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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 19 New Delhi April 30, 2016

Comprehending Indian Politics from Indira Gandhi’s Last Term as PM

Saturday 30 April 2016


by Amna Mirza

Autumn Of The Matriarch: Indira Gandhi’s Final Term In Office by Diego Maiorano; Publisher: Harpercollins Publishers India; 2015; 261 pages; Price: Rs 599.

History has narratives and as great historian Santayana said, ‘Those who ignore mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.’ In a similar vein, it also becomes important to question what history has to offer and whether any ideation was hitherto uncovered. It is one thing to learn history by teleological dates but all the more interesting is to analyse the past with the contour of the ‘problematique of what actually made history so’. In the same pedestal, one can place the book Autumn of the Matriarch: Indira Gandhi’s Final Term in Office by Diego Maiorano, wherein the author attempts to understand Indira Gandhi’s final term in office.

It goes without saying that the strongest woman Prime Minister of the country, Indira Gandhi, had many shades to her persona: an avid leader, a strong parliamentarian, a committed nationalist, amongst many others. What adds more to this, as the author notes, is that after the backdrop of the infamous Emergency how her last term become an important yardstick to understand politics of the years to come.

The book calls the 1980s a ‘strange decade’—wherein the churnings of politics and economics made the leader of the nation, Indira Gandhi, and her acumen an interesting read. The narrative picks up Indian politics and society in the 1970s as the starting point to begin the discourse where towards the end of the decade the country was increasingly difficult to govern owing to its immense complexity.

The general elections of 1980—realignment of domestic political equations, coalition-building juxtaposed with international factors like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—have been aptly captured by the author in an attempt to render a right link between compulsions of electoral politics and the bargaining involved within. The writing also highlights how Indira Gandhi galvanised by cropping new ways to harness support. The chapter on ‘Institutions’ makes an intriguing read in terms of encapsulating it by three notions of politicisation, erosion and informalisation. A leader of her stature, who was compared to being an institution on her own, led to a paradox where too much influx of politics resulted in loss of faith in institutions and state thereof.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi has been one of saddest aspects of Indian political history. The law and order crisis, anti-Sikh riots, succession aspects were testing times for the nation and Congress party alike. Mrs Gandhi’s major contribution was party-oriented cohesion and national unity. Any analysis of her cannot ignore the realist yardstick of her understanding of power and national interest. Her direct appeal in the 1971 elections gave proof of the demand and supply constraints of a democracy. Regardless of what a few political commentators talk of weakly institutionalised, rarely accountable, elitist bias of her rule, one cannot stop from giving her credit that the idea of Nehruvian consensus and welfare state was brilliantly carried on by her in all the churning times.

The author makes an interesting use of primary and secondary data to justify the canvas of the time framework of study. However, the book lacks in terms of a comparative approach, namely, anecdotes from other national or international leaders—as what they had done in their times of crisis and use those as analogy to judge or understand Mrs Gandhi better. The book also falls short of suggesting reforms: what the Congress party should learn or unlearn from her last term.

However, to conclude, the book is a significant study of Indian politics and the Congress party. It is essential to understand from where we have come in order to rationalise the arguments of the present. Leadership is complex dynamism and this book aptly depicts that. Democracy requires profound characteristics of meticulousness and an analysis of Indira Gandhi’s last term in office definitely demonstrates that.

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