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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 29

Indira Gandhi at Crossroads

Friday 11 July 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty

The four furies that have beset the Prime Minister—Food, Fertiliser, Foreign Aid and Foundation—have brought into the open an unexpected alignment of forces that perhaps nobody in New Delhi could have predicted on the morrow of Smt Indira Gandhi’s election as the head of the Government.

The general impression in the Capital at that time was that Smt Gandhi would draw upon her good relations with the Left-wing elements in her party and outside, even if she hesitated to lean on them for support. This impression was not dispelled in the first two months of her career as Prime Minister: in Parliament, even when Sri Subramaniam was under attack for his abject demonstration of servility to PL-480 bounty, the Opposition fire was not directed at her. Rather, she could handle the Left Opposition with some display of consideration during the West Bengal food agitation as also by her stand for the relaxation of the Emergency despite Sri Nanda’s known resistance to it.

The first rumblings of criticism from the Left came with Vice-President Humphrey’s visit, when the Prime Minister’s wobblings over Vietnam did not escape being noticed by careful observers here. This probing excursion from Washington helped it to work out its own strategy of handling the Prime Minister, and in this, no doubt, it received effective ground support from India’s Ambassador, himself long known for his pronouncedly pro-American bias. (Incidentally, Sri B.K. Nehru is being claimed by the Swatantra circles as a prospective prominent member of their Party after his possibly imminent retirement).

While premonitions about the Prime Minister’s brief American visit could be detected here even during her rounds in Washington and New York, its full impact was felt only on her return. The high-speed follow-up work by the World Bank helped to reveal more than perhaps many of its Indian proponents wanted it to be known so soon. Together with this, the stiff resistance to the proposed Indo-American Foundation was definitely not bargained for by the Prime Minister.

Smt Gandhi’s plea that the Foundation project was a prior commitment since Shastri’s days has not carried conviction with its growing band of critics; rather they seem to regard this plea as an additional proof of her rather pathetic dependence on her advisers’ brief. In contrast, many in the Congress Parliamentary Party recall Nehru’s forthright admission of his colleague’s mistake in going in for the VOA deal and his courageous act in getting it scrapped.

A facile argument given by some of the Prime Minister’s supporters is that since the US Government has a right to spend its own money as it liked, the advantage of the Foundation would be that the Indians would be associated in its control and management. For one thing, already there was Indian control, in a sense, over the PL-480 fund disposal because by its very nature the US Government was not allowed to spend the fund at its disposal as it liked. Secondly, the Prime Minister and the Education Minister were put on the defensive even in the Congress Parliamentary Party when it was found that the Government of India had not pressed for the entire grant be made over to the University Grants Commissions.

There is a feeling in New Delhi that the Prime Minister displayed poor diplomatic skill in dealing with the US authorities on this issue. Even if the proposed Foundation had the blessings of the Shastri regime, an astute Prime Minister could have neatly countered it by suggesting that the funds so liberally released by the US Government might as well be used for a massive irrigation programme, an essential concomitant of large-scale use of fertiliser, and Mr Johnson would have found it difficult to turn it down.

What has surprised many in New Delhi—all of whom can by no means be regarded as Smt Gandhi’s critics—is that neither the Prime Minister nor her band of devoted advisers had thought of such a tactical stand. However, some of her advisers are reported to be saying that the Foundation with all its risks was accepted as a desirable alternative to another American proposal for the disposal of the PL-480 rupee fund: and that was the project for setting up an autonomous corporation for financing private-sector enterprises in this country.

If one has to go by the attitude of the US AID authorities in the Capital, it could be said that the proposal for such an autonomous corporation has not yet been abandoned. Once New Delhi could be made to accept the World Bank terms for majority foreign participation and management control, it will not be surprising if the project for autonomous corporation is brought out of the American cupboard.

The last word has not yet been said on the fate of the Foundation. While the Left critics of the Government inside the Congress party have been effectively quoting the precedence of Nehru’s scrapping of the VOA deal, the Prime Minister’s advisers, including Sri B.K. Nehru, are believed to be warning about the dire consequences—in terms of US displeasure—of any reversal of the decision to accept the Foundation offer.

Some of her very loyal lieutenants in the Congress Parliamentkary Party have been campaigning about the innocuous nature of the Foundation once its chairmanship is given to an Indian; what is however a matter of concern is that in the name of appointing an Indian, some academic counterpart of Sri B.K. Nehru or Sri L. K. Jha might manage to run the show for the benefit of the Americans.

The present indications are that the details of the Foundation would be worked out only after Parliament goes into recess so that there will be less of an uproar and the Prime Minister would be spared of the broadsides hitting her in the Congress Parliamentary Party.

