Indira Gandhi was born into an unambiguously political household.
Her father, Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first Prime Minister after independence in 1947, and his father, Motilal, had been one of the country's outstanding nationalist leaders. 'As a child,' she said not so long ago, 'all my games were political games. I was Joan of Arc, perpetually being burned at the stake.'
Her father, who had worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi and led his country for 17 years, was a philosopher and thinker, Mrs Gandhi, by contrast, was a woman of action who relied keenly on political instinct rather than deep thoughts.
She sought, despite an innate shyness and a certain insecurity, to remain close to the people and to give them, as she once put it, 'a government that works,' but the manner of her death is evidence that she finished her days as one of the world's most controversial leaders Her last months of office were marked by violence and political conflict, most conspicuously evident in clashes with the Sikh community in Punjab and with opposition elements in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Mrs Gandhi's political acumen and resilience became most apparent in January, 1980, when, after three years of opposition forced on her by an electorate disenchanted with her Emergency Rule in the mid-1970s, she once again swept to a convincing victory in the general election. Aside from those three years, she had been Prime Minister since 1967 at her death, she was 66 years old
Her international reputation reached its peak in March last year, when she took her place, in succession to Dr Fidel Castro of Cuba , as chairman of the Nonaligned Movement. Her ostensible aim had been to steer the movement on a course between the superpowers. If she also appeared, on India's behalf, to favour closer relations with the Soviet Union, it was because the Russians tended to go along with her view of the importance of India.
Although she had great interest in Western technology, she was also outspoken in her support for nuclear disarmament and a furthering of the North-South dialogue and was a nominee for the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.
These recent achievements were made despite severe setbacks in later years. A few months after her return to office, in 1980, her younger son, Sanjay - then her most likely heir - died in a mysterious air crash, and Sanjay's widow became an acrimonious political opponent. Mrs Gandhi responded to this by calling on her other son, Rajiv, to take Sanjay's place at the head of her entourage. He became Prime Minister yesterday.
But these moves were too late to stop dissent from growing within the ranks of the Congress Party. In elections held in January, last year, Congress lost seats in its strongholds of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. These clashes were followed by violence in the north-eastern state of Assam, when about 3,000 people died in mainly racial incidents.
In the Punjab, despite Congress rule, the opposition party of Sikh Akali Dal stepped up its demands for religious and political autonomy. This movement reached its climax in June, when, on Mrs Gandhi's orders, the Indian army stormed the Sikh shrine of the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Possibly thousands died and it was perhaps inevitable that Mrs Gandhi became a Sikh target.
Mrs Gandhi was born in 1917. Her childhood was lonely and left permanent scars. When she was three, Mahatma Gandhi launched his first non-cooperation movement against the British Raj. For the next 25 years, prison became the second home of the Nehru family and young Indira grew up in a series of boarding-schools, separated from her parents. Added to her loneliness was the anxiety caused by her mother's failing health and early death.
As Nehru's daughter, Indira found that much was expected of her. Failure to live up to these expectations left her with feelings of inadequacy that help to explain the obsessive tenacity with which she later sought and clung to absolute power.
Her poor academic performance, first at school and later at Somerville College, Oxford (she went down after failing prelims three times), disappointed her father. During her years in Britain, in the late 1930s, she struck Nehru's friends in the British labour movement as 'shy and mousy.'
Her marriage in 1941 to Mr Feroze Gandhi, however, demonstrated that Indira was no mere appendage of her father. Feroze (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) was a lower middle-class Parsi. Indira's marriage to him, against the wishes of her father and Mahatma Gandhi, represented a serious breach of convention when mixed marriages were almost unheard of in India.
Some years later, she was equally assertive in rejecting the role of a traditional Indian wife. When in 1947, her father became Prime Minister, she opted to live with him as his official hostess and companion. The decision was fiercely resented by her husband. himself a rising politician with anti-government inclinations, and resulted in a prolonged separation. He died of a heart attack in 1960
By the mid-1950s, she was standing in for her father on goodwill tours abroad and in the internal politics of the Congress Party.
In 1959, she was elected party president with Nehru's tacit support. It was in this post that she first demonstrated her more ruthless political skills, plotting the overthrow of a democratically elected Communist government in Kerala state and, according to revelations by Mr Patrick Daniel Moynihan, accepting CIA funds to do so. By the time Nehru died in 1964, his daughter was a well-established national figure and a serious candidate for the prime ministerial succession.
An immediate dynastic succession proved impossible and Mrs Gandhi had to bide her time, serving meanwhile as Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Cabinet of Mr Lal Bahadur Shastri. On Shastri's sudden death in January, 1966, her patience was rewarded. The Syndicate, a caucus of Congress 'bosses,' decided to install her as Prime Minister on the mistaken assumption that she would be malleable.
During the next five years, Mrs Gandhi worked systematically to establish her personal supremacy as undisputed party leader and to revive the flagging popularity of the Congress in a period of serious economic discontent. The enormous powers and patronage of the prime ministership, her own tactical skills, and her gift for well-timed poplist rhetoric proved, in the short-term, an invincible combination. In 1969, she split the Congress Party and purged it of her rivals.
