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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 47

Indomitable Indira—Strategist Par Excellence

Wednesday 14 November 2007, by C. Sheela Reddy


[(This article, written on the occasion of Indira Gandhi’s twentythird death anniversary (which was observed on October 31, 2007), could not be used last week; hence it is being published now. —Editor

Prime Ministers come and go, but some just don’t leave the office. Their policies influence future decisions, their statecraft stirs debate and their legacy wins or loses elections. They shape history. Indira Gandhi’s reign for 16 years as the Prime Minister marked a watershed in India’s history. The main traits in her personality endeared her to the people and made her one of the greatest leaders in the modem period of Indian history. She was best known as a tough politician, a highly complex woman who could even stand up to a superpower. There was a soft as well as witty side to her, a woman who loved music, books, art, mountains and whose elegance charmed the world. She took quick and courageous decisions

People in high positions of power often have to take quick decisions involving great risks and sometimes causing great anguish. At hindsight some of these decisions may be described as unwise or imprudent. However, the test of true leadership is the ability and the will to take quick and courageous decisions considered necessary in the interests of the country. History will recognise Indira Gandhi as one who belonged to this class of leaders. Certain events during her tenure as the Prime Minister reflect some of the extraordinary traits and indomitable spirit in her personality.

Bangladesh War (1971)

The Bangladesh crisis brought out the best in Indira Gandhi as a leader capable of taking quick and courageous decisions. The extremely high-handed and repressive measures unleashed on the people of East Pakistan by Pakistan’s military rulers had led to the influx of over 10 million refugees from East Bengal into India. The colossal task of providing the basic facilities for their relief and settlement would have broken the back of any government, leave alone a government with limited resources like India’s. However, Indira Gandhi could handle such a difficult and gigantic task without causing any serious hardship to the common people. Indira Gandhi’s earnest efforts to secure the intervention of the influential and powerful friends of Pakistan in the west to restrain Pakistan’s military rulers from plunging the subcontinent into disaster proved to be of no avail. Instead, she found that countries like the US were even ‘tilting’ towards Pakistan. She then became convinced that India had to handle the crisis all by itself and became more steeled in her resolve to do so, even facing the hostility of the US. Pakistan’s military dictator Yahya Khan committed the monumental blunder of attacking the Indian airfields on the western front on December 3, 1971. His calculation was that a surprise attack would cripple India’s air arm and Indira Gandhi would desist from taking any retaliatory action against Pakistan in East Bengal. He never thought that ‘that woman’, as he contemptuously referred to Indira Gandhi, would risk a quick military response. To his dismay, he found that within a few hours of the attack the Indian Army had moved into East Pakistan. The rest, as it is often said, was history. In less than a fortnight’s time, the commander of the Indian forces in the eastern sector, General J.S. Arora, was receiving the instruments of surrender from the defeated Pakistani Generals. As many as 90,000 Pakistani soldiers became prisoners of the Indian Army in East Pakistan and a new nation, Bangladesh, was born. Indira Gandhi announced in Parliament, on December 16, 1971, that Dacca was now the free capital of a free country.

Two more important features of the Bangladesh War deserve special mention. The first was the prompt recognition of Bangladesh as an independent sovereign country. It is stated that if she had delayed this crucial decision even by a few days, the history of the subcontinent would have taken a different course. The decisive defeat inflicted on the Pakistan Army by the Indian Army and the liberation of Bangladesh by itself need not have led to the creation of a new sovereign state. International pressure, particularly pressure from President Nixon, would have become irresistible and some sort of a face-saving formula would have been found in order to maintain, at least nominally, Pakistan’s territorial integrity. If time was allowed for a discussion on the pros and cons of the options of an independent Bangladesh, and a Bangladesh as an autonomous unit of the Pakistani Confederation, the decision in all probability would have been in favour of the latter. But, Indira Gandhi showed exceptional courage and foresight in announcing India’s instant recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign state and this took the whole issue out of the hands of international pressure groups and constitutional pundits. After India’s announce-ment, it was only a question of a few days for the new country to gain worldwide recognition.

The second important aspect of the Bangladesh War was the unilateral declaration by India of a ceasefire. Several senior members of her Cabinet and the chiefs of the armed forces were vehemently opposed to the idea of a ceasefire when India could, if it wanted, wrest more chunks of territory on the western front from Pakistan immediately after Pakistan’s humiliating surrender. But, Indira Gandhi declared a ceasefire without going in for any territorial gains for India.

Efforts towards Nuclear Security

During the 1971 War, the US had sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal as a warning to India not to use the genocide in East Pakistan as a pretext to launch a wider attack against West Pakistan, especially over the disputed territory of Kashmir. This move had further alienated India from the First World, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cautiously accelerated a new direction in national security and foreign policy. It was in this context that the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty, signed on August 9, 1971, proved beneficial. This Treaty provided that if either country was attacked or threatened with an attack, the two countries would enter into mutual consultations to take appropriate and effective measures to ensure peace and security. This Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Cooperation gave India the needed political and military support contributing substantially to India’s victory in the 1971 War.