The lead given by the Delhi University professors has also come as a big jolt to the Prime Minister’s entourage because it was assumed by them that those who benefited from the American bounties like the facility of working at MIT or Harvard would be discreet enough to keep mum even if their conscience pricked. The fashionable pragmatism of the Secretariat has been taken aback by the robust patriotism in the University campus.

The furore over the World Bank terms—in supporting which he Prime Minister found herself in a minority in the Cabinet itself—has hardly died down. Rather a new round of resentment is likely to break out over Mr Johnson’s proposal for joint Indo-Pak projects under American auspices.

It is indicative of the temper of the country that in contrast to the warm reception extended to the Soviet initiative for Indo-Pak rapprochement at Tashkent soon after last year’s conflict, the American initiative for Indo-Pak projects has hardly evoked any nationwide response; if anything it has given rise to misgivings about Washington’s intentions. This is mainly due to the fact that in New Delhi’s assessment, Pakistan is still very much closely linked up with America in spite of the hectoring postures that Peking and Rawalpindi have been undertaking jointly.

On the issue of Pakistan, the American Lobby in the Capital is forced into a strange quandary. On the one hand, they are for all-out support to the Johnson proposal for Indo-Pak collaboration projects under American auspices; on the other hand, they have been campaigning about Sino-Pak collusion which underlines that the defence of this country could be safeguarded by only going under the American umbrella. In collusion with the dominant section in the Secretariat, the American Lobby has been trying to magnify the threat from China and thereby disarm the resistance to further American inroad into our defence system; in other words, to bring India within American global strategy of containing China.

This politics of scare-mongering has a striking resemblence to Sri Subramaniam’s tactics of playing up the food shortage, in order to pave the way for large-scale dependence on PL-480 wheat and acceptance of fertiliser deals, and also Sri Asoka Mehta’s tactics of playing up the economic crisis to invite American capital on its own terms. What has come as a matter of surprise is that the Prime Minister should allow herself to be identified with such an approach.

Many in New Delhi are concerned at the way she talked about the ideological element in India’s conflict with China and was unable to demarcate herself from this pro-American approach to the Chinese question. There are reports that one of the informal understandings arrived at during her visit to Washington is that the two countries would exchange intelligence data about China. In defence of such an arrangement, it is blandly said that on the part of New Delhi there is very little of intelligence data on China which the Americans do not know already, while under this arrangement New Delhi would benefit by having access to the massive intelligence material that the US authorities have been collecting through their various agencies on China.

What is forgotten is that by such an arrangement, Washington will feed New Delhi with such hair-raising CIA concoctions about the Chinese menace that will facilitate its policy of roping India into its global strategy. In other words, instead of genuine information, New Delhi is likely to be misled by American intelligence agencies, and also this may turn out to be one more point of deviation from Afro-Asian solidarity. At the time when the CIA itself is getting into discredit in America, it would be rather naïve on New Delhi’s part to go by the intelligence material supplied by Washington.

Incidentally one cannot help recalling the way Nehru warded off the American suggestion in 1963 that to secure better intelligence data on China, New Delhi should be closer to the KMT outfit in Taiwan. Through this device, Washington was trying to get India’s recognition even at consular level of the Taiwan puppet regime. But Nehru was wise enough not to fall into the trap and was never known to have put much reliance on the infallibility of US intelligence agencies.

A noteworthy feature of all these developments is that the real authors of the pro-West shift at the policy level—whether it is Sri Subramaniam or Sri Asoka Mehta or the officials in that well-knit fraternity—have been able to push the Prime Minister in front to claim her on their side of the great debate. Things have been managed in such a way by this Lobby that instead of Smt Gandhi drawing sustenance from the strong defenders of the Nehru policy like Sri Krishna Menon and Sri K.D. Malaviya, she has been led to attack their stand, much to the satisfaction of the professional traducers of Nehru’s policies in his lifetime. The bouquet from Sri Masani cannot possibly be of Nehru roses.

Many in New Delhi regard this prospect with serious trepidation. It was well known that during the last phase of Shastri, Smt Gandhi herself confided to a number of friends her concern over the growth of Right reactionary forces. And there have been occasions in recent weeks when she has indicated that she has not changed her assessment on that score. That is why knowledgeable quarters in the Capital have all the more been surprised that she should have permited herself to be used as a baffle wall by the very same reactionary elements.

In more than one sense, Smt Indira Gandhi has now reached the crossroads of her own career as also of the nation. One could only wait and watch if she would take the right initiative in taking to the right road at this crucial juncture.

(Mainstream, May 7, 1966)

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