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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 47 New Delhi November 10, 2018

Lights of Moscow / After Indira Gandhi

Monday 12 November 2018, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

November 7 this year marked the 101st anniversary of the October Revolution. To commemorate that occasion we are reproducing the following piece written by N.C. in Mainstream fiftyfive years ago on November 9, 1963 recalling his visit to Moscow in the winter of 1956 (to witness the celebrations in the Red Square on the thirtyninth anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7, 1956). 

Lights of Moscow

As the IIyushin-14 touched down on the hard crust of the Siberian snow, the pretty Chinese comrade next to me said: “It seems we have reached Omsk. But don’t be upset by the bitter cold of the Russian blizzard. The Soviet people are as warm in their heart as the tea served out of their samovar.” She spoke fluent English, a medico, graduating from Peking, taking specialised training in Surgery in Moscow.

That was way back in the winter of 1956. The end of October. I was flying from Peking to Moscow after attending the Eighth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the only Party Congress that the Chinese leaders had called in their 14 years of power equalling Stalin’s record in his last phase. Throughout my four-week tour in China that October, every factory I visited, every technical or academic institution I was taken to, brought home to me the overwhelming impact of Soviet aid, almost boundless in generosity.

And what seems today to be more significant was the esteem with which the Chinese personnel those days used to spontaneously acknowledge with gratitude all that the first Socialist State had given them and taught them too. Not all the current angry campaign of the Chinese leaders can wipe off this truth, however unpalatable it might be for them in their present mood of anti-Soviet frenzy.

The long, weary hours of the flight across the dreary expanse of white Siberian winter—the TU-104 jet service was then the exception rather than the rule—made me ponder over the greatness of the November Revolution.

The impression of the Bolshevik Revolution one normally would get from the history books was that of intense dramatic excitement confined mainly to big cities, more particularly Petrograd (now Leningrad) and Moscow. But here, even in the cold of Siberia, one could get a glimpse of its greatness. The land, where the Czars used to banish revolutionaries at one time, could now launch on a new career of civilisation thanks to the pioneering labour of the Soviet man and the tender care of Soviet science.

By 1956, the exiles from Stalin’s labour camps had started coming back and the staggering revelations of the horrors perpetrated in the name of socialism—boldly made by Khrushchev a few months earlier at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party—had led them to an almost nationwide ‘Never-again!’ pledge. The strength of socialism was writ large, for the retrospection had come not out of defeat or a change of regime, but by its leadership on their own.

In the friendly warmth of an Aeroflot flight I checked up on my fellow passengers, their occupational who’s-who: leaving aside the foreigners—mostly from fraternal socialist countries, including two German scientists returning from North Vietnam—the Soviet passengers consisted of seven working in factories, one of whom belonged to the senior staff at the giant plant at Magnitogorsk; four were science students returning from Irkutsk; two elderly women and an old man were on light work in collective farms. No Wall Street VIP nor the Maharajah on flying carpet, these are but men and women who toil with their own hands, and the brain workers who stand by them.

In Moscow‘s leading hotels I noticed the same feature: the best suites were not occupied by those with the fattest bank balance but men and women honoured for their outstanding achievements in labour or intellect or those who had given their lives in the cause of Communism. And in the foyer of the massive Hotel Moscow, one could see hundreds of ordinary people—men and women from common walks of life. How incongruous would this look in the West End or World of Astoria!

The man of labour is enthroned in Moscow, as the defiant challenge to the world’s Rich. And as I looked out of my hotel window and saw the Red star glowing over the Kremlin, I felt at once the power and the glory of the Common Man outstripping those of the parasite Rich.

This simple truth, this majesty of the November Revolution came to me in all its grandeur as we stood at the Red Square waiting in the morning snow for the great march-past of November 7. The smart turnout of the Red Army men brought back memories that inspired the pages of history, of the defeat of the Western Powers’ intervention against the newly-born workers’ state, right upto the days when Hitler’s hordes were pushed back to Berlin and beyond.

And as the contingents from different walks of Soviet life proudly marched past the great Lenin’s Mausoleum, it was an unforgettable sight. As we stood shivering in the biting cold despite all the warm clothes we had put on, I could not help remembering that those who had stormed the Winter Palace did so in this very November winter of Russia. The bitter cold could not deter them even if it had destroyed Napoleon’s formidable army.