Indira Gandhi also accelerated the national nuclear programme, as it was felt that the nuclear threat from the People’s Republic of China and the intrusive interest of the two major superpowers were not conducive to India’s stability and security. In 1974, India successfully conducted an underground nuclear test, unofficially code-named Smiling Buddha, near the desert village of Pokhran in Rajasthan. Describing the test as one for “peaceful purposes”, India nevertheless became the world’s youngest nuclear power. An overwhel-ming majority of people endorsed her decision to conduct the 1974 nuclear test and to start a nuclear weapon and missile programme. The 1971 War with Pakistan as well as the 1974 Pokhran nuclear test saw official and unofficial sanctions against India. As a consequence of the Pokhran test, the international sanctions made it impossible to complete the ongoing power plants. She showed to the world that India could still produce nuclear energy using the engineering capabilities of the BARC, Bharat Heavy Electricals, and Larsen and Toubro. Between them, they produced the critical equipment needed for the nuclear plants. This was possible largely due to Indira Gandhi’s encouragement to Indian organisations. In such a hostile global environment, the alternative was to abandon our nuclear programme and independent foreign policy. This went against the nature of Indira and she refused to compromise on India’s sovereign policies and preferred to take the harder road. The bigger the threat from outside, the stronger was her response. The courage that she displayed in the most difficult situations was, indeed, exemplary.

Spirit of Reform

Indira Gandhi inherited a strong commitment to national development from the Nehru Government and she continued on the same path of self-reliance and development of human resources. Nehru had emphasised on developing India’s vast human resources and placed great stress on science and technology as the road to development. He started a number of higher educational institutions on advanced sciences, engineering and technology and launched national laboratories to absorb the best and the brightest of the scientists and engineers. As the private sector was not strong enough at that time to launch an industrial revolution, Nehru invested heavily into the public sector units in critical areas like power, steel, capital goods, fertiliser, atomic energy and defence production. The Nehruvian focus on technical education, scientific development and creation of a skilled labour force was carried forward by Indira Gandhi.

As the Prime Minister, she faced a major challenge throughout her stewardship of the country. It was the attempt of developed nations to isolate India and deny advanced technology. The Western powers did everything to hinder India’s goal of self-reliance. India had to depend on a few friendly nations for whatever technological help it could get. She was fiercely determined that India should emerge as a major power depending on its own skills and resources. This was the more difficult road, but she was so confident of India’s ability to stand up to external pressures. The pride of India was paramount in all her actions. She strongly believed that a nation’s strength ultimately consists in what it can do on its own, and not in what it can borrow from others.

Indira Gandhi’s economic policies were shaped by such adversities which later governments did not face. The external environment on the financial and the industrial fronts was not encouraging. The private enterprises had not grown to the full extent to take on the responsibility of running key infrastructure areas, a reason why she emphasised on the primacy of the public sector as the engine for India’s development. The public sector controlled more areas of the economy and rapidly expanded under her rule.

Another area where Indira decided on self-sufficiency was the energy sector. When oil prices shot up in 1971, she gave a great push for oil and gas self-sufficiency. The ONGC drilled extensively in Assam and the Bombay High. But at that time no foreign company was willing to sell even an oil rig to India. So the BHEL had to make oil rigs and save the situation. This push to the ONGC is yielding results even now as the ONGC is becoming a major global player in the field of oil exploration.

Despite her emphasis on the public sector, Indira was not against the private sector or its growth. She was not tied to any ideology, but used ideology to achieve her ambition of making India a major power. Till 1980, the Indian private sector suffered not only from licencing but also from technological and financial limitations. Only a few could grow and diversify their industrial activities. But it was during Indira’s time that some of today’s biggest names in textiles, petroleum, pharmaceuticals and the automotive sector got their break.

Non-Alignment, Disarmament and Peace

Mrs Gandhi’s speeches at the international fora are exemplary and replete with deep sentiments and broad vision. They speak of her ideas on the role of India in world affairs and her noble contribution in that direction. She asserted on many occasions that the future of any society, its development and direction depends on the activities of its leaders. Her speech at the Seventh Non-Aligned Summit held in New Delhi from March 7, 1983 very succinctly states the essence of non-alignment. Certain excerpts from the speech reflect her commitment to the policy of non-alignment and concern for world peace.

“Non-alignment is national independence and freedom. It stands for peace and the avoidance of confrontation. It aims at keeping away from military alliances. It means equality among nations and the democratisation of international relations, economic and political. It wants global co-operation for development on the basis of mutual benefit. It is a strategy for the recognition and preservation of the world’s diversity. The non- aligned movement is the history’s biggest peace movement. Only with coexistence can there be any existence. We regard non-interference and non-intervention as basic laws of international behavior. Interventions, open or covert, are all intolerable and unacceptable. Interference leads to intervention and one intervention often attracts another. No single power or group of powers has the justification or moral authority to so interfere or intervene. It is not apt to condemn one instance and condone another. Each situation has its own origins. The solutions to problems must be political and peaceful. All States must abide by the principle that force or the threat of force will not be used against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state.

