There’s a town in Northeast England called Grantham. Not far from the town square, there’s a street called North Parade. No.1 North Parade is—used to be—a grocery shop, a corner shop. It was owned by a man named Alfred Roberts who lived with his wife and two daughters in the flat above. In 1979, the shopkeeper’s younger daughter Margaret became the first woman prime minister of the UK.

I don’t know who the current owner of the establishment is. It is not unlike the thousands of corner shops dotting the UK that used to be owned by the Gujaratis.

Gujarati Narendra Damodardas Modi’s rise to the top of the Indian political stage has been accompanied by political choristers drawing rousing analogies with the late US President Ronald Reagan and his friend Margaret. These hymns may be flattering (to Modi), but they also exaggerate.

There is, nevertheless, one lesson that India’s Prime Minister can draw from Thatcher’s rise—her adherence to ideology or, more accurately, what she believed to be the right course of action. To her admirers on the Right, that made her resolute (the Iron Lady); critics on the Left called her pig-headed. “Divisive" was the adjective that shadowed Thatcher to her grave.

This trait is not entirely dissimilar to Modi’s belief in the cradle-to-grave “values" of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), his political mentor.

Thatcher took over as prime minister in 1979 after a prolonged labour unrest, the so-called Winter of Discontent. She had inherited what was close to a bankrupt European nation—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had to bail it out, and joblessness and bankruptcies were on the rise. A strike by rubbish collectors had stunk up London.

Thatcher came in determined to push through a programme of privatization and welfare spending cuts, targeting inflation rather than joblessness.

In the middle of 1980, Sir John Hoskyns, Thatcher’s head of policy unit (from 1979 to ’82), and a few other advisers approached her with a worry.

“If there is ever going to be any sort of U-turn on policy," they told her, “you absolutely must think about it now." They wanted to be absolutely certain that if she or any of her colleagues were thinking about a significant change in policy, then “one really had to start preparing the ground for it, rather than be made to look utterly idiotic at the last minute."

Thatcher told Sir John, “You know, I would rather go down than do that, so forget it." There was, he recalled, “very impressive readiness to look right through to the end and say, ‘That is what we’ll do’."

This private conversation was a prelude to Thatcher’s famous public declaration against policy reversals at the Tory party conference later that year: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’. I say that not only to you but to our friends overseas and also to those who are not our friends."

A year ago in Delhi, I’m suddenly acutely aware of U-turns. This, I’m convinced, is the city of U-turns. On its roads, everyone everywhere is doing U-turns all the time. We’re talking all kinds of U-turns—brazen U-turn, sneaky U-turns (motorcyclist on the left lane slowly creeps up all the way to the right lane and then he is suddenly facing the other way, that is looking you in the eye), unbelievably foolish U-turns and, invariably, ones that end up in a tragedy.

There is a structural reason for this. Delhi used to be a city of roundabouts, so you could always find one and come right back. Now there are more roads but fewer roundabouts a lot of drivers just take the easy way out.

U-turns aren’t what we associate with Narendra Modi, who came roaring onto the Indian political stage. But he performed a U-turn by partially rolling back increases to passenger train fares that had been fixed by the previous government. In India, all trains—passenger and goods—are owned and run by the government, which makes the railways a special department when it comes to doling out subsidies.

There is even a separate rail budget, an anachronism dating back to the British Raj.

Indian commentators are hoping the first of Modi’s U-turns will also be his last. But such things are hard to predict in politics.

Unlike Thatcher, Modi has only ever minced his words about his economic agenda. His vision remains unclear and he has never clearly stated where he stands on the RSS’s nationalistic (Swadeshi) and protectionist economic agenda.

Arguably, the extent of poverty and dispossession is far wider in India today than it was in Britain of the 1980s, a reality that will necessitate populist measures from time to time. But for a government that came in roaring against subsidies for the poor, this looked like a retreat too soon.

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