
Ten years after the call for Total Revolution in 1974, India faced an even more serious and existential crisis. Once again, Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister leading a deeply fractious and fissured India. Assam and Punjab were in flames. While Assam posed a challenge to Indian sovereignty, it was Punjab that posed the more potent threat. An obscure Sikh preacher named Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale had emerged from nowhere and become the putative leader of a militant & terrorist movement that demanded an independent country called Khalistan for the Sikh community.
By 1984, Bhindrawale and his heavily armed followers had taken over the holiest Sikh shrine Golden Temple in Amritsar. Gun toting terrorists started killing Hindus and Sikhs who opposed them brazenly in broad daylight. It seemed no one was safe from the marauders. There was a sense of despair in India as many Indians genuinely feared that Punjab would break away from India. The situation seems hopeless as followers of Bhindrawale started killing people inside the Golden Temple. Something had to break. And it did, in a ghastly fashion. Faced with no other choice, Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to forcibly enter the Golden Temple and evict the terrorists led by Bhindrawale who had openly declared they would prefer death over surrender. In what became notorious as Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army launched an assault. Hundreds of Indian soldiers and officers died while housings of terrorists including Bhindrawale perished. Among them were innocent pilgrims caught in the crossfire. The Golden Temple was badly damaged; even more wounded was the Sikh psyche.
On its own, Operation Blue Star would have made 1984 a traumatic year for India. But there was worse to come. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi stepped out of her official residence to keep an appointment with documentary filmmaker Richard Attenborough who was waiting in a room across the lawn. Two Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh opened fire on her with automatic weapons, riddling her body with bullets. By evening, it was known “officially” that Indira had been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
Her son Rajiv Gandhi rushed back from Kolkata to Delhi and was sworn in as prime minister. What followed then is one of the most disgraceful episodes in modern Indian history. Thousands of Sikhs were brutally massacred by goons egged on by Congress leaders as an act of “vengeance”. What still shocks Indians with a conscience is the cavalier manner in which the new prime minister Rajiv Gandhi dismissed the Sikh genocide by saying that the earth shakes when a big tree falls. It is almost 40 years since that heart wrenching massacre and trials are still going on against the accused. In the Lok Sabha elections that followed in late 1984, Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to its biggest ever victory; something not achieved even by his mother Indira and grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. But the horrific events of 1984 meant terrorism in Punjab blazed for another 10 years. In what could be called a climax, Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh was assassinated in 1995. Terrorism in Punjab ended after that, though some diaspora Sikhs in Canada, the US and UK still nurse dreams of Khalistan.
Changes in this New India are being driven by aspirational Indians. This new class of Indians is also more impatient than the previous generations. They can sense material prosperity and are willing to work for it. They are also the social media generation. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections were indeed marked by the widespread use of social media
If you think the nightmare that 1984 was for India was over with the Sikh genocide, you are wrong. In early December in Bhopal, criminal human negligence at the Union Carbide plant let poisonous gas spread all over the city. Residents couldn’t even fathom what hit them. The first victims were poor families living in slums near the plant. But death spread its fog all over within a matter of hours. Thousands were killed. Thousands were maimed for life. The chairman of Union Carbide, an American multinational, Warren Andersen flew down to India and Bhopal to manage the fallout. He was arrested. But mysteriously, he was allowed to leave India without facing trial. Tens of thousands of victims of the notorious Bhopal Gas Tragedy have never received any relief. Astonishingly, the ear ended on a note of optimism for Indians as they found a new, youthful leader in Rajiv Gandhi.
All terrible years do have moments of pride too. It was in 1984 that an Indian Air Force Officer Rakesh Sharma went to space thanks to a Soviet Union mission. The year 1984 proved ironic too. The BJP was reduced to 2 seats. Many seasoned political analysts wrote obituaries of the BJP. Yet, 30 years after 1984, the same BJP won a majority in the Lok Sabha elections. And looks poised to win again in 2024. History is fascinating and cruel.
