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

Remembering Indira Gandhi Today

Sunday 1 November 2009, by Sumit Chakravartty


“The ‘Indira hatred’ slogan of her opponents has died with her, but for a long time the rallying cry in India was her call of ‘Garibi Hatao’ (end poverty). Witnesses bear testimony to the fact that where millions wept at her demise, beyond the family the sincerest tears were shed by the wretched and the poor who feel bereft because they believe that she had genuinely sought to give them succour and shield them against their oppressors.”

The above lines were written by the outstanding Pakitani journalist, the late Mazhar Ali Khan, one of the most perceptive observers of the South Asian scene, in his moving tribute to Indira Gandhi—perhaps the best in our region [his editorial in Pakistan Times after Mahatma Gandhi’s tragic and (‘Golden Dust’) was also the most memorable tribute to that towering figure in our subcontinent]—in his now-defunct weekly Viewpoint (November 6, 1984) barely a week after her assassination.

Mazhar sahb did bring out one particular facet of Indira Gandhi’s political life—her indefatigable striving to stand by the poor and the marginalised, the disprivilegd and the dispossessed; hence her stirring call to banish poverty in the 1971 Lok Sabha polls that electrified the public at large, and the toiling masses in the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder in particular, giving her party an extraordinary mandate and inflicting a resounding defeat on all her opponents, both inside the Congress and outside, primarily representing Right-wing interests. True, she did precious little to translate that call ‘Garibi Hatao’ into reality but her remarkable charisma, her capacity to endear herself to the common people alongside her ability to strike instant rapport with the masses left a deep impress on the public mind. No other leader—barring the Father of the Nation, Mohandas K. Gandhi, the tireless crusader for India’s freedom from British rule, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and her own father, Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India—has left that kind of impress on the people of this vast landmass.

Her other positive attribute was her untiring and relentless fight against communalism, especially of the majortanian variety. She carried it out with singleminded zeal, grit and determination and at times gave the impression that she was more tenacious in this struggle than even her father. Nevertheless, unlike her father she did exploit religious sentiments for petty political gains thereby compromising and weakening in the process the tenets of secularism that Nehru, as the first PM of independent India, had uncompromisingly upheld and preserved during his lifetime.

Thus contradiction was inbuilt in her personality and actions. Her contribution to strengthing and consolidating Indian unity was next only to those of Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. She reached the pinnacle of glory when she fashioned, with expert guidance, the liberation of Bangladesh in fraternal cooperation with the common citizens of East Pakistan who had revolted against West Pakistani domination and tyranny. By this historic step she helped to extend the frontiers of democracy in South Asia. And yet it was she who, with her indulgent younger son’s active connivance, in three-and-a-half years time snuffed out democracy in the largest state in the subcontinent through Emergency measures crushing dissent and opposition. She imprisoned her political opponents and gagged the Fourth Estate by clamping pre-censorship of the days under British subjugation without suffering qualms of conscience, and in this she took a course that was completely at variance from her faher’s democratic instinct, principles, policies and practices. [However, before long she understood her folly and took strides to make amends—hence the Emergency was shortlived (not exceeding nineteen months) even if the country and its people felt stifled in that relatively brief timespan and therefore did not hesitate in handing over a veritable drubbing to the Emergency dispensation headed by her at the hustings in the first half of 1977.] She also sought to emasculate the Congress organisation by draining out inner-party democracy following the historic split of 1969 while simultaneously installing a dynastic system (that saw her family members occupying the highest posts in the democratic institution) sustained as it is to this day by a culture of sycophancy bereft of any lasting commitment to values. Moreover, her cynical attitude to politics—a politician par excellence, she was a Bonaparte and a Peron rolled into one—was revealed best in her handling of the Punjab problem (and to a lesser extent of that of Kashmir) resulting in not only her gruesome killing but also in its shocking aftermath in the devastating anti-Sikh riots that rocked the nation in November 1984 (a permanent scar on Indian democracy alongside two other shameful events in the post-independence era: the Babri Masjid demolition of December 1992 and the Gujarat carnage of February-March 2002). Yet during her lifetime the Congress, primarily because of her, did retain its livewire links with the people in general (except in the Emergency interregnum) and she did take measures to ameliorate the conditions of the bulk of the populace even if disparities based on deprivation and destitution of large segments of society continued to rise. It was a classic mix of the black and the white in her. No doubt she evoked extreme responses.


She was at once the most successful (her momentous victory over Pakistan in 1971 engendering the birth of Bangladesh), the most controversial (her massive popularity after the 1969 Congress split that she herself engineered while getting metamorphosed from Lohia’s gungi guidya into a genuine lioness contrasted with her deep sense of insecurity because of which she could rely on none other than those comprising her immediate family) and most authoritarian (her assault on democracy through imposition of the Emergency on the people in June 1975) of all the PMs since 1947 as none of her predecessors or successors ever tried to undertake the measures that she did with effortless ease. She was also the most decisive of all the heads of government; in this context mention must necessarily be made of the Pokhran I peaceful nuclear explosion which was conducted in 1974 under her personal direction and supervision. She was the most astute wielder of power India has ever seen.

On the international plane too she left her distinct imprint whether as the chairperson of the Non-Aligned Movement or as a champion of environmental protection at various global fora. In all such activities she came in direct conflict with international vested interests entrenched in the West. She was intensely disliked by the prevailing leaderships of the US under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan who held her in profound distrust (even if she developed some rapport with Margaret Thatcher of the UK during the dark days of the Emergency). The spectacle of Fidel Castro holding her in gentle embrace at the Seventh Non-Aligned Summit in New Delhi on March 7, 1983 after handing over the NAM chairperson’s mantle to her symbolised the coming of age of the Third World in the inter-national arena defying all covert and overt forms of domination and exploitation—the significance of that scene cannot be overemphasised. She endeared herself to almost all the prominent leaders of the newly independent developing states of Africa, Latin America and the Arab world.

But could she really help ameliorate the condition of India’s teeming millions? The answer would definitely have to be a resounding ‘no’ (just as it would be the same in the case of her father). However, does this verdict signify a total failure on the part of Indira Gandhi’s leadership? Here too the unambiguous answer would have to be in the negative (especially when one compares it with those which succeeded that leadership).

Having watched her from close quarters for almost two decades since 1967 one would conclude by recalling from a piece by that talented journalist, Chand Joshi, who is no more with us. In his reportage in The Hindustan Times on November 1, 1984 he wrote the following on the public reaction to her tragic assassination in the national Capital:

On Aurangzeb Road, a sweeper woman stood by our jeep and asked: “Who will fight for us?”…

We had no answer, no tears, only the sudden feeling of a vacuum for what was always accepted as ‘is’ was now ‘was’.

Or is it?”

Twentyfive years after her sudden departure from the political scene one knows for certain that Indira Gandhi is still regarded as a true friend in the hovels of the poor and the wretched across our landscape.

That indeed is her legacy. And it will remain undiminished for many, many years to come till the country is eventually able to fulfil the constitutional promise of justice and equality for all. It would do well to understand that the repeated betrayal of that promise (more so in these days of neoliberal euphoria in a ‘globalised’ atmosphere) has led to the Red upsurge in the form of Maoism in our tribal hinterland today.

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