On her 100th birth anniversary, letters from Indira Gandhi reveal how she handled the fallout of her biggest economic decision as prime minister: bank nationalisation.
Indira Gandhi has been one of the most influential leaders of modern India, and her biggest economic decision—the nationalisation of banks—was one that would affect the economy for decades.
Her decision to bring 14 banks under public ownership faced dissent and came in for strong criticism from politicians within and outside her party, as well as from people. ThePrint accessed some of her correspondence during this period, which reveal how she dealt with the different responses she received as well as dissent.
Interactions with colleagues
These letters possibly showcase her personality best. From being demanding to inviting opinion, and subtly issuing warnings, these letters give an insight into what it was like to work with her.
“I should like to talk with you and other friends as soon as I have a free moment,” she writes to Chandra Shekhar, while asking him to apply his mind on how they could make bank nationalisation a success. She also says that she needs the support of all party workers.
While her letter to former RBI governor L.K. Jha seems routine enough, there is a distinct change in tone in the post-script about rumours of his resignation.
A second letter to L.K. Jha, dated a few days after the first, asks him to form study groups of sorts to analyse how the policy could be implemented better as she cannot do so herself due to her “other preoccupations”.
A third letter to L.K. Jha, after the Act was passed, is more technical than the last two. It is much more urgent in tone, and she writes “We simply do not have the time.”
Another letter was to the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, in which Gandhi writes how she has been unable to talk to him because she has no time, but is looking forward to exchange ideas with him “as soon as it is humanly possible”.
“I hope you have also carefully read the message I delivered yesterday,” she writes to the president of FICCI. Gandhi also tells him that she does not doubt “forward looking members” of the business community would like to make a significant contribution to the fight against poverty.
In one letter, copies of which were addressed to eight different people, Gandhi says there is tremendous enthusiasm among the people and it needs to be channelled and utilised to strengthen the Congress party.
Seeking a vote of confidence
In an unaddressed, unsigned letter dated 17 August, 1969, India Gandhi writes to an unnamed “colleague”, trying to inspire faith in the Congress party given the party is going through “a period of anguish”.
In the letter that subtly seems to demand the loyalty of party workers, Gandhi outlines her vision for the party, mentioning several times that it needs to be “revitalised”.
Pulling up an outspoken minister
Veerendra Patil, the chief minister of Mysore, wrote to Gandhi supporting her decision to nationalise banks, but in January 1970, the state’s finance minister, Ramakrishna Hegde, made a speech criticising the policy.
An exchange between Patil and Gandhi right after banks were nationalised.
Gandhi’s clipped rebuke in a letter to Patil in which she called his statement defamatory shows how she put leaders from the Congress in place.
Dealing with complaints of other leaders
In exchanges with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi and West Bengal Chief Minister Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee, Gandhi comes across as being curt. The letter to the West Bengal chief minister was barely two paragraphs long and in her letter to Karunanidhi, Gandhi promises to take into consideration his concerns.
Accepting constructive criticism
In some letters, Gandhi seems open to accepting that there were flaws in the policy, and agrees to correct genuine problems which were pointed out to her.
Her correspondence with the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir at the time, G.M Sadiq, and the Study Team on Tribal Development Projects demonstrate this.
Interaction with common people
The intent of bank nationalisation was for it to benefit the masses, and Indira Gandhi did actually correspond with concerned citizens who wrote to her asking about how the policy would affect them. This is a rare and unseen side of her, given she was later perceived to be taking decisions without considering what the masses thought. In these letters she comes across as a prime minister taking the time to assuage the fears of citizens in 1969.
In one letter, she writes to a Mumbai resident Rosalia Menezes and calculates the amount of money Menezes will receive from her shares in the Central Bank of India thanks to the economic decision.
“You will thus appreciate that we have taken good care of the interests of small shareholders like you,” Gandhi writes.
She also writes back to a Mrs. Annadurai, an MLC who is ailing but seems to have had good things to say about the nationalising of banks.