In the frenzied and bloody events of 1984, a seemingly obscure organisation and its movement received scant attention from pundits. It was in 1984 that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad aggressively accelerated its demand for the “restoration of the “original” Ram Temple in Ayodhya. But since Assam, Bhopal, Operation Blue Star, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the historic mandate for Rajiv Gandhi dominated headlines, the VHP and its call for Ram Mandir was dismissed as a fringe movement. Hardly anyone paid attention to the formation of the Bajrang Dal in October 1984 as a street fighting force of the nascent Hindutva movement. An astute politician L K Advani who had replaced Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the BJP president soon decided to join the Ram Mandir bandwagon. The results were visible in 2014. As they will be in 2024 when a grand Ram Temple is inaugurated on January 22, 2024. It could mark the end of Nehruvian India.
1994 : When India Almost Lost Kashmir
Compared to the calamities that struck India in 1984, the year 1994 was a relatively benign one. Perhaps the only blot was Jammu & Kashmir where Pakistan sponsored, financed, trained and armed terrorists were waging a brutal war against the state for “Azaadi.” That word itself was a sham as the terrorists and their Islamist sympathises in Jammu & Kashmir wanted to become a part of Pakistan. There were occasions when it did appear as if Kashmir would slip out of India’s hands. The United States was openly hostile to India. One key employee of the US State Department, Robin Raphael had even crossed the red line by questioning the accession of Jammu & Kashmir into India. In subsequent decades, Raphael was investigated by the FBI in the US and was found to have unusual links with the Pakistani intelligence outfit ISI and even the Taliban. The pressure on India was so intense that the Parliament passed a unanimous resolution stating Jammu & Kashmir is an integral part of India. But mysterious events that would damage India’s efforts to pursue missile and space technology kept happening.
The US exerted enormous pressure on the then President of Russia Boris Yelstin to not transfer cryogenic technology to India. The Indian Space Research Organisation developed it indigenously anyway, albeit after many frustrating delays. But, the real mystery was the arrest of ISRO scientist Nambi Narayan who was in a so-called spying case. Subsequent events have clearly proved that rogue Indian cops and perhaps even treacherous politicians in collusion with a foreign intelligence agency had deliberately framed Narayan to sabotage India’s missile development program. Most of the traitors have gone unpunished. When it comes to lawlessness, Bihar showed in 1994 why it was the land of “Jungle raj”. The District Magistrate of Gopalganj G Krishnaih who was killed to death by a mob allegedly instigated and led by mafia don Anand Mohan Singh. He was eventually convicted for the murder but as often happens in many such cases, released from jail in April 2023.
An ageing Gandhian and freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan led a massive movement against the Indira Gandhi regime and declared a “Total Revolution”. A young socialist maverick named George Fernandes paralysed the railway network by leading an all-India strike of Indian Railways employees
While politics emailed ugly, there was little doubt that the sweeping economic reforms introduced by P V Narashima Rao, time had started bearing fruit. The GDP of India symbolically crossed the $ 100 billion mark. By 1994, a whole host of Indian companies had not only succeeded in withstanding the onslaught of competition from multinationals, they had themselves started going global with a vengeance. The massive impact of these fundamental changes were not instantly visible in 1994; it took another decade for them to start propelling India towards becoming an economic powerhouse. But symbolism mattered a lot in 1994. Sushmita Sen won the Miss Universe title and Aishwarya Rai won the Miss World title. The reaction of success starved Indians was as if their country had won a war against Pakistan.
2004 : When Pundits Were Shocked
The year 2004 was one of an unexpected shock for political pundits. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been a popular Prime Minister for six years. Despite the best efforts of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress appeared to lurch from one crisis to another. Against this backdrop, the BJP scored massive victories in assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and the newly created state of Chattisgarh. Led by Pramod Mahajan, a number of BJP leaders persuaded a reluctant Vajpayee to call for early Lok Sabha elections. The party was confident the NDA alliance would ride back to power with the catchy slogan ‘India Shining’. When results of the Lok Sabha elections came out in May 2004, the BJP top brass was delivered a rude jolt. It had managed to win 138 seats while the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi had won 145. A new UPA government was formed. Much has been written about that 2004 verdict.
