Remembering Indira Gandhi

Remembrance of October 31 - Part II

The long, grueling tape-recorded session with Indira Gandhi was over. Oriana Fallaci, that formidable Italian interviewer of world celebrities, made what she thought to be a polite suave observation: “Things certainly do move a bit slowly in India.” The walls of Mrs. Gandhi’s self-restraint, firmly in place during the interview, suddenly collapsed. In an icy voice she retorted, as Fallaci wrote later in New York Times (on September 18, 1975): “What do you want me to do? I’m surrounded by a bunch of idiots. And democracy….”

Succinctly, the above off-guard observation sums up what Indira Nehru Gandhi thought of India and Indians and the accursed democratic system they had chosen as the lodestar of their polity. This also showed her arrogance and despair – arrogance in how low she thought of those around her – her colleagues as much as her political opponents and perhaps also the governed whom she was answerable to in that system called democracy within whose framework India was supposedly governed. The remark also showed her despair with the state of affairs which admitted no solution other an authoritarian regime that she finally clamped on the country on that fateful June 26, 1975.

In the above-cited piece written during the Emergency, Fallaci added:

I never reported the phrase - Surrounded by a bunch of idiots. And democracy – because she had uttered it outside our interview and because, if the Indian press had got hold of it, it might have harmed her. I am publishing it now because there is no longer any reason why I should respect a commitment not to harm her and because these words do much to explain the despotism with which she is ruling the country after the coup.

The same Indira Gandhi was also referred to as modern-day Durga riding a lion. Adulation of the “India is Indira and Indira is India” vintage was at one stage the toast of the town. She was also hailed as a no-nonsense administrator who was not prepared to brook any interference once she had decided upon a course of action. She was thought to be a fearless leader of men like her British counterpart, the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. And there is indeed no dearth of both admirers and sycophants – in our society the latter far outnumber the former – singing hymns of praise in chorus.

All said, Indira Gandhi, indeed, was one of the most complex and thorniest of political leaders of post-1947 India. Though controversy bedeviled her footsteps all through, she was a major player on the political scene for nearly two decades in which she strode like a colossus. She served three consecutive terms as Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977, and was later re-elected for a fourth term in 1980. She was in office until her assassination on that much-recalled October 31, 1984, to commemorate which we saw half a dozen ads in the press, the bill for which was paid by the tax-payers of the country.

Before we examine the political balance sheet of Indira Gandhi’s political career, let’s have a look at how she emerged on center-stage after the brief interregnum presided over by Shastri.

Selected in Sleep

After signing the Soviet-mediated Tashkent Declaration on January 10, 1966 after the April-September 1965 Second Kashmir Indo-Pak War, Lal Bahadur Shastri suddenly died of a heart attack on the next day. The news was a stupefying shock for the nation. Once again the Congress leadership was called upon to select someone to lead the Party in Parliament.

The task fell on the squat shoulders of the then Congress President, K. Kamaraj. Accompanied by R. Venkatraman (later the 8th president of the Republic) who was those days Kamaraj’s interpreter – the Congress President knew neither Hindi nor English – he flew from Madras (as Chennai was then known) to Delhi in a chartered plane. Kuldip Nayar records in his memoirs – Beyond the Lines – that Kamaraj went to sleep just after the aircraft took off. (Deve Gowda wasn’t the only great leader to fall asleep at the drop of a hat). He woke up shortly before landing in Delhi. Rested after a longish nap, he told Venkatraman (as Nayar records) that “Indira Gandhi would become prime minister, as if he had already pondered over the question in his sleep.” Nayar reminiscences

I asked Kamaraj several months later how he had arrived at the decision, he said, “The choice was really between Indira Gandhi and Gulzarilal Nanda. My colleagues, particularly N. Nijalingappa, then Mysore’s chief minister, and S.K.Patil from Bombay were in favor of Nanda. I selected Mrs. Gandhi.” Kamaraj added: “All warned me against the choice. Krishna Menon also told me not to trust her, but I thought she was better than Nanda.”