“Nationalism does not detach us from our common humanity. What a marvellous opportunity is ours with the immense knowledge and increasing capability. Let us grasp it, though it be in the midst of dangers. Faith in the future has brought so many across the continents and the oceans to meet here. We are here because we do believe that minds and attitudes can and must be changed and the injustice and suffering can and must be diminished. Our world is small but it has room for all of us to live together and to improve the quality of the lives for our peoples in peace and beauty. The destructive power contained in nuclear stockpiles can kill human life, indeed all life, many times over and might well prevent its reappearance for ages to come. Terrifying is the vividness of such descriptions by scientists. Yet, some statesmen and strategists act as though there is not much difference between these and the earlier artillery pieces. The arms race continues because of the pursuit of power and desire for one-upmanship, and also because many industries and interests flourish on it.

“The desire for peace is universal even within countries which themselves produce nuclear weapons and in those where they are deployed. Humankind is balancing on the brink of the collapse of the world economic system and annihilation through nuclear war. Should these tragedies occur, can anyone of us, large, small, rich or poor, from North or South, West or East, hope to escape? Development, independence, disarmament and peace are closely related. Can there be peace alongside nuclear weapons? Our plans for a better life for each of our peoples depend on world peace and the reversal of the arms race.”

Indian Emergency (1975-77)

Despite her remarkable achievements in diverse areas, certain incidents dented her image. Indira Gandhi’s government faced major problems after her massive mandate of 1971. The internal structure of the Congress Party had withered following its numerous splits, leaving it entirely dependent on her leadership for its electoral fortunes. In June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad found the sitting Prime Minister guilty of employing a government servant in her election campaign and Congress party work. Technically, this constituted an election fraud, and the court thus ordered her to be removed from her seat in Parliament and banned from running in elections for six years. Indira Gandhi appealed against the decision; the Opposition parties rallied en masse, calling for her resignation. Strikes by unions and protest rallies paralysed life in many States. J.P. Narayan’s Janata coalition even called upon the police to disobey orders if asked to fire on the unarmed public. Public disenchantment combined with hard economic times and an unresponsive government. A huge rally surrounded the Parliament building and Indira Gandhi’s residence in Delhi, demanding her to behave responsibly and resign.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi advised President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of Emergency, claiming that the strikes and rallies were creating a state of ‘internal disturbance’. Ahmed was a longtime political ally, and in India the President is bound to act upon the advice rendered by the elected Prime Minister. According-ly, a state of Emergency caused by internal disorder, based on the provisions of Article 352 of the Constitution, was declared on June 26, 1975. Even before the Emergency proclamation was ratified by Parliament, Indira Gandhi called out the police and the Army to break up strikes and protests, ordering the arrest of all Opposition leaders that very night.

The Prime Minister’s Emergency rule lasted nineteen months. During this time, despite the suspension of civil liberties, the country made significant economic and industrial progress. This was primarily due to the end it put to strikes in factories, colleges, and universities and the repression of trade and student unions. Productivity increased and the administration was streamlined. Tax evasion was reduced by zealous government officials, although corruption remained a major problem. Agricultural and industrial production expanded considerably under Gandhi’s 20-point programme; revenues increased, and so did India’s financial standing in the international community. Thus much of the urban middle class in particular found it worth their while to contain their dissatisfaction with the state of affairs.

Operation Bluestar

Disturbed by the spread of militancy and Bhindranwale’s group, Indira Gandhi ordered the Army to storm the Golden Temple to remove Bhindranwale and his followers on June 3, 1984. Thousands of innocent Sikh pilgrims were killed in the process, leading to widespread anger over the desecration of Sikhism’s holiest shrine. The disregard for thousands of civilians within the temple and excessive use of military force remain a source of great controversy to this day. When the tanks rolled into the Golden Temple, Indira rolled out of the Sikh hearts forever. She would have become an icon but for the Emergency and Operation Bluestar. After the Emergency she made a spectacular comeback, but after Operation Bluestar, she was gone forever.


Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India for 16 years, with an interregnum of 34 months (March 1977-January 1980). The woman, who assumed office in January 1966, defeated Pakistan in a war, enabled East Pakistan to secede and become a sovereign nation, conducted a nuclear test in May 1974, imposed an internal Emergency on the nation in June 1975, initiated nuclear weapon and missile programmes on her return to office in 1980, ordered Operation Bluestar in June 1984 and fell to a hail of bullets from her own bodyguards on October 31, 1984. Indira Gandhi, a brave daughter of a proud tradition, sacrificed her life for the country she loved. Her achievements outweighed her failures. “Reading history is good,” Nehru wrote to Indiraji in one of his letters. “However it is better to help make history.” As far as she was concerned, the words proved prophetic. She could make history, not once but on several occasions. India was proud to have a leader of her charisma, wisdom and statesman-ship.


1. Indiraji through My Eyes by Usha Bhagat.
2. Builders of modem India—Indira Gandhi by B.N. Pande.
3. Profiles of Indian Prime Ministers by Manisha.
4. Indira Gandhi—Woman of lndia’s Destiny by Dr Varalakshmi Janapathy.

Dr Sheela Reddy is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, S.V. University, Tirupati.

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