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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

She knew India’s heartbeat

In the centenary year of her birth and thirty-three years after her assassination, Indira Gandhi remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

‘Indira is India’

To some, she was the daughter of India. To many, she was India. Dev Kant Barooah famously proclaimed, “Indira is India and India is Indira” at the height of her popularity in the 1970s. She was the Durga for MF Husain. Rabindranath Tagore called her Priyadarshini. To her critics, such as Ram Manohar Lohia, she was the “gungi gudiya”, a notion she dispelled quickly once her ascent to power commenced.

In a patriarchal society steeped in moribund traditions she epitomised the universal mother figure, revered, adored, admired, and on occasions feared and maligned. Throughout her political career and even after her assassination, Indians have both deified and demonised Indira Gandhi.

Indira was a political behemoth that shaped the destiny of India. From 1966 to 1984, she was, unarguably, the most popular leader in India.  It is a measure of her enduring appeal that several decades after she had passed into history, the people of India continue to remember her as one of the best Prime Ministers of India.

In her biography on Indira, her friend Pupul Jaykar, describes her as, “A woman so closely tuned to the country and its people; so complex, so skilful, so far seeing, so concerned, so capable of an insightful listening, so moved by beauty; and yet, at times, so primeval, so obsessive, so brittle, even trivial – a woman who refused to be measured, who laid her own ground rule.”

Ambition and zeal

Questions about her ability have continued to be raised both during her lifetime and surprisingly even after her death. There is a small yet vocal section that believes her ascension to glory was because she was Nehru’s daughter.  Indira’s rise was measured, and events in her life propelled her to gradually occupy the centre stage. Being born in an illustrious family definitely helped, as did being a father’s daughter. However, what contributed to her rise as a leader of the masses was an inherent zeal to be of service to the people of India and a matching acumen to realize her ambitions. 

Nehru, ever the democrat, had said, “This business of picking up an individual successor is something I find quite alien in my way of thinking. I am not trying to start a dynasty. How terrible it would be if I, after all I have said about the processes of democratic government, were to attempt to handpick a successor. The best I can do for India is to help our people as a whole to generate new leadership as it may be needed.”

Indira’s education was mixed, varied, and one that encompassed different streams. It included stints at Tagore’s Shantiniketan, Oxford, schools in Switzerland, Delhi, Bombay, and Poona. However, she didn’t complete her studies. The atmosphere at home, and being Jawaharlal’s daughter and Motilal’s granddaughter undoubtedly drew her into the freedom struggle. As a teenager, she formed the Vanar Sena in 1930, when the Congress launched the Purna Swaraj movement; during the Quit India movement in 1942, when Indira was 22-years-old, she was imprisoned.

Earlier that year (1942), she married Feroze Gandhi, against her father’s wishes. She met Feroze in England and had been attracted to his radical, leftist ideas, but also confessed that “One of the reasons I got married was that I was determined to have children”.  A 30-year-old Indira greeted the dawn of India’s independence, working with the Mahatma in Delhi to bring calm to the victims of religious violence that had engulfed the subcontinent. She became Nehru’s shadow when he became India’s first Prime Minister.

Immersed in Congress

It was only a matter of time before Indira began working for the Congress party. She became a member of the party’s working and electoral committees in 1955 and earned notoriety for recommending the dismissal of India’s first Communist government in Kerala. The dismissal of the EMS Namboodripad government also revealed an authoritarian streak that would manifest more prominently a decade-and-a-half later.

In 1958, she separated from Feroze and began to devote more time to the Congress. She became the fourth woman President of the party in 1959 (Anne Besant, Nellie Sengupta and Sarojini Naidu had been the other three).  In September 1960, Feroze suffered a stroke in the Parliament, but went to the hospital only a couple of days later when the pain in his chest became acute and unbearable. Indira was in Kerala and rushed back to Delhi, but her estranged husband passed away the next morning – on 8 September 1960. For Indira, it was “as though somebody had cut me into two.”

After the Chinese debacle in 1962, when Nehru faced defeat both on the battlefield and psychologically, Indira ensured that VK Krishna Menon was sidelined. Menon was Nehru’s main adviser on the China policy. Nehru never recovered from this disillusionment and in 1964 passed away into history.