The scenes of joy, of tumultuous laughter and dancing that overflowed the streets of Moscow that evening past midnight were not just the outpourings of a national festival; they were the grand celebration of a great achievement of mankind, the breaking of the chains of capitalist slavery. How little the Chinese leaders have understood the spirit of the November Revolution that they could prattle about the danger of the return of capitalism, little realising how strong are the foundations of that great revolution that ushered in a new era in human history.

Moscow in the winter of 1956 was emerging into the maturity of revolution. Everywhere I went I could hear exciting discussions about the implications of the Twentieth Soviet Communist Party Congress. The fresh air of freedom that blew into the musty atmosphere of Stalin’s Russia brought in a new life, as it were. The past was being examined boldly and gropings for the future could be discerned.

It was as if the child born in 1917 had grown up into his majestic stature—strong enough to proclaim his own mistakes and ready to learn from them. In the midst of it all the Hungarian upheaval touched off new tensions, new questionings—would the revulsion at the past mistakes lead to a rebound which might take a socialist country back into the arms of capitalism? Was the Soviet action justified? Why could not Hungary sustain the brunt of self-criticism without upsetting the social order, as did Poland?

All these questions could be heard, not only in the small circle of outsiders, but among the Soviet newsmen themselves. One could taste the ferment, for it was in the very air of Moscow. And rightly so; did not Lenin permit, if not encourage, the most uninhibited criticism—the finest of political iconoclasm—even in those early days of the Revolution?

When the workers of Paris formed their Commune more than 90 years ago, Karl Marx hailed the event as the storming of heavens. Today the revolutionary legatees of the Paris Commune—the sons and daughters of the November Revolution—have been literally storming the heavens. The people that could send a Valentina Tereshkova to the kingdom of the stars are the heirs of those who had hoisted the Red Flag on the Czar’s Palace. And not without reason. For the triumph of the Soviet Union today is not just an accident—it has blossomed out of the very system of socialism, where man has ceased to exploit man.

The plane took off about mid-night, I bade good-bye to Moscow—this city of Revolution—from my plane window. In the darkness of night with its myriads of lights, Moscow looked like a piece of glittering jewel, a shining necklace of diamonds. I was reminded of what John Reed had reported in his memorable Ten Days That Shook the World: a cart-driver, watching the city lights as he drew nearer, cried: “All this is mine!”

Those glittering lights of Moscow, I felt, were indeed the precious diamonds for evey worker that strives to break the chains of wage-slavery, and for every decent man and woman in this wide world who recognises the majesty of labour. The lights of Moscow shall never, never fail.

(Mainstream, November 9, 1963)

When I look
     for the grandest day
               of my life,
     in all
         I’ve gone through and seen.
I name without doubt
           or internal strife
October 25,     1917.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

(from the poem ‘Vladimir llyich Lenin’)

[November 7 was October 25 as per the old Russian calender.]

Indira Gandhi’s 34th death anniversary fell on October 31 this year. On this occasion we are reproducing the following ‘Editor’s Notebook’ that N.C. wrote after her death.

After Indira Gandhi

Twenty years after her great father’s passing away, Indira Gandhi fell, he frail body riddled with the assasin’s bullets, in the winter morning of October 31, 1984.

She died as she lived—taking danger as her constant companion. And she left behind a nation not only benumbed with searing sorrow but engulfed in insensate fratricidal violence, threatening the very unity of the country to defend which she faced martyrdom.

This is not the moment to undertake an objective appraisal of Indira Gandhi’s contri-bution towards building modern India or her role in world affairs. Future historians will undertake this task, a difficult task because hers was a career which until her last breath knew no respite, a career crowded with events of unmitigated severity as well as unalloyed glory. Few were her moments of repose, for she more than anybody else went among the largest segment of India’s seven hundred millions covering the length and breadth of this far-flung country. It was an endless odyssey no other leader of her times has undertaken.

At home, many significant steps were taken during her fifteen years of Prime Ministership which strengthened the economy of the country and yet its base could not be reinforced because of the balance of social forces, their level of consciousness and organisational consolidation did not permit any fundamental transformation. On the political plane, the Westminster type of parliamentary democracy has been maintained though it has to a large measure been corroded by graft and corruption while the system of election has fostered caste and communal loyalties.

