Why did she call elections in 1977, or return to power with a brute majority in 1980? On her birth centenary, Indira Gandhi deserved an honest reassessment.
Indira Gandhi – prime minister for 17 years, stormy opposition leader for nearly three years, eulogised as ‘Durga’ by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and described as ‘Empress of India’ by the Economist, condemned as dictator and eventually killed by her Sikh security guards in 1984 – surely deserved more attention, if not honour in her centenary year. But the RSS and the BJP are so driven by their hatred toward the Nehru family that there was nothing more than a perfunctory tweet by PM Narendra Modi.
And yet, the paradox is that writers, commentators and politicians compare Indira with Modi. The context of comparison is always the Emergency that she declared on 26 June 1975 and continued for 19 months. But, historically, this comparison is incorrect.
She became prime minister on 24 January 1966, and in total, ruled for 193 months, of which the Emergency lasted only 19. But her rule is defined by that period. It is not only unfair to her, but more so to our post-independence history.
The declaration of Emergency is considered the darkest period in Indian democracy. Nobody will fundamentally question that. Even Congressmen hardly ever utter the ‘E’ word, fearing that they will be perceived as defending dictatorship. But it is necessary to look into that dark period, and see the sequence of developments in the country leading up to the Emergency.
The declaration of Emergency is mostly interpreted as an exhibition of Indira’s inherent dictatorial tendencies, or her desire to stay in power by hook or crook, as well as her hidden agenda of imposing the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty in the party and the country. Some self-declared psychoanalysts also see this as her psychological response to her political-personal insecurity and lonely childhood.
Anybody who questions some of these interpretations or hypotheses is instantly blacked out of the debate and condemned as a “defender of the dynasty” or “supporter of authoritarian rule”. Worse, any argument against the prevailing intellectual consensus on Indira is seen as anti-democratic in nature, and therefore, is not admissible in the discourse.
It is ironic that those who condemn Indira for being “dictatorial and autocratic” have embraced Modi. While some of these people criticise Emergency, they also argue that “India actually needs a dictator like Modi”.
The comparison between Indira and Modi is particularly odious when it comes from the Sangh Parivar, which never participated in the freedom struggle. Of course, the Sangh Parivar regards that some of them going to jail during the Emergency as the “second freedom struggle”, and what they achieved in 1977 was “second freedom”. Why the so-called second freedom collapsed in just over two years, and Indira came back with a stunning majority in 1980, is not even adequately understood or explained.
These commentators could also not explain how Indira actually increased her tally in the Lok Sabha in the southern states from 70 in 1971 to 92 in 1977. Is the south “backward” in the democratic consciousness than Uttar Pradesh and Bihar? In the south, the “freedom fighters” of the Janata Party were routed.
The Emergency was surely the most significant political break, coming as it did exactly 25 years after the proclamation of the Republic in 1950. And for the first time, the Republican values that the nation had decided to pursue were under the attack from the state. In itself, the proclamation of Emergency did not violate the Republican Constitution, as it was part of the statute. It could be invoked in a situation where there would be a threat (external or internal) to the democratic state. Indira perceived such a threat. Whether that threat perception was right or wrong can be debated, but cannot be completely discarded (the Janata government amended the Constitution and made such comprehensive national Emergency provisions unconstitutional, but the provisions existed in 1975).
She was ridiculed as “goongi gudiya”, a dumb doll, in 1966, when she was chosen as a party’s parliamentary leader. In 1967, Congress lost as many as eight states, from Tamil Nadu to Punjab and from West Bengal to Kerala. Then, she was described as “electorally unreliable”.
If Indira was a die-hard autocrat and only interested in perpetuating her family’s rule, then it was not necessary for her to call for elections in 1977. She could have continued till March 1978, according to the extension granted to her by Parliament. It is argued that she “miscalculated” the results.
There was little chance of political immaturity or miscalculation. She had seen the split in her own party and had run a minority government after that split (between 1969 and 1971). She had seen the formation and then decimation of the Grand Alliance (of the Syndicate Congress, Swatantra Party, Jana Sangh and socialists) in 1971, in the famous “Garibi Hatao” election. She had led India in the India-Pakistan war and the liberation of Bangladesh. She had faced numerous assembly elections and gone through victories as well as defeats. She was neither foolish nor delusional.
The rumour mills in Delhi began to circulate that she would run away from the country, or suspend the results halfway and call the military and re-install the Emergency regime. This “assessment” was based on the presumption that she was a dictator. But she gracefully resigned, and democratically accepted the verdict. She also faced nearly 50 inquiry committees and over two dozen legal cases. She got elected from Chikmaglur (Karnataka) in a by-election in 1978. She was arrested twice. But she never gave up.
The pundits used to confidently say that the Indira era is over, and there is no chance for her to come to power again. People, they argued, had not forgiven her for the Emergency regime. They never explained why she came back in 1980 with a near two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. The entire print media was hostile to her. In many constituencies, she had to look for candidates, as experienced leaders had left her. How this “autocrat by nature” came to power again with a massive mandate without a working party machine, without the hierarchy of leaders, without media support, and without much financial backing is not analysed or explained by any media wizards.
Such a sensational life and dramatic political career, which changed the course of democratic India, deserved an honest reassessment, or at least recognition in 2017.