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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 46, October 31, 2009

After Indira Gandhi

Sunday 1 November 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Twenty years after her great father’s passing away, Indira Gandhi fell, her frail body riddled with the assasin’s bullets, in the winter morning of October 31, 1984.

She died as she lived—taking danger as her constant companion. And she left behind a nation not only benumbed with searing sorrow but engulfed in insensate fratricidal violence, threatening the very unity of the country to defend which she faced martyrdom.

This is not the moment to undertake an objective appraisal of Indira Gandhi’s contribution towards building modern India or her role in world affairs. Future historians will undertake this task, a difficult task because hers was a career which until her last breath knew no respite, a career crowded with events of unmitigated severity as well as unalloyed glory. Few were her moments of repose, for she more than anybody else went among the largest segment of India’s seven hundred millions covering the length and breadth of this far-flung country. It was an endless odyssey no other leader of her times has undertaken.

At home, many significant steps were taken during her fifteen years of Prime Ministership which strengthened the economy of the country and yet its base could not be reinforced because of the balance of social forces, their level of consciousness and organisational consolidation did not permit any fundamental transformation. On the political plane, Westminster type of parliamentary democracy has been maintained though it has to a large measure been corroded by graft and corruption while the system of election has fostered caste and communal loyalties.

Abroad, Indira Gandhi’s tenure as India’s unchallenged leader saw the extension and enrichment of the policy of non-alignment in a manner that it could throw in its lot with the forces of peace and progress against the forces of reaction. Adherence to the principle of democratic solidarity brought fresh laurels when Bangladesh was born out of Pakistani brutality. At the same time, the country found it difficult to muster the strength necessary to sustain a determined and dynamic foreign policy because of the internal socio-economic weaknesses.

The shortcomings of the politico-economic order that was set up on the morrow of independence under the balance of forces prevailing at the time, began to surface conspicuously during Indira Gandhi’s regime. This was particularly evident from the fact that significant reforms did not produce the desired changes. Land reforms did not bring land to the tiller. Restrictions placed on monopolies could not weaken the monopoly houses. Planning did not reduce economic disparities; rather they grew despite the plans. Bonded labour persists despite its official abolition. Expansion of education has intensified its topsidedness while prevalence of illiteracy has weaknened the cultural base of our democracy. As democracy has spread to diverse regions, parochialism has increased, bringing severe strain on the structure of national integration. Instead of trying to tackle this on the axiomatic principle of unity-in-diversity, it has been allowed to degenerate into a false confrontation between the Centre and the States.

Taking a broader, historical view one cannot help noting that Indira Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister marked the end of the generation that had witnessed the culmination of the freedom struggle in the triumphant unfurling of the Tricolour on the Red Fort, and the coming-of-age of the generation born after independence. The so-called generation gap touching off social tensions was in reality the manifestation of an unfinished revolution. The entire national leadership covering all parties tried to live on the laurels of the freedom struggle: they did not—or perhaps could not—work out an authentic programme of nation-building, a programme which could rouse the millions and mobilise them with the same intensity which Gandhi and Nehru could fifty years ago. Instead they could only produce schemes and plans which are impressive as the drawing-board blueprints or seminar papers but are ineffective in galvanising the masses. That is why election-time slogans mostly sound empty and fail to set the masses in motion in he direction of socio-economic transformation.

In the absence of such a national matrix for the building of independent India, disequilibrium leading to tensions surfaced in both politics and economy of the country. The turbulence that marked the greater part of the Indira Phase has had its roots in this disequilibrium. Whenever there was the slightest signs of groping towards social transformation, she could muster unprecedented mass support as could be seen in the wake of the new economic programme beginning with bank nationalisation and culminating in the call for Garibi Hatao. But with no political (as distinct from administrative) infrastructure to implement or enforce it, the programme at its very incipient phase was lost; later the Twenty-Point Programme, both in its original and revised versions, was but its pale imitation, incapable of bestirring the masses in the way the earlier call for Garibi Hatao could rouse mass expectations: at the end populism became the subject of ridicule or trenchant criticism.

Most of the intractable problems that beset Indira Gandhi with particular sharpness during her second tenure of power, that is, since 1980, can be traced back to their origins in the early years of independence. Whether it is Assam or the North-East, the minorities’ sense of insecurity, or the vexed Centre-State controversy, or the entire Punjab problem—all these had surfaced on the very morrow of independence. Those who deify today the founding fathers of the Constitution need to be reminded that it was the unresolved items that had come up in the Cosntituent Assembly which later on assumed the magnitude of crisis points particularly under Indira Gandhi. This is not to say that the founding fathers of the Constitution should be held responsible for these crisis issues. What needs to be debunked is the thoughtless Opposition charge, long bandied about, that Indira Gandhi must be branded as the arch culprit for having deliberately left all the problems unsettled to exploit them to her own advantage.