That Kamaraj lived on to regret his choice, is another story. “To me she appeared to be the right choice,” he said, admitting later that he was proved wrong. He had envisaged collective leadership. Indira Gandhi, instead, was on war path with the old guard from day one with a view to establishing the pre-eminence of the office of Prime Minister. She was her father’s daughter – self-righteous and self-opinionated and, above all, an ardent power-lover.

According to insiders – privy to the behind-the-scene goings-on in the murky world of politics – Kamaraja’s selection was a belated seal of approval on Jawaharlal’s choice of his successor. Kuldip Nayar tells us “S. K. Patil… told me that ‘Nehru would have seen to it that she became prime minister after his death but he realized that she needed experience and expected her to take over some day.’ He goes on to say, “Nijalingappa (then Mysore Chief Minister) said he was pretty sure that Nehru had his daughter in mind as his successor. In his diary, he wrote on 15 July 1969 that Nehru ‘was always grooming her for the prime-minister ship obviously and patently’. This was more or less the same thing that Shastri had told me six years earlier.” (Beyond the Lines: Pp 180-181)

How We Select our Leaders

Before proceeding further, may I touch on the thorny theme of leader selection in our political system? The Nehru-Gandhi dynastic rule is indeed the antithesis of the democratic polity that the Founding Fathers of our Constitution had envisaged. If and when we get rid of this monstrosity we have to devise a real democratic way to select our leaders. I reckon the way we choose our leaders at present is the cause of many of our political problems.

For this let us go back to the pre-Independence days. Gandhi’s choice of Nehru as his political heir was intuitive as most of the crucial Gandhian decisions were. He thought after him, Nehru could keep the country together. He alone will be readily acceptable to our indispensable very special minority i.e., the Muslims. The Party accepted Gandhi’s judgment because of his political pre-eminence. (However, it’s still debatable who would have been the best first prime minister of India: Vallabhbhai or Jawaharlal.)

After Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri was the selection of the Party High Command. And as pointed out above the Congress President made his decision in sleep as to who should succeed Shastri. Once installed in office, Indira Gandhi knew how to build her political network and couldn’t be dislodged from the office.

The above experience throws up two very relevant issues worth examining. Should the Prime Minister be chosen by the Party bigwigs – grandiloquently called the High Command – or the Parliamentary Party of the political party that has majority in the House. (The latter is the practice in other democracies of the world, particularly the UK from which we have borrowed a lot in our system of governance.) Secondly, and more pertinently, shouldn’t there be an open election rather than a hush-hush search for so-called consensus? Hitherto, our practice has been either nomination or consensus.

Nomination has an aura of authoritarianism. Arriving at a consensus isn’t as simple an exercise as it is believed to be in our country. The one county that specializes in this style is Japan. Literally, the Japanese Hiragana character for consensus means ‘agreed to by all” – something akin to the Sanskrit term sarvsammati i.e., having the concurrence of all. And arriving at such unanimity is a formidably difficult (and, sometimes, a fairly prolonged process. All points of view have to be listened to and reckoned with, and their implications carefully weighed. It involves a lot of give and take. In the Japanese society decision making takes lot of time, even in case of, what to others, are simple decision. But they think time spent thereby is well worth it insofar as there is, later, no delay in implementing the decision because no one has reservations about it.

Three Disgruntled Leaders

Let me take a concrete case. After Indira Gandhi’s well-merited defeat after the Emergency, three leaders of the newly formed Janata Party had Prime Ministerial ambitions. Babu Jagjiwan Ram was self-convinced that the new Party owed its success entirely to his timely exposure of Indira’s dictatorial governance. Chaudhary Charan Singh thought that he was the man the Janata Party owed its success. Morarjibhai Desai had always regarded himself to be the senior most of all claimants to the Prime Ministerial post. Had there been an open election till one of the three claimants obtained, say, two-third vote, they would have discovered for themselves where each stood. Instead, the Party seniors headed by JP resorted to the fake-unanimity formula. Jai Prakash Narayan who was held very high in public estimation at the end of Emergency, proposed the name of Morarjibahi who was unanimously elected. And that was the beginning of the ongoing daily bickering among the three which proved to be the undoing of the Janata Government.