Most have argued that it was the poor, rural and marginalised Indians who were unhappy with the bombastic ‘India Shining’ slogan who voted against the BJP. An actual examination of the data suggests that the pundits have got it wrong. There was no national anger against the BJP. It lost 24 because it did very poorly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand & Gujarat and in big urban pockets like Delhi & Mumbai. But the 2004 verdict was indeed a rude jolt for the BJP and it fell into disarray. When it also lost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections badly, the usual pundits started writing about the end of the BJP. But as 2014 and 2019 have shown, and perhaps 2024 will show, that was just a pause in the relentless rise of Hindutva and nationalism driven politics in the country.
Senior Congress leader A K Antony was tasked to form a Committee to examine the causes for the electoral debacle of Congress in 2014. One reason identified was that the ordinary Indian had started perceiving the party as “anti-Hindu”
But 2004 was also the year when liberal economic policies started having a visibly positive impact. A whole lot of home grown multinationals had started competing globally and even acquiring overseas companies. The mobile phone revolution really took off in 2004, almost a decade after mobile phones first came to India. The year 2004 was also marked by an unprecedented economic boom across the world. India became a clear beneficiary of that. Unknown to many, a new class of “aspirational Indians” started emerging in 2004. Loosely defined, they were largely young Indians whose families had recently climbed out of poverty. For this emerging class of Indians, economic aspirations became as important as class and caste identities. As we will later see, it is this lot that subsequently fuelled the rise of the Hindutva right.
2014 : The Year A New India Was Born
When analysts look back at 2014, two things strike them. The first is the complete meltdown of the once dominant Congress party as it managed to win a pathetic 44 seats in the Lok Sabha elections, forfeiting the right to even have a leader of opposition. The second is the fact that for the first time since independence, a non-Congress party won a full majority in the Lok Sabha. On their own, the two are fundamental and sweeping changes. But they signal something deeper. India changed not just electorally in 2014 but also in ways that Indians perceive themselves and their place in the world. Once and for all, Indians decided that they had enough of the Nehruvian Consensus and wanted something else to be the real “Idea of India”. Some analysts argue that 2014 marked the year when Nehruvian secularism was replaced by Hindutva. Their lament: while the earlier era was inclusive and tolerant where Hindus and Muslims lived happily with each other, this era is marked by exclusivity where majoritarian Hindus have marginalised the minorities, particularly the Muslim community.
The 2004 verdict was indeed a rude jolt for the BJP and it fell into disarray. When it also lost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections badly, the usual pundits started writing about the end of the BJP. But as 2014 and 2019 have shown, and perhaps 2024 will show, that was just a pause in the relentless rise of Hindutva and nationalism driven politics in the country
So strong are opinions on this issue that it is pointless debating them. But some trends can be observed. Hindus definitely have become more engaged with their identity. They are seeking a reassertion of their ancient civilisational values. They have become unapologetic about being Hindu. For decades, and for inexplicable reasons, a section of Indian intellectuals has been deriding Hindu faith, customs, rituals and traditions as irredeemably regressive. Quite a few continue in the same vein even now. For decades, Hindus patiently put up with this denigration. In 2014, they sent out an unmistakable message that enough is enough. Senior Congress leader A K Antony was tasked to form a Committee to examine the causes for the electoral debacle of Congress in 2014. One reason identified was that the ordinary Indian had started perceiving the party as “anti-Hindu”. At the end of the day, perceptions do matter. Also, as V S Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winning author used to say, the breaking down of an old system to create a new one is usually accompanied by some ugliness.
As mentioned earlier, changes in this New India are being driven by aspirational Indians. The massive victories of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh indicate how caste identities are becoming gradually less dominant in electoral politics. This new class of Indians is also more impatient than the previous generations. They can sense material prosperity and are willing to work for it. They are also the social media generation. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections were indeed marked by the widespread use of social media.
What Lies Ahead In 2024?
There are some things one can accurately predict about 2024. The magnificent Ram Temple will be open for devotees and pilgrims. One cannot measure emotions. But the sight of hundreds of thousands thronging the Ram Temple will be a culmination of changes that started in 1984 and gathered momentum in 2014. Whether one likes it or not, Hinduism will become the defining norm for this India. Another accurate prediction that can be made is that India will definitely become the third largest economy in the world in a few years. The third prediction cannot be accurate but just an educated guess based on available data: Narendra Modi will win a third consecutive Lok Sabha mandate.