About her father, Indira said, “He was the humanity in a human being, He was deeply sensitive. He was far more of a poet than a politician. Someone one has said that out of a person’s quarrels with society comes out literature, but out of one’s inner conflict comes out poetry. I think in my father both these were there. There was a conflict with the status quo of the society as well as a conflict within himself.”

During the short-lived Lal Bahadur Shastri government, Indira was responsible for Information and Broadcasting portfolio. Upon his untimely death in Tashkent, the cabal of the Congress’s Syndicate (K. Kamaraj, Atulya Ghosh, S. Nijalingappa, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy) thought it fit to hoist Indira as the Prime Minister, harbouring delusions that they would be the puppeteers and Indira, their dumb doll, would dance to their tunes.

Durga incarnation

She had no patience for the old guard. After the Congress’s lacklustre win in the 1967 elections, Indira moved in with the stealth of a cougar, and split the party in 1969, jettisoning the geriatric leadership and creating her own Congress. She nationalised the banks in 1969 which gave a tremendous impetus to economic growth, and especially the agricultural sector. Bank nationalisation made it possible for farmers to avail of loans turning the green revolution into a success. Within the next two years, Indira created an aura of invincibility. She was determined to take a hard-line on everything.

1971 was a significant year for Indira and for India. In the name of equality, she also abolished the privy purses. She also turned American ambivalence in geopolitical equations to her advantage and signed a 20-year peace, friendship and cooperation treaty with the Soviet Union. Garibi hatao got her an overwhelming majority in the Parliament, and she used this new legitimacy to bury MA Jinnah’s two-nation theory by creating a third one – Bangladesh in the winter of 1971. The US President Richard Nixon dispatched the seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal, but Indira couldn't care less. Atal Behari Vajpayee, always the one to capture the nation’s mood in words, declared Indira was “Durga astride the tiger,” and later denied ever having said so.

Such was her cocky confidence, recounts Sam Maneckshaw, the field marshal who gave the Indian armed forces their finest hour, that when they met after the war, she summarily asked him about the rumours that he was planning to overthrow her elected government and bring in army rule. “What if I did?” asked Maneckshaw. “You wouldn't dare,” replied Mrs. Gandhi calmly.

Indira could do no wrong. But such admiration resulted in heightened expectations, and she wasn’t equipped to deal with them. Inevitably, the rot set in. Her lack of patience for her opponents and a complete absence of scruples caused major problems. Unfulfilled aspirations can be a dangerous thing in a democracy, and Indira realised this in 1973-74 when out of nowhere Jayaprakash Narayan (J.P.) launched the Nav Nirman agitation and George Fernandes called for the great railway strike. The nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1974 did not help her fight the rising tide of anger.

Emergency’s excesses

The Allahabad High Court set aside Indira’s election in 1975 on technical grounds; she appealed, but Justice VR Krishna Iyer who heard the appeal only issued a conditional stay on the Allahabad judgement, permitting Indira to attend the Parliament but preventing her from voting. The opposition immediately demanded her resignation.
Her son Sanjay and other Congress leaders urged her not to resign. Indira agreed to their advice. As she told Dom Moraes, “What else could I have done except stay? You know the state the country was in. What would have happened if there had been nobody to lead it? I was the only person who could, you know.”

In June 1975, Indira declared an internal Emergency, and suspended democratic rights. She sent the entire opposition behind bars and muzzled the press. She argued that when the opposition advised the armed forces not to take orders from the government, a grave and unprecedented situation had been created which would have led to anarchy and chaos. The only way to effectively deal with this eventuality was to declare an internal Emergency.

Indira justified Emergency thus: “Our opponents wanted to paralyse the work of the Central Government and we found ourselves in a serious situation. And we took certain steps. But many of the friends in the country were rather puzzled as to what has Indiraji done? What will happen to the country now? But we felt that the country has developed a disease and, if it is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine even if it is a bitter dose. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure…So we gave this bitter medicine to the nation…Now, when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus we were not very pleased to take this step…But we saw that it worked just as the dose of the doctor worked.”