Had JP any political acumen, sensing their conflicting ambitions he should have asked the claimants to seek a vote of confidence, stipulating that voting will continue till one of them got two-third majority. That would have helped each of them to ascertain his standing. I maintain that unanimity contrived by the top leadership is a self-defeating exercise, and the sooner, we jettison it, the better.

White on Black or Black on White

A word or two about Indira, the person behind the much-publicized political persona. She was extremely touchy and like her father, self-convinced that she was a natural successor to her father.

And before tracing the Rise and Fall and Rise of Indira Gandhi, let me share with you the background of the black-and-white or white-and-black (whichever way you want to describe it) crop of hair that was Indira Gandhi’s patented political trademark. In her late forties, Indira Gandhi had almost completely turned grey. And like any middle-aged woman, particularly in public view, she wanted to deftly camouflage it by dying her hair. For that she went to (where else?) Paris for a longer-lasting solution. (Don’t our leaders believe in austerity?) Her Parisian hair dresser while dying her hair left un-dyed a few strands on the right side of her head. Henceforth, her hair became jet-black crop with a prominently grey streak – a case of a rare selective graying! A special dye used to be imported from Germany (when for reasons of scarcity of foreign exchange, life-saving drugs couldn’t be imported) to keep alive the myth.

The Person behind the Façade

Indira Gandhi was extremely touchy and sensitive about others’ opinion about her. The only person on record who made derogatory references to Indira's looks and intelligence was her aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal’s favorite sister. Indira never forgave her, or for that matter her daughters for slighting her. She never forgave anyone who said anything against her.

There was also a strong streak of vengefulness in Indira Gandhi. This came out in all its ugliness in her dealings with her younger daughter-in-law Maneka. She never liked her or her mother. After Sanjay – whom she both loved and feared – died, she made Maneka unwelcome in her home and showed marked preference for Sonia. Another characteristic Indira developed after years of being in power was to snub people who least expected to be. Kushwant Singh who claimed to know her well mentioned how:

At my repeated requests, she agreed to see Kewal Singh who had been her foreign secretary and ambassador in Washington. She gave him a dressing down till he broke down. She did the same to Jagat Mehta whose posting as ambassador to Germany she cancelled after it had been accepted. Her special venom was directed towards her cousin Nayantara Sehgal. First she superseded Mangat Rai who was living with Nayantara.

There was a phase in Jawaharlal’s life when he appeared to be completely under the daughter’s spell. For instance, she almost compelled her father to dismiss the communist government in Kerala in July, 1959 while it enjoyed a clear majority in the legislature. E.M.S. Namboodiripad went to Shimla to plead personally with Nehru to rescind the decision. Kuldip Nayar records Namboodiripad telling him how Nehru was “unhappy and helpless”. (Ibid,. p.172)

Controversial Legacy

Indira Gandhi’s long political innings was as eventful as it was controversial. And by now it’s fairly well-documented. Perhaps the best of the studies, in my opinion, is Life of Indira Gandhi by Katherine Frank which shows her warts and all. Most Indians are not aware of the fact that there’re two versions of the book: one distributed abroad and the other in India. (The latter excluded certain portions, especially the one showing how shabbily her son, Sanjay (on whom she doted) treated her when she seriously thought of resigning from office after the Allahabad High Court verdict declaring her election void.)

