Indira Gandhi, whose death anniversary falls today, was as complex a public figure as fascinating. Or a three-in-one leader in her different tenures.
What makes it even more challenging to understand a personality like Indira Gandhi even 34 years after her passing is the fact that you are not talking about one person, but three.
Or, to put it more accurately, not one prime minister, but three. Indira Gandhi had two spells in power, but in fairness you have to break her first tenure (1966-77) also into two, with a changing of chapters at the end of the Bangladesh war in December 1971.
This gives us three reigns of almost equal length, 1966-71, 1972-77 and 1980-end to 1984. In each, it was the same personality in office but a different prime minister. Mrs Gandhi was no doctrinaire figure, or captive to wisdom or ideas inherited from her father. She changed and evolved, sometimes for the better, sometimes not quite so. To that extent, she was an original among leaders who served long tenures. Think of her, in fact, as a complete opposite of another titan of her times — and one she shared so much mutual fondness with — the unchanging Fidel Castro. Remember that wonderful picture of their joyous hug at the Non-Aligned Summit in New Delhi in 1983?
Unlike her son Rajiv, subsequently, Indira was not a reluctant politician. Even when Lal Bahadur Shastri stepped in after Nehru in 1964, many in the Congress saw her as a successor. She was already the minister for information and broadcasting but, just like Rajiv, she was fated to be catapulted to prime ministership unexpectedly, with Shastri’s sudden death in Tashkent. Her first tenure, therefore, reflected some of that under-preparedness and diffidence. This is what persuaded Ram Manohar Lohia to use for her the description, “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll). She made the entire opposition pay for that over her “three” tenures in power.
This diffidence continued until 1969. With successive monsoon failures, dependence on imported food grain and political instability — in the 1967 general elections the Congress ceded space to a united opposition in many regions. Within the Congress, the old guard could barely suffer her. The external security environment was a mess — with the growing China-Pakistan bond and a six-day skirmish with the Chinese at Nathu La in 1967. The internal situation was worse, with the Naga and Mizo insurgencies at their peak and the Dravidian movement still mostly in the “separatist” state of its evolution.
She learnt on the job faster than anybody imagined. She stayed Left-of-centre but unhesitatingly embraced America on “project green revolution”. The success in both: The purge of the “uncles” and agriculture, gave her the assurance of a leader in her own right. That is why when the East Pakistan crisis began on 25 March 1971, she was perfectly positioned to respond to it. She had political stability, five years of experience and a track record of success topped with the Garibi Hatao landslide of just a fortnight earlier.
That is why she listened neither to ultra-pacifists who pleaded for a do-nothing approach, nor to hawks who said go to war now, but to Sam Manekshaw who said he needed time. As Manekshaw prepared his forces, she built the diplomatic foundation that this venture would have required at the peak of the Cold War, just when the odds had become even heavier against India, with the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China. You had to be an iron lady to embark on a project to break up a nation with no mean armed strength of its own and now counting the US and China among its allies. So, she built a new, treaty-bound relationship with Moscow.
She won the war, but we still do not have sufficient evidence that her socialist swing, and then the Indo-Soviet Treaty, had arisen from a genuine, heart-felt commitment to that ideology. Was she experimenting, was she just playing cynical politics, or was she forced into that situation? That socialism became her default option against an old guard led by Morarji Desai which was still seen as Right-leaning, and Soviet Union India’s only anchor, given the China-US-Pakistan axis? We will probably never know for sure, but I would argue that it was still a case of learning on the job, and adapting, adjusting and manoeuvring in the true spirit of realpolitik.
If there was listlessness to her second, post-victory tenure the reasons were quite evident. The euphoria of military victory was soon replaced by the realities of obstinate poverty despite her slogans, erratic monsoons and rising political unrest. Then came the oil price shock of 1973. India was no post-World War II US or Europe where massive reconstruction of the economy replaced the high of victory.