Abroad, Indira Gandhi’s tenure as India’s unchallenged leader saw the extension and enrichment of the policy of non-alignment in a manner that it could throw in its lot with the forces of peace and progress against the forces of reaction. Adherence to the principle of democratic solidarity brought fresh laurels when Bangladesh was born out of Pakistani brutality. At the same time, the country found it difficult to muster the strength necessary to sustain a determined and dynamic foreign policy because of the internal socio-economic weaknesses.

The shortcomings of the politico-economic order that was set up on the morrow of independence under the balance of forces prevailing at the time, began to surface conspicuously during Indira Gandhi’s regime. This was particularly evident from the fact that significant reforms did not produce the desired changes. Land reforms did not bring land to the tiller. Restrictions placed on monopolies could not weaken the monopoly houses. Planning did not reduce economic disparities; rather they grew despite the plans. Bonded labour persists despite its official abolition. Expansion of education has intensified its lopsidedness while prevalence of illiteracy has weaknened the cultural base of our democracy. As democracy has spread to diverse regions, parochialism has increased, bringing severe strain on the structure of national integration. Instead of trying to tackle this on the axiomatic principle of unity-in-diversity, it has been allowed to degenerate into a false confrontation between the Centre and the States.

Taking a broader, historical view one cannot help noting that Indira Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister marked the end of the generation that had witnessed the culmination of the freedom struggle in the triumphant unfurling of the Tricolour on the Red Fort, and the coming-of-age of the generation born after independence. The so-called generation gap touching off social tensions was in reality the manifestation of an unfinished revolution. The entire national leadership, covering all parties, tried to live on the laurels of the freedom struggle: they did not—or perhaps could not—work out an authentic programme of nation-building, a programme which could rouse the millions and mobilise them with the same intensity which Gandhi and Nehru could fifty years ago. Instead they could only produce schemes and plans which are impressive as the drawing-board blueprints or seminar papers but are ineffective in galvanising the masses. That is why election-time slogans mostly sound empty and fail to set the masses in motion in the direction of socio-economic transformation.

In the absence of such a national matrix for the building of independent India, disequili-brium leading to tensions surfaced in both politics and economy of the country. The turbulence that marked the greater part of the Indira Phase has had its roots in this disequili-brium. Whenever there was the slightest signs of groping towards social transformation, she could muster unprecedented mass support as could be seen in the wake of the new economic programme beginning with bank nationalisation and culminating in the call for Garibi Hatao. But with no political (as distinct from adminis-trative) infrastructure to implement or enforce it, the programme at its very incipient phase was lost; later the Twenty-Point Programme, both in its original and revised versions, was but its pale imitation, incapable of bestirring the masses in the way the earlier call for Garibi Hatao could rouse mass expectations: at the end populism became the subject of ridicule or trenchant criticism.

Most of the intractable problems that beset Indira Gandhi with particular sharpness during her second tenure of power, that is, since 1980, can be traced back to their origins in the early years of independence. Whether it is Assam or the North-East, the minorities’ sense of insecurity, or the vexed Centre-State controversy, or the entire Punjab problem—all these had surfaced on the very morrow of independence. Those who deify today the founding fathers of the Constitution need to be reminded that it was the unresolved items that had come up in the Cosntituent Assembly which later on assumed the magnitude of crisis points particularly under Indira Gandhi. This is not to say that the founding fathers of the Constitution should be held responsible for these crisis issues. What needs to be debunked is the thoughtless Opposition charge, long bandied about, that Indira Gandhi must be branded as the arch culprit for having deliberately left all the problems unsettled to exploit them to her own advantage.

Nobody will deny that there had been a certain amount of drift and sometimes miscalculation in dealing with these issues under Indira Gandhi. What was, however, a mistake was that these for long were sought to be tackled as if they were ordinary problems of a conventional nature demanding conventional responses. In reality, all these were issues germane to the basic weaknesses of our democratic set-up—weaknesses which should have been overcome a long time ago, long before Indira came to power, and that too, should have been attempted by means of wide national consensus. These are problems which can hardly be solved through the majority vote of the ruling party alone; they have had to have the sanction of most, if not all, political parties. Otherwise they face the danger of being treated as partisan issues, as they finally did.

Not that bold initiatives were totally missing. It is necessary to remind ourselves the irony of the fact that Indira Gandhi of all our Prime Ministers was the one who had acceded to the demand for a Punjabi-speaking State, while nothing had been done by the Janata Government to even examine the Akali demands though it had an Akali as a Cabinet Minister.

