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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 45

Indira Gandhi—An Outstanding International Leader

Wednesday 31 October 2007, by M. Saleem Kidwai


[(October 31 marks the twentythird anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As a tribute to her abiding memory we are carrying the following piece. —Editor

The charismatic and epoch-making personality of Indira Gandhi left her imprint not only in the affairs of her own country but also in international affairs. She belonged to that noble galaxy of great leaders who wielded extraordinary power. Indira Gandhi was an Indian to the core but at the same time her vision went far beyond her own nation and embraced the entire human race. By virtue of being the Prime Minister of India, the largest democracy in the world, she was able to make a significant contribution to the practice of inter-national relations. She enjoyed well-deserved prestige and profound respect on the international scene. An attempt is being made here to highlight her role as an international leader.

Indira Gandhi was introduced to international affairs at an early age. As the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru she was born and brought up in a family and environment where national and international politics were discussed all the time. Her illustrious father had taken care to educate her daughter about all aspects national and international politics. This was amply demonstra-ted in Nehru’s letters to her daughter from prison which were later on published in a book form. In all these letters world history and politics have been discussed extensively. Besides, during the Prime Ministership of Nehru, Indira Gandhi served as the official hostess to heads of states and governments at the Teen Murti House. She also accompanied her father in most of his foreign tours. As a result of all this she became quite familiar with international affairs. So after becoming the Prime Minister of India she hardly faced any problem in understanding foreign policy and was able to achieve success in this sphere within no time.

Indira Gandhi inherited Nehru’s mantle and was credited with carrying out the Nehru legacy in foreign affairs. Following Nehru’s traditions, she championed the cause of international peace, disarmament, anti-colonialism and anti-racialism. She used the platforms of the Commonwealth, NAM and UN effectively. She not only preserved the rich heritage of Nehru but made her own contribution. She took certain decisions keeping in view the prevalent circumstances that resulted in raising the stature of India at the international level. Under her dynamic stewardship India’s voice was heard with respect in various international oranisations and forums. Indira Gandhi had no articulated world vision but had learned from her great father to identify India’s national interest with independent decision-making in international affairs, economic development at home and the exclusion of India and its neighbourhood in Southern Asia from either of superpower’s sphere of influence. Her policies were pragmatic, her dealings with foreign leaders unsentimental. Her pride, her sensitivity to equal treatment, her political skills in overcoming adversity—all helped to keep her government from succumbing to American or Soviet pressures on specific issues. She had a clear-cut perception of India’s strategic and national interests. She knew that in international relations power counted more than personal influence and that the strategic interests of a nation were far more important than moral principles. She followed pragmatic policies and her relations with the leaders of superpowers were based upon cold calculations.

When Indira Gandhi came to the helm of affairs, that was a bi-polar world. One bloc was led by the US and other headed by the Soviet Union. The Cold War was at its height. The nuclear race was on. Some relics of colonialism and imperialism were still there. Racialism was prevalent in some parts. World peace was under a grave threat. In the circumstances Indira Gandhi followed the policy of non-alignment as laid down by Nehru. Very soon the international community recognised her as a leader who was committed to freedom and peace. Her role in the non-aligned moment was duly recognised at the Seventh Conference NAM when she was elected its chairperson in 1983 at New Delhi. This Conference was a historic one. The resolutions passed at the Conference reflected Indira Gandhi’s statesmanship and far-sightedness. Her most important contribution in the realm of world peace was the shaping of the NAM. Her able leadership provided a smooth sailing for the Conference. It also led to a better understanding of the common problems of freedom, peace and social justice for the people of the Third World. It was through this Conference that she made a major chunk of humanity feel important in the UN. Here she played a more dynamic role as a leader of mankind in the international arena. Her performance as the NAM Chairperson was superb and balanced, and it commanded respect not only of member-states but also of the superpowers. Her faith in the UN as the arbiter of inter-state conflicts and the most important centre for harmonising the actions of nations can’t be questioned. For, as she herself said, firm faith in the UN is central to the NAM. The aim is the same: to maintain peace by removing the sources of tension and to bring out the humanity in human beings.