Three events, I believe, are the defining moments of her leadership: first, when she summoned the courage to take on the Congress Old Guard –popularly clubbed together as the Syndicate – to assert her leadership. The Congress Party, thereafter no longer was what it had been. Henceforth, it became, and continues to be, a family fief. The second one was when she decided to go to war over the Bangladesh issue. And the third was her decision to fight her way back after the humiliating defeat in the 1977 election after revocation of the Emergency. On each of these three occasions she displayed leadership attributes. Whether it has been for the long-term good or harm of the polity is a subject I reserve to deal with in some detail later on.

Body Blows to Polity

On the whole, there is a fair amount of unanimity that the cumulative impact of all her attempts to stay in power bequeathed a motley legacy of body blows (some of them severe and one almost fatal) to the polity. Here are some of them: minor and major. They deserve mention.

In retrospect the blackest spot on Indira Gandhi political legacy is the imposition of the 21-month (26 June 1975 – 21 March 1977) Emergency with the connivance of a pliant President Fakuddin Ali Ahmed who was prepared to bend as backwards as called upon to do the bidding of the Dynasty. (After Nehru found Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Sardar Patel operating on political wavelengths different from his own, Indira Gandhi always ensured that two persons in the Establishment i.e., the President of India and the Home Minister in her cabinet are always amenable to her ways.)

It was Vivekananda who pointed out that lack of institution-building has been a fatal flaw of Indian civilization as it is a source of great strength in case of the western world. It takes years and decades to build and nurture institutions which can be destroyed by wanton acts fairly quickly. Unfortunately, Indira Gandhi years witnessed a deliberate emasculation of well-established institutions on which depended the stability and long-term survival of the polity. The first victim was the Indian National Congress that under Mahatma Gandhi had spearheaded the Independence movement. The Party was converted into family fiefdom. The independence of civil services – the steel frame of the Raj – was eroded to obtain so-called commitment which actually meant subservience to the ruling party. Worst of all, judicial independence was encroached upon. Constitution was amended several times to suit political convenience.

After a glorious victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh – perhaps the first in our history – there was an equally inglorious let-down of the country and the armed forces that won India its victory by signing the Shimla Agreement. Indira Gandhi preformed the rare feat of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

When Mrs. Gandhi, after recounting their points of agreement – to convert line of control in Kashmir into an international boundary – finally asked Bhutto: "Is this the understanding on which we will proceed? He replied, "Absolutely, aap mujh par bharosa keejiye (you can rely on me).

P N Dhar, one of the key players at the Conference gives his version in Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ and Indian Democracy:

I have tried to understand the psychology behind this attitude without success. Perhaps it was Indira Gandhi’s view – namely that it would be unbecoming for us as victors to behave victoriously while hosting the summit – that infected our attitudes. Or perhaps our collective historical experience makes us feel more at home with setbacks.

All said, the Shimla agreement was, in the words of Rajeshwar Dayal – a diplomat seasoned in the vagaries of the cold war – “a most remarkable trick on Mrs. Gandhi, a woman who was not the most trusting of persons”. Mrs. Gandhi chose to take the assurance of that wily fox Bhutto at face value. It is breathtakingly naive to believe that a seasoned politician like her famous for her instinct of distrust chose to repose faith in a man notorious for double-dealings.

In response to Dhar’s article in Times of India recapitulating what happened at Shimla, Altaf Gauhar famously explained Bhutto's diplomatic artistry in Bhutto's own words. Three months before the Shimla Conference Bhutto told Oriana Fallaci, the renowned Italian journalist expert in drawing out the makers and shakers of world events: “Well, in politics you sometimes have to have light and flexible fingers... have you ever seen a bird sitting on its eggs in the nest? Well, a politician must have fairly light, fairly flexible fingers, to insinuate them under the bird and take away the eggs. One by one. Without the bird realizing it.”

Had any one in the Indian delegation to Shimla read the interview before going to the venue of the conference? There is no record. And if so – which is expected of our South Block experts – still allowing Bhutto to pull a fast one on them should go down in history of diplomacy as a case study in the worst kind of diplomatic naiveté.