Unquestionably, the Emergency was an abomination. Nothing can justify it, and the excesses that followed in its name – such as the forced sterilisations – alienated the people from Indira. Sanjay’s rise during this period also ensured that effective power moved away from Indira and vested in her son.

Democrat at heart

What needs to be emphasised (and it is something that is not explained by any of the numerous Indira critics) was that she need not have called for an election in March 1977. Why did she do it? No dictator in the world has done that or not ensured his/her own victory after having called for an election. Indira lost decisively.  However, even when she was routed, her magic worked in south India, and the Congress won all the 153 Parliament seats at stake in the four southern states.  About her electoral defeat, Indira said, “People have always thought that I was imagining things and overreacting, but there has been a deep conspiracy and it was bound to overtake us.”

The Janata interregnum proved to be a comprehensive disaster politically and the experiment disintegrated within a couple of years. Indira’s persecution under the Shah Commission helped in hastening her return – first to the Parliament in 1978 and then to form the government in 1980.

Sanjay, clearly her favourite son, died in a plane crash in 1982, a dénouement that perhaps Indira had anticipated. She worried about Sanjay in a letter written to a friend, “Rajiv has a job but Sanjay doesn’t and is also involved in an expensive venture. He is so much like I was at that age – rough edges and all – that my heart aches for the suffering he may have to bear.” In a move that left nothing to the imagination about her dynastic designs, she forced a reluctant Rajiv to join public life.

Indira’s return and second stint were fraught with uncertainty. She was now keen to abandon her pet prejudices. She was aspiring for a prominent place in history, comparable to the one her father had and was not going to settle for anything less. To help build that image, India hosted the Asian Games in 1982, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in 1983 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Goa.

However, India had changed and Indians were not as susceptible to their leaders’ charms. Moreover, the Indian media, after having been made to crawl during the Emergency, was in no mood to give any quarters. Arun Shourie, a World Bank economist, who was emerging as the enfant terrible of Indian journalism, had already changed the rules of the game. His grand expose of Abdul Rehman Antulay, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, (‘Indira Gandhi as Commerce’) had set new benchmarks in investigative journalism in India.

Coinciding with the NAM Summit, Shourie (and Shekhar Gupta) pieced together the story of the Nellie massacre (1983) in Assam.  India Today published it and timed it to coincide with the NAM Summit to create maximum havoc. The Summit was inaugurated on March 12 and India Today’s cover on Nellie hit newsstands on March 15. The global media gave precedence to the Nellie massacre and not the NAM Summit.

Punjab crisis

The crises in Punjab, which had been simmering slowly for a few years, suddenly boiled over with the meteoric rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the monk with a machinegun. He turned the holiest of holy Sikh shrines into an armed fortress and began to mastermind an operation that would have led to another vivisection of Indian. Indira approved of the controversial Operation Bluestar in June 1984 to flush out the militants from the Golden Temple complex.

In his memoirs, the former President of India Pranab Mukherjee said, “Some believe that this course of action could have been avoided. But the reality was that Bhindranwale and his followers had occupied and taken control of the Golden Temple, disregarding its sanctity. Extremists had turned it into a fortress and a base for operations aimed at the separation of Punjab from India. I still vividly recall Mrs. Gandhi telling me, ‘Pranab, I know the consequences.’ She understood the situation well and was clear that there was no other option. Aware that her own life was at risk, she took a conscious decision to go ahead in the best interest of the nation.”

Indira achieved a decisive military victory but permanently wounded the Sikh psyche. On October 31, 1984, in retaliation to Operation Bluestar, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, Indira’s two Sikh bodyguards, showered her with a barrage of bullets, even as Peter Ustinov waited to interview her for an Irish television channel. She had disregarded her intelligence apparatus’s advice to replace her Sikh bodyguards, stating it would negate India’s secular principles.

Coincidentally, a day before she was assassinated, at a rally in Orrisa, Indira, as if having a premonition about her assassination, had rather grandiosely proclaimed, “I am not concerned whether I live or die, and till I breathe, I will continue to serve, and when I die, I can say that each drop of my blood will be for India.” 

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