After Indira Gandhi, her mantle has fallen on the shoulders of her son, Rajiv Gandhi. The party in command of two-thirds majority in Parliament has made him the Prime Minister, though a section of the Opposition did not fail to make a demonstration of their miserable incapacity to rise above pettifogging absurdities by questioning the propriety of his appointment. The challenge that he faces today are many and varied, and his capacity and competence to deal with them will undoubtedly be watched with close scrutiny by friends and adversaries alike.

Like his gransfather, Rajiv Gandhi has assumed power in the midst of turbulence, though in character and intensity, it is different from the one which engulfed the country thirtyseven years ago. The promptitude with which he has taken steps to put down all violence in the Capital—wherein the ranks of the mischief-mongers could be identified some of the star performers in the mafia of the Sanjay days, whom Rajiv had rejected—has brought out the initiative which promises to earn him the confidence of the nation.

What has happened is no ordinary outburst of anger tinged with sorrow. The faceless elements, domestic and foreign, who engineered the killing of Indira Gandhi, have as their objective the unleashing of destabilisation on a large scale. More than many others in the country who should have known better, Indira Gandhi herself knew—and did not hesitate to confide to others—that she was the prime target of powerful forces interested in weakening the position of India in the world of today through disturbances within the country itself. US Secretary of State George Schultz’s assurance about the Administration’s concern for India’s unity is indeed touching though unfortunately it has hardly been reassuring in view of the rather long record of its agencies having had a hand at destabilisation of regimes which did not fall in line with it. Needless to add, the new Prime Minister can hardly depend on such assurances from abroad: he has to take steps—as he has begun to take—to deal with a firm hand the forces that are out to disrupt the nation’s unity, calculatedly or unwittingly.

At 40, Rajiv Gandhi has become the youngest Prime Minister of this country. His mother’s style of functioning made her entire establish-ment, both government and party, into a one-pillar structure. Apart from the superhuman stamina that she had to summon up to manage things as she did, there is little doubt that this encouraged an unwholesome tendency of dependency on the part of her colleagues and acted as a disincentive to initiative on their part. Placed as he is today having yet to earn his spurs as the chief executive of the nation and having colleagues most of whom are senior in age though not all in wisdom or competence, Rajiv Gandhi cannot possibly afford to function as the apex of a pyramid. To carry his colleagues along with him and to make the system run as effectively as possible, he will have to foster collective functioning without in any way permitting his initiative to be stifled. This way alone can emerge a viable framework of governance as also open up the potentialities for his leadership of it. The Congress, though a ruling party, has a history in which it was for long regarded as the common national front, while since independence, it has continued as a loosely held organisaton, largely for the purpose of holding periodic elections. Factions bristle within its ranks—perhaps they consti-tuted the major threat to the stability of the Indira Raj at the State level—although at the moment, they are to a large measure subdued at the loss of their chief campaigner for the coming General Election. But this is only temporary.

For Rajiv Gandhi to iron out the factions would be a major task. With the disappearance of the banyan tree protection that Indira Gandhi provided them all, it is possible that the urge for survival might help Rajiv to reduce, if not eliminate, group politics. Side by side there appears to be an urge, at the moment incipient, among a good number of old Congressmen who had strayed into different Opposition formations, to return to the fold having seen through the bankruptcy of leaders like Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar. The trend was perceptible in the last days of Indira Gandhi and is likely to grow in the coming months. It will be important for Rajiv Gandhi to consolidate into one organisation all those belonging to what may be termed as the Congress culture.

In the last four years, there grew up around Rajiv Gandhi a band of young Congressmen—regarded as a management elite—who have their strong points as having drive and self-confidence; at the same time they have yet to imbibe the ethos of the Congress as it has grown over the years. It will be for Rajiv Gandhi himself to harness them and harmonise diverse interests and outlooks into a one homogenous whole. This way will he be able to rebuild the Congress in the conditions of today and this way too holds the promise of his establishing its effective leadership.

Beyond the confines of his party, Rajiv Gandhi will have to evolve through persuasion and pain-staking endeavour the code of national consensus which alone will enable him to deal with the intractable problems that stare him at the face today. This way too perhaps the fragile structure of Indian democracy can still be saved.

(‘Editor’s Notebook’, Mainstream, November 3-10, 1984)

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