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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 11

Indira Gandhi : A Candid Evaluation

Saturday 1 March 2008, by Arvind Bhandari


Indira Gandhi, whose 90th birth anniversary fell on November 19, 2007, was a contradiction in terms. In one way, a memorable Prime Minister, having a head-turning personality, she was among the most attractive women leaders in the world who strode the international stage with confidence, pride and imperiousness and raised India’s prestige in the comity of nations.

And yet, Indira Gandhi was, arguably, the worst Prime Minister India had the misfortune to have. A prisoner to her wayward, good-for-nothing son Sanjay Gandhi and his goons, egged on by her hawkish adviser P.N. Haksar, misled by her self-serving toadies like Vidya Charan Shukla and aided by a spineless, decrepit Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in Rashtrapati Bhavan, she imposed Emergency on India and derailed democracy.

Emergency is indubitably the blackest period in the history of post-independence India. Opposition leaders JP, Morarji Desai, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar were jailed. Jagjivan Ram, being an unprincipled, power-seeking fence-sitter, escaped. Press censorship was imposed. Kuldip Nayar and Virendra Kapur, then Special Correspondent of Indian Express and husband of Coomi Kapur, currently Resident Editor of Indian Express, were jailed. Even I nearly went for writing an anti-Congress article. Bold editors, prominent among them S. Mulgaokar—he had a nose as long as that of Chirano de Bergerac—refused to write their columns and editorials and newspapers started appearing with large blank spaces.

Since the commands at the largest levels of the Indian Army, Indian Air Force, Indian Navy, Border Security Force and Indian Police were under different heads, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spoke to each of them individually, firing a lecture which was an admixture of threat, warning, flattery and an overt offer of plums if they would fall in line. The result was that the Indian security forces which were under different heads, began to compete for Prime Ministerial favours. There was thus no coup and Mrs Gandhi carried on unchecked and intrepidly with her dictatorial, draconian Emergency rule.

Worse, Mrs G was able to ram down the throat of a pliant Parliament unbelievably lawless laws which put back the clock of democracy by several years.

Let us consider Indira Gandhi’s performance in the international arena. As Prime Minister of a major Third World country, she became as if by automatic right an important NAM leader. At a Non-Aligned Movement global conference at Vigyan Bhavan, Cuban President Fidel Castro embraced Mrs G while passing on the mantle of the President ship of NAM to her. For no fault of Mr G as she had been taken unawares, there was much hue and cry in India, to the extreme embarrassment of the Indian Prime Minister. Castro never expressed regret, leave alone apologise. Here was a typical example of the gap between Oriental and Occidental culture.

The Indira Gandhi International Award (2006) for Peace, Disarmament and Development has gone to the Kenyan Nobel Laureate Prof Mrs Muta Maathai. It was conferred on her by President Pratibha Patil at a glittering ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan on November 19, 2007.

Prof Maathai had won the Nobel Prize for Peace because she spearheaded a campaign to plant 100 million trees in Kenya to improve the country’s environment. Now, she is leading a UN Billion Tree Campaign.

Indira Gandhi had a genuine concern for improving the global environment. In 1972, at the First World Summit on Environment, she warned the world leaders about the worsening global environment because of carbon emissions at a time when concern for the issue was still nascent.

Taking a cue from the former Prime Ministrer’s visionary concerns, India will shortly launch an afforestation programme called “Green India” to plant trees in six million hectares.

I had a few personal encounters with Indira. As a Staff Correspondent of The Times of India, I was deputed to cover Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s funeral when he died on May 27, 1964. At the Teen Murti House, I was standing near the raised flower-bedecked platform on which Nehru’s body had been kept in the outer half of the Prime Ministerial House which was originally the residence of Lord Kitchener, the famous chief of the British armed forces in the Indian theatre. Four Lietuenant-Generals with unsheathed swords stood ramrod erect at the four corners of the raised platform. Daughter Indira, eyes still red from the tears that had flown, was briskly supervising the arrange-ments. Spotting me she fixed me with on imperious glare, evidently wanting to know who I was. On being told by me that I was a scribe, she said: “All right”, and walked on with a deadpan expression.

I took the opportunity to observe her from close quarters. In the prime of life, she was a beauty, one of the most attractive emerging women leaders in the world—a peach-coloured complexion, aquiline features (inherited from the late father) expertly tied cotton-sari, dainty hands and just the figure for a lady who was not very tall. The famous grey streak in her bobbed hair had begun to develop, but had not yet become prominent.

My second encounter with Indira Gandhi was in Bhopal in 1973. I was Special Correspondent of Indian Express for Madhya Pradesh. The Prime Minister was to address the annual session of the then Madhya Pradesh Congress-I. Prakash Chand Sethi was then the Chief Minister.