As history proved later, she showed poor judgment in listening to a Left-ideologue cabal of foreign policy advisors and signing the Simla Agreement without ensuring a clearer settlement on Kashmir. Quite in contrast to the deftness with which she had put down the challenge within her party, her handling of political unrest was clumsy, ill-advised and short-sighted. She lost her popularity as fast as she had built it, in a two-year period, and even Pokhran-1 was not able to resurrect the “Indira as Durga” magic. The Allahabad High Court judgment, the Emergency, the constitutional subversion then just followed.
How would you describe Indira Gandhi in her second phase? Was she still the iron lady because she took away our fundamental rights, jailed her opposition, broke George Fernandes’s rail strike, unleashed Sanjay Gandhi on us? In fact, very nearly destroyed the marvellous constitutional under-pinning that her own father had created for our nation? Not many remember today that the issue of whether there is a fundamental character of the Constitution which no majority in a parliament can violate was settled with the majority of just one in a full Supreme Court Constitution bench of 13.
I would argue that in her second tenure Mrs Gandhi was no longer the iron lady she was in the first. Most of her actions arose from anger and insecurity, confusion and desperate self-preservation. Today you can look for scapegoats among her advisors and the “Indira is India” flock in her party. But that would be neither factually correct, nor fair to her towering personality.
She was just too insecure about losing power. Not surprising therefore that the extreme leftward swing in her politics, the passing of so many terrible, retrograde economic legislations that her successors are still not able to reverse came not from any genuine commitment to socialism, but as an ideological camouflage for a series of dictatorial and subversive blunders which she was to regret later — “a step not to be taken for another 1,000 years” — and for which Sonia Gandhi expressed regret in her interview to me on NDTV’s ‘Walk the Talk’ in the run-up to the 2004 election. It was fitting too that that conversation took place in Allahabad’s Anand Bhawan.
If Indira Gandhi’s second tenure was so forgettable she redeemed herself to some extent in the way she allowed it to end. She withdrew the Emergency, released political prisoners and held a fresh election proving, once again, that she was Nehru’s worthy daughter. And I do believe that just those 34 months out of power gave her the time to reflect and regroup so she could return again in the summer of 1980 to her iron lady self.
Why do we say so?
Not just because of the way she fought the commissions of inquiry and rebuilt her party and politics, or helped along the demise of the Janata government, but also because she showed the courage to change in her third term. She may have been still late in judging where the Cold War was headed, and thereby allowed the remnants of the same old Left-ideologue foreign-policy cabal to push India into a morally indefensible and politically unsustainable policy on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In those two years our voting record at the UN compared with that of the worst Soviet client states. But she had the foresight to begin a shift.
The younger people who worked with her, on both foreign policy and economy, say she had begun to feel deeply uneasy about India’s ideological strait-jacketedness and pushed for change. It was she, for example, who orchestrated a “chance” meeting with Ronald Reagan at Cancun in October 1981. I also have it on good authority that she had now started talking of relaxing controls on the economy. It could just be, then, that she had the intellect to figure out first that the Cold War was ending and if India was to prosper in the new politico-economic environment, it could not do so if its people, by and large, saw the West as a permanently hostile entity.
The rest of her third tenure is still rather recent history: The massacre in Nellie during an election forced on a furious Assam, Bhindranwale, Operation Blue Star, even the beginnings of Indian support to the Sri Lankan Tamil insurgency. History will take an unkind view of all of these, but these marked the return of the iron lady.
I do not believe any other prime minister would have done any of these: Hold an election in Assam (1983) that faced an incredible popular boycott but was constitutionally essential, send tanks and artillery to finish Bhindranwale and train Tamil guerrillas to teach “big-mouth” Jayewardene a lesson. These were not rooted in the paranoia and insecurities of her second phase, but in the heart of a rejuvenated leader who would not allow her or her nation’s authority to be taken lightly. That it ended so tragically with her insistence that her Sikh bodyguards could not be removed is a fitting tribute to her. Even in her death she ensured that at least one point on which historians would never disagree is that she was, ultimately, a secular, true-blue Indian patriot.
—a version of this was published on Indira Gandhi’s 25th death anniversary in Oct 2009.