By simultaneously nationalising banks and abolishing princely privileges, she succeeded in projecting this power struggle as an ideological battle, with herself leading the forces of progress and egalitarianism. While winning mass support with promises of radical reform, she also unleashed wide repression against the Marxist left, thereby reassuring the middle classes and the business community that she was a sound investment.
The spring of 1972 was a high point in Mrs Gandhi's political career. Having won a landslide victory in the general election of 1971, she had gone on to sweep the polls in state-level elections a year later. Meanwhile, she had also given India her first military victory in the war with Pakistan in December, 1971.
Her skilful combination of diplomacy with lightning military action to achieve the independence of Bangladesh, cocking a snook at American and Chinese opposition, finally erased the humiliation of the Sino-Indian war of 1962, established India as the diminant power in the region, and made its Prime Minister the heroine of chauvinistic public opinion.
For her very success, however, carried in it the seeds of rapid decline.
Having raised popular expectations with pseudo-radical promises, she had no conception of how to fulfil them. Having routed all her foes, domestic and foreign, she had no more alibis for failure.
Mrs Gandhi herself did little to discipline corruption and faction-fighting among her followers, while compromising her own moral authority by patronising the shady business ventures of her son, Sanjay.
Lulled into complacency by her previous victories and the cult of personality that surrounded her, she turned a blind eye to genuine mass discontent, trusting instead in the slogan put out by her sycophants, 'Indira is India, India is Indira,'
The movement reached its height in June, 1975, when Mrs Gandhi herself was convicted in court for corrupt election practices and Narayan demanded her resignation.
Mrs Gandhi's reply was to proclaim a state of emergency, suspend basic civil liberties, impose strict press censorship, and imprison 160,000 opponents, including Narayan and the entire Opposition leadership.
It was a measure of Mrs Gandhi's growing isolation from public opinion that she felt confident enough to hold a general election in March 1977 in the expectation of legitimising her autocracy with a popular mandate.
The debacle which followed showed that her confidence was not justified, and that her political judgment could be suspect. But it also ended the emergency and restored civil liberties. That she was able to come back against overwhelming personal and political odds less than three years later was evidence of her undoubted toughness and single mindedness.
In the final reckoning, however, she will undoubtedly be remembered less as the heir of the nationalist founding fathers than as the would-be autocrat who would brook no opposition in her determination to provide what she felt, without any strong vision, to be firm, and necessarily firm, government.
Ashok MitraOn Lal Bahadur Shastri's sudden death in Tashkent in January 1966, the Congress Parliamentar
While studying at the University of Allahabad, he shone in both debates and sports, but most of his time was taken up by visits to Anand Bhavan and Swaraj Bhavan and absorbing the ideology of socialism. In London in the mid-1930s to study law, he got further radicalised. Among young Indians then living in the capital of the empire, he had the most commodious digs, which would be the favoured meeting place of both earnest volunteers of Krishna Menon's India League and fresh recruits to the Communist Party of Great Britain, with a strong overlap between the two. When Haksar returned home on the eve of the Second World War, it was as a member of the Communist Party of India. He enrolled in the Allahabad High Court, but the party was his first call, P.C. Joshi putting him in charge of a local cell.
Haksar's years overseas in the relative leisure a diplomatic career permits had given him plenty of time to think things over. Installed as Indira's factotum, the long-term agenda for him was fulfilling the Nehruvian dream of ushering in a republic which progressed rapidly on the economic front, where the commanding heights of decision-making would be with the state apparatus that was purged of shibboleths from the past. The first mission was to assist Indira in fending off meddling from the tiresome fogeys in the Syndicate and establish her total supremacy over the party. The party itself was faction-ridden with a moribund organisation; to expect it to be the vehicle for radical social and economic transformation was silly. Would it not be better to shift the centre of gravity towards the apex, and all power in the party be made to flow from whoever controlled it, meaning Nehru's daughter? The administrative frame should similarly be restructured. The noble objectives embedded in the Nehruvian vision were achievable only when government institutions and public sector entities functioned in a coordinated manner. Two corollaries followed: (a) those in charge of the upper layers of ministries and public enterprise needed to be handpicked, and (b) the prime minister's office exercised due surveillance over the entire spectrum of governance.
FROM THE RECORD BOOKS
Somehow, India will never be the same again. She was a giant among pygmies; a woman who left an indelible visual impression upon the collective consciousness, larger than life itself. Her power was reflected in the image, so profoundly imprinted in the minds of every Indian, that whatever their station in life may be or however uncompromising their differences with her, it became impossible to reconcile India without Indira. Shock, disbelief, anger. But at the end was a terrible silence, as the sheer enormity of the tragedy gradually dawned.
Passing of an Era: Indira Gandhi (1917-1984)
By Sunil Sethi, November 30, 1984
- The author was the chief economic adviser to Indira Gandhi's government.