Nobody will deny that there had been a certain amount of drift and sometimes miscalculation in dealing with these issues under Indira Gandhi. What was, however, a mistake was that these for long were sought to be tackled as if they were ordinary problems of a conventional nature demanding conventional responses. In reality, all these were issues germane to the basic weaknesses of our democratic set-up—weaknesses which should have been overcome a long time ago, long before Indira came to power, and that too, should have been attempted by means of wide national consensus. These are problems which can hardly be solved through the majority vote of the ruling party alone; they have had to have the sanction of most, if not all, political parties. Otherwise they face the danger of being treated as partisan issues, as they finally did.

Not that bold initiatives were totally missing. It is necessary to remind ourselves the irony of the fact that Indira Gandhi of all our Prime Ministers was the one who had acceded to the demand for a Punjabi-speaking State, while nothing had been done by the Janata Government to even examine the Akali demands though it had an Akali as a Cabinet Minister.

After Indira Gandhi, her mantle has fallen on the shoulders of her son, Rajiv Gandhi. The party in command of two-thirds majority in Parliament has made him the Prime Minister, though a section of the Opposition did not fail to make a demonstration of their miserable incapacity to rise above pettifogging absurdities by questioning the propriety of his appointment. The challenge that he faces today are many and varied, and his capacity and competence to deal with them will undoubtedly be watched with close scrutiny by friends and adversaries alike.

Like his gransfather, Rajiv Gandhi has assumed power in the midst of turbulence, though in character and intensity, it is different from the one which engulfed the country thirtyseven years ago. The promptitude with which he has taken steps to put down all violence in the Capital—where in the ranks of the mischief-mongers could be identified some of the star performers in the mafia of the Sanjay days, whom Rajiv had rejected—has brought out the initiative which promises to earn him the confidence of the nation.

What has happened is no ordinary outburst of anger tinged with sorrow. The faceless elements, domestic and foreign, who engineered the killing of Indira Gandhi, have as their objective the unleashing of destabilisation on a large scale. More than many others in the country who should have known better, Indira Gandhi herself knew—and did not hesitate to confide to others—that she was the prime target of powerful forces interested in weakening the position of India in the world of today through disturbances within the country itself. US Secretary of State George Schultz’s assurance about the Administration’s concern for India’s unity in indeed touching though unfortunately it has hardly been reassuring in view of the rather long record of its agencies having had a hand at destabilisation of regimes which did not fall in line with it. Needless to add, the new Prime Minister can hardly depend on such assurances from abroad: he has to take steps—as he has begun to take—to deal with a firm hand the forces that are out to disrupt the nation’s unity, calculatedly or unwittingly.

At 40, Rajiv Gandhi has become the youngest Prime Minister of this country. His mother’s style of functioning made her entire establishment, both government and party, into a one-pillar structure. Apart from the superhuman stamina that she had to summon up to manage things as she did, there is little doubt that this encouraged an unwholesome tendency of dependency on the part of her colleagues and acted as a disincentive to initiative on their part. Placed as he is today having yet to earn his spurs as the chief executive of the nation and having colleagues most of whom are senior in age though not all in wisdom or competence, Rajiv Gandhi cannot possibly afford to function as the apex of a pyramid. To carry his colleagues along with him and to make the system run as effectively as possible, he will have to foster collective functioning without in any way permitting his initiative to be stifled. This way alone can emerge a viable framework of governance as also open up the potentialities for his leadership of it. The Congress, though a ruling party, has a history in which it was for long regarded as the common national front, while since independence, it has continued as a loosely held organisaton, largely for the purpose of holding periodic elections. Factions bristle within its ranks—perhaps they constituted the major threat to the stability of the Indira Raj at the State level—although at the moment, they are to a large measure subdued at the loss of their chief campaigner for the coming General Election. But this is only temporary.

For Rajiv Gandhi to iron out the factions would be a major task. With the disappearance of the banyan tree protection that Indira Gandhi provided them all, it is possible that the urge for survival might help Rajiv to reduce, if not eliminate, group politics. Side by side there appears to be an urge, at the moment incipient, among a good number of old Congressmen who had strayed into different Opposition formations, to return to the fold having seen through the bankruptcy of leaders like Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar. The trend was perceptible in the last days of Indira Gandhi and is likely to grow in the coming months. It will be important for Rajiv Gandhi to consolidate into one organisation all those belonging to what may be termed as the Congress culture.

In the last four years, there grew up around Rajiv Gandhi a band of young Congressmen—regarded as a management elite—who have their strong points as having drive and self-confidence; at the same time they have yet to imbibe the ethos of the Congress as it has grown over the years. It will be for Rajiv Gandhi himself to harness them and harmonise diverse interests and outlooks into a one homogenous whole. This way will he be able to rebuild the Congress in the conditions of today and this way too holds the promise of his establishing its effective leadership.

Beyond the confines of his party, Rajiv Gandhi will have to evolve through persuasion and painstaking endeavour the code of national consensus which alone will enable him to deal with the intractable problems that stare him at the face today. This way too perhaps the fragile structure of Indian democracy can still be saved.

(Mainstream, November 3-10, 1984)

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