It was Indira Gandhi who invented the strategy of winning elections by political gimmickry and irredeemable populism, of which Garibi hatao was the centerpiece. Abolition of privy purses, nationalization of fourteen banks just because her Finance Minister Morarji Desai opposed the idea, are part of this legacy.

Whatever his other faults and foibles, Nehru was cautious in the promotion of dynastic rule. Indira Gandhi however blatantly promoted the dynastic tradition first with Sanjay and after his death, with Rajiv. Today, Sonia guards the family preserve while son Rahul gets groomed for his political destiny.

In the wake of Nehru-Gandhi idea of dynastic rule sprang up provincial dynasties in perfect feudal tradition: the foremost among those who swear real or notional loyalty to the Delhi throne to grind their own axes, are the Abdullahs of Kashmir Valley, the Pawars of Baramati, the Badals of the Punjab, the Karunanidhis of Tamil Nadu, the Yadav kutumbh of UP, and the Chautalas of Haryana.

The resurrection of the Mughal darbardari cult built on the arch stone of sycophancy was a logical corollary. Those who wanted to survive and prosper dare not disagree or tell Indira Gandhi about the possible consequences of her policy initiatives. Those who did paid a heavy price as, for instance, P N Haksar by telling her that she must rein in Sanjay.

One of the lamentable spinoffs of the manipulative politics that Giani Zail Singh along with Sanjay Gandhi played in the Punjab to dislodge the Akalis led to the still unhealed hurt to the Sikhs psyche as a result of Operation Blue Star to get rid of the Frankenstein called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who was Giani-Sanjay creation.
Indira Gandhi’s deplorable tolerance of corruption under her own nose – I’m referring to the shady deals of her colleague Lalit Narayan Mishra – led to the growth of the cancer of corruption which, like the dreaded disease, is characterized by out-of-control growth.

Cancer harms the body when damaged cells divide uncontrollably to form lumps or masses of tissue called tumors. This is exactly happening today to our body politic – the cancerous cells destroying healthy tissue in a process called invasion. This special type of political cancer started in Indira Gandhi’s days.

To sum up, I tried in Part I of this essay to assess the contribution of Sardar Palel in the formative years of the Republic. There is no doubt whatsoever that India as it is today, is very largely the result of policy initiatives of the far-sighted leadership of the legendary Sardar – a born leader of men imbued with a rare sense of history. Generations to come will member the man and his legacy.

In Part II, I’ve dealt with a controversial personality who left a very mixed legacy. It is for you, dear readers, to sift the grain from the chaff and decide who deserved six commemorative ads and who, just one on October 31 that happened to be the birthday of one and the martyrdom of the other.

Previous: Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Remembered


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3605      Comments: 4

Comment An election in which Morarji Desai and Indra Gandhi contested for P M post, was conducted and Indra won with more votes. Please write the history correctly. Please write about K Kamaraj after reading his life well.

11-Oct-2015 05:59 AM

Comment I am thankful to you Mr. Bali. Its a historically great review of our past. Your writings have refrshed my memories of the past.

Suresh Charnalia
27-Nov-2012 14:42 PM

Comment What a beautiful snapshot and analysis of the cause of present day endemic corruption in India.

Paul Sayal
27-Nov-2012 08:53 AM

Comment A splendid analysis with thoughtful commentary of the events leading to rampant corruption pervading all over India at this time is highly appreciated.

I liked your comments on divisiveness that was created during Indira Gandhi rule and which harmed India immensly. It will take several generations spanning over 150 to 200 years for the Indian democracy to come back to governance level that British left. Right now, it is all Corruption, Ghotalas that cloud the Indian Politics. We hope the future generations will realize how it has harmed the Democracy at its roots and find a way to bring a clean, benovalent Governance that our Founding Fathers envisioned.

Baljit Chopra
24-Nov-2012 11:04 AM

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