When Mrs G’s special IAF aircraft was about to land at the Bhopal airport, there was a scurry among local Congressmen for they realised that not enough people had congregated to raise pro-Indira slogans. Therefore newsmen, who had arrived at the airport hoping for a impromptu press conference, were requested to join the reception line. When the Prime Minister came in front of me, I did “namaste” but was flabbergasted to see that the lady was “winking” at me. But she was actually blinking because of a nervous twitch in her eyes. Not many people knew, and still few acknowledged, that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was an extremely high-strung, insecure woman.

This troubled psyche had not a little to do with the ultimate imposition of Emergency by her on India in 1975.

My third encounter with Indira Gandhi occurred on Sanjay Gandhi’s death following the crash of his plane which he was piloting over the jungle area behind the Buddha Garden off Vandematram Marg (earlier called Ridge Road). At that time, I was Chief of the New Delhi Bureau of Commerce Weekly. When the Vespa scooter I was driving on my way to the Press Club of India reached the roundaboutout side Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, I saw a huge, unruly crowd. The sloganeers chanting: “Sanjay Gandhi Amar Rahe”. I got the message. Although it is uncharitable to think like this about a person who has departed from this world, I concluded that the leader of the Congress goon brigade had left his boot-licking followers leadersless. On entering the VIP area of the hospital, I saw grief-stricken people lining the corridor leading to the Operation Theatre.

Eventually, the trolley bearing Sanjay’s body emerged from the Operation Theatre. Mrs Gandhi, wearing a white blouse and a white sari—unlike Christians, among Indians wearing of white clothes after a death in the family is an indication of grief— was walking in front, looking forlorn and lost. Sanjay’s widowed young wife Maneka, wearing a simple salwar-kameez combination and her head covered in a white dupatta, was walking behind the trolley. She was red-eyed and still sobbing.

When Indira Gandhi passed me, I said: “Madam, this is a great loss. The whole nation is behind you.” With folded hands, she said: “Thanks.” The Prime Minister was absolutely calm, showing that, despite her high-strung nature, Indira Gandhi had a steely side to her character.

During the Emergency imposed in 1975, Opposition leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Lal Kishan Advani and George Fernandes were put under arrest.

While being incarcerated, Morarji, then a nonagenarian, used to walk more than a kilometre, up and down the lawn of the bungalow where he was detained. An Assistant Sub-Inspector used to follow him, acting as his security guard. The poor man told me subsequently that whereas the old man used to munch almonds, cashew nuts, chilgozas, kishmish and “akhrot”, he did not get even a cup of tea. Among all the old Congressmen, who had pretentions to be Gandhians, Morarji used to take the most nutritious food. He was literally a nutty nut-eater swallowing the high-energy victuals by fruit juices and lassi. Then he would take buttered chapatis, dal and one sabzi. His favourite dessert was kheer. I know what I am talking about because I covered his election to the Lok Sabha from Surat during the General Election of 1977 following the lifting of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi. Morarji sat like an enthroned king, ambling the choicest of nuts and accepting genuflection from nubile young women.

After the announcement of the General Election in 1977 the Indian scene presented a towering irony. Indira Gandhi’s return to power after of the break-up of the Janata Government is ascribable to three factors: weakness of Indian democracy; failure of the Indian Government to bring her to book; failure of the Janata Party to perform creditably.

INDIRA GANDHI’S name will be permanently enshrined in the pantheon of post-independence India’s leaders. She was simultaneously great and disappointing. She derailed democracy in the country for three years, and yet led the nation with boldness and unblinking firmness to enable the Indian Army to decimate the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, which resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan and formation of Bangladesh. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also liberated Sikkim resulting in the death of the Chogyal and Hope Cooke’s flight back to America.

On the economic side, Indira Gandhi’s contribution to the Indian nation was of a mixed kind. It is not fully realised that the first seeds of liberalisation began to be sown during her record Prime Ministership. She took some steps towards unshackling the Indian economy, but the measures introduced were hesitant and piecemeal. The actual process of reform was initiated during the Prime Ministership of Narasimha Rao, who had the benefit of advice of his Finance Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, winner of the Adam Smith Prize and a globally acknowledged economist in his own right. It was Dr Manmohan Singh who set the country on the path of liberalisation and high economic growth.

As regards Mrs Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao”, there was more theatricality than substance. Sitting on a caparisoned elephant, she would go into the country’s poverty-stricken hinterland, as if a Messiah had arrived to deliver the poor from their economic bondage. People began to derisively say: “Indiraji garibi nahin hata rahi, balki garibon ko hata rahi hai (Indiraji is not removing poverty, but rather eliminating the poor).”

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