Indira Gandhi symbolised the Third World’s regeneration. Under her leadership, Indian foreign policy matured from the conscious assertion of the rights and aspirations of newly free nations to a keen awareness on their part of their own responsibility in the global context. By refusing to sign the NPT she gained political credit for upholding India’s independence and for taking a principled stand against a discriminatory treaty. With Indira Gandhi at the helm, India re-emerged in the South Asian strategic stage and her India recorded its ability and willingness to grasp the opportunities of power politics in a regional context. She made a mark in the world as an unrivalled leader and a champion of the Third World.

INDIRA GANDHI not only influenced history but also made history. With her extraordinary skills she balanced the superpowers against one another. 1971 was Indira Gandhi’s finest hour in foreign and security affairs. Her skill lay in her intuitive grasp of the opportunity which the Pakistani rulers provided to change the geopolitics of East Pakistan. The Bangladesh situation gave her the opportunity to emerge as a military strategist and a diplomat par excellence on the regional and the world stage. With the clear and decisive victory India and Indira were established as a major power and force in the world. Indira Gandhi became the international leader. Her decisions and timings were applauded and hailed as perfect. As Henry Kissinger admits in his memoirs, Indira Gandhi outclassed and outmanoeuvred Nixon and Kissinger. It was a giant leap in international stature. The year 1971 represented the peak of her political career. She tackled Nixon on equal terms. Even her bitter critics were forced to admire her guts. For instance, Leader of the Opposition in Indian Parliament A. B. Vajpayee called her Durga. Another Opposition leader declared in Parliament: “Madam, you have created not only history but a new geography as well.” After the war Indira Gandhi acted with great magnanimity at the Shimla Conference. She put India on the international scientific map by exploding the country’s first underground nuclear device at Pokhran in 1974. This signalled India’s nuclear potential and its unwillingness to abide by the nuclear rules of the superpowers.

One of the important features of Indira Gandhi’s foreign policy was the close ties with the Arab world. It was during the Nehru period that the foundations of a sound and viable Arab policy were laid. The Indira Gandhi era witnessed an allround development of Indo-Arab relations. Indira Gandhi always evinced keen interest in the affairs of the Arab world. Under her leadership India felt emotionally and morally committed to the national aspirations of the Arabs to gain a rightful place in the comity of nations. She always showed an abiding concern for Palestine which forms the crux of West Asian problem. Consequently, in the UN and in its various forums as well as in different Afro-Asian and Non-Aligned Conferences Indira’s India supported the Arab stand on the Palestine issue. On her return to power in 1980 Indira Gandhi dumped the Janata Government’s pro-Israel policy into the dustbin and reverted back to the Nehruvian policy. She invited PLO leader Yasser Arafat to New Delhi and established formal diplomatic relations despite stiff opposition and strong pressures. She was called Gamal Nasser’s niece, King Faisal’s daughter and Yasser Arafat’s sister in the Arab world. She was immensely popular among the Arab people who called her Alsayyida Indira Gandhi.

Indira Gandhi reflected the restless spirit of mankind desiring to establish a world order free from human sufferings. She struggled for the creation of an essentially human order in place of one based on brute force. She was against all forms of domination and exploitation of one country by another. She opposed colonialism and racialism on the ground that these created tensions and hostility. She firmly believed that the adoption of non-alignment by a fairly large number of countries would automatically widen the area of peace and security. She advocated disarmament which alone could bring confidence and hope for survival among the peoples of the world.

Indira Gandhi was definitely successful in the international arena. She stood head and shoulders above the leaders of Third World countries in international forums and conferences. She was always in the limelight. Hers was the foremost voice for world peace in a tense and troubled world. She was successful in protecting India’s interests without succumbing to the pressure of superpowers. An increase in India’s economic and military strength during her regime made India an important regional power which none of the superpowers could afford to ignore. She made India strong and a leading country in the comity of nations, gave a clarion call to the world to save humanity from the nuclear holocaust, raised her voice against all kinds of exploitation. She displayed rare statesmanship in tackling international disputes. Indira Gandhi’s role in guiding the developing nations of the world and her personal contribution towards disarmament and global peace were duly acknowledged by the international community. The image of India as a country which had to be taken seriously was definitely her biggest contribution.

To sum up, Indira Gandhi was truly an international leader. As the Prime Minister of India and Chairperson of the NAM she exercised a profound influence on international affairs and made tremendous efforts for world peace, justice and equity among nations.

Dr M. Saleem Kidwai teaches at the Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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