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Home > 2021 > Indira Gandhi: A nation builder with some flaws | P S Jayaramu

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 51, New Delhi, December 4, 2021

Indira Gandhi: A nation builder with some flaws | P S Jayaramu

Friday 3 December 2021


by P S Jayaramu *

20th November 2021

Indira Gandhi’s 104th birth anniversary passed off quite unnoticed. While it is understandable that the BJP led Government would not attach any significance to it, the Congress Party too was subdued in observing it. To the best of my knowledge, no national newspaper carried any editorial or article as a mark of her birth anniversary on19th November. Is Indira Gandhi fading away in the national imagination?

While it is well known that Indira was groomed by Jawaharlal Nehru to be his successor, it is also a fact that she would not have been able to become Prime Minister but for the untimely demise of Lal Bahadhur Shastri as Prime Minister in Tashkent. Initially, she had to run the government with her political adversary Morarji Desai by agreeing to have him as deputy prime minister and finance minister. The 1967 general elections helped the Congress Party to form the government, though with a reduced majority. In 1969, to assert her position in the party, Indira Gandhi brought about a split in the party led by Ninalingappa. It was a power struggle between the old guard, referred as Congress (O) and the Indira faction, described as Congress ( R). With the support of radical younger leaders like Chandrashekhar, Mohan Dharia and others, Indira Gandhi tried to project a progressive, socialist image to establish her credentials as a mass leader to add to her legitimacy. Her support to V.V.Giri, a reputed trade union leader, helped Indira Gandhi to change the course of Indian as well as Congress politics. Her decision to nationalise 14 large banks got the assent of President Giri. She asked Janardhan Poojari, her minister of state for finance, to organise ‘loan melas’ to assist farmers get bank loans helped the Congress(R) win a landslide victory in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections. Armed with a big majority, Indira Gandhi took the next radical step of abolition of privy purses given to the erstwhile Maharajas. She came up with the famous ‘Garibi Hatao’ ( remove poverty) slogan leading to the adoption of the 20-Points Programme aimed at improving agricultural and industrial production, strengthening publish services, and fight poverty to improve the lot of the poor and the underprivileged sections of the society. Her strategy was to bypass the state governments to use centrally funded schemes for the uplift of the rural poor, a pattern which continued under Rajiv Gandhi to strengthen Panchayati raj institutions. The public sector undertakings got a big boost as part of her overall efforts in nation-building.

In keeping with her commitment to socialism and secularism, Mrs. Gandhi became the architect of a major amendment to the Indian Constitution. She brought about the historic 42nd amendment to the Constitution, through which the Preamble of the Constitution was amended to declare India as a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic. The amendment also led to expand the words ‘unity of the nation’ to ‘unity and integrity of the nation’. Undoubtedly, these spectacular changes were ushered in by Indira Gandhi to uphold the importance of secularism and socialism as the abiding constitutional goals and value systems to reflect our pluralist identity and ethos. The Preamble is a reflection of the idea of India, about which a needless debate is going on in contemporary times. However, the socialist underpinnings of government policies gradually got weakened from 1991 onwards when the potical leadership began making efforts to integrate India with the global economy under the banner of liberalisation, privitisation and globalisation ( LPG, as is popularly known), a process which has got accentuated over the years and decades. The secular fabric of the country is under serious threat in India today.

Mrs.Gandhi’s politics was however, not without flaws. When on 12th June 1975, her election to the Lok Sabha was set aside on grounds of electoral malpractice by the Allahabad High Court debarring her from contesting elections for six years, she not only decided to fight it out legally in the Supreme Court, but resorted to the draconian step of declaring internal emergency on 25th June 1975. The emergency was used to put senior opposition leaders throughout the country in jail and impose press censorship. The dictatorial streak in her made Mrs. Gandhi openly talk about the need for a committed bureaucracy and even a committed judiciary. Her loyalists went about projecting her as a cult figure, with Dev Kant Barua declaring ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’. The emergency also led to the rise to prominence of her second son Sanjay Gandhi who emerged as an extra-constitutional force. He exercised control over central and state ministers. He led the infamous mass sterilisation programme during the emergency to push through his plans for forced population control.

When Mrs. Gandhi came back to power in 1980 and terrorism in Punjab became a serious issue with the group led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale taking shelter in the golden temple complex in Amritsar in 1984, she ordered Operation Blue Star to flush out the terrorists. The event led to riots in Delhi and eventually to her assassination by her own sikh body guards

Foreign policy initiatives:

Mrs. Gandhi’s efforts at nation-building and projecting India’s image abroad were seen equally in the field of foreign policy. A brief analytical review of her key foreign policy initiatives are appropriate. First and foremost was her decision to oppose the nuclear non-proliferation treaty ( NPT) in the 1960s as discriminatory and unequal and refuse to make Indid a signatory to it, a policy which has been continued even today. Ably assisted by experts in the field, she instructed the Indian representatives in the 18-Nations Disarmament Commission (ENDC) in Geneva to expose the double standards of the nuclear weapon States ( NWS) to bulldoze the treaty on the nuclear have-nots. India, under Indira, decided to keep it’s nuclear option open, while advocating the cause of nuclear disarmament. In 1974, Mrs.Gandhi went a step further and ordered the peaceful nuclear explosion, reiterating her decision that India would keep its nuclear option open despite acquiring the capacity to make the bomb. India became a nuclear weapon state in 1998 under Atal Behari Vajpayee, as making India a nuclear power was his and BJP’s (earlier, Jan Sangh had declared its goal of making India a nuclear state right after China went nuclear in1964) cherished goal.

Second, it was Mrs. Gandhi who took the decision to re-establish ambassadorial relations with China, by appointing Mr. K. R. Narayanan as our envoy at Beijing. The bilateral relations between India and China started improving under Rajiv Gandhi when he visited China as Prime Minister, a process carried forward by his successors.

Third and most spectacular was Indira Gandhi’s statesmanship role, her crowning glory, in the liberation of East Pakistan in December 1971. Without going into the details (which can be a subject matter for a separate article), it is pertinent to recall that prior to the war, she took a series of steps for preparing the country to face all eventualities. She ensured the signing the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty in August 1971, to have its back-up support in the event of American intervention on behalf of Pakistan, undertook a tour of western capitals, including a visit to Washington to meet President Nixon, which, however, was disaster. She held detailed discussions with the army chief to decide the timing of the military intervention to bring about the liberation of East Pakistan. Things worked according to the plan and Dacca was liberated on 16th December 1971. So much so, Vajpayee described Indira’s success in the liberation war by calling her Durga. The Simla Agreement of July 1972, which committed Pakistan to a bilateral and peaceful settlement of the Kashmir issue, was the culmination of Indira Gandhi’s leadership, which added to India’s international image. It is a different matter that Bhutto and Pakistan p went back on both their commitments later.

Fourth, Indira Gandhi projected herself as the supreme leader of the Third world by getting the New International Economic Order (NIEO) Declaration signed at the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, paving the way for North-South dialogue for the eventual establishment of an equitable international economic order, which has remained a mirage to this day. She pledged India’s unwavering support to the cause of Palestinians for their homeland, and provided leadership to the nonaligned movement, by hosting the New Delhi NAM summit in March 1983. She was also an ardent supporter of the nonaligned news pool to overcome what she called ‘informational colonialism’ of the West. It is a pity that such ideas are no more talked about or pursued either in India or the global south.

In conclusion, it can be asserted that despite her flaws, Indira Gandhi was a visionary leader, who contributed significantly to the process of nation building and India’s image in the comity of nations.

* (Author: Dr. P. S . Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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