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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 46, October 31, 2009

Indira Gandhi’s Place In History

Sunday 1 November 2009, by K. Natwar Singh


October 31 marks the twentyfifth anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s martyrdom. On this occasion we are carrying the following piece by the former External Affairs Minister who had worked under her for several years and seen her from close quarters. We are also reproducing (on p. 27) N.C.’s article on her after her demise.

From May 1966 to April 1971 I was working in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat (it was renamed Prime Minister’s Office by Morarji Desai). I was the first foreign service official to serve in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

At that time the Secretariat was a well-knit, small unit. Espirt de corps was very much in evidence. One interacted with the Prime Minister on a daily basis. It was both an honour and pleasure to be on the staff of Indira Gandhi. I observed with admiration her evolution as a world figure.

People often ask: “Where were you when Gandhiji was assassinated, or when Nehru died?” 31.10.1984—I can never forget. I was just getting into my car to go to Bharatpur, when my RAX phone rang. Sharada Prasad was on the line, “Come right away. PM has been shot.”

I was then living at 9 Safdarjung Road, a few hundred yards from 1 Safdarjung Road. The news hit me so hard that it took me sometime to recover from the shock. Sharada Prasad, the calmest of men, too was shaken. She had of course died on the spot but the official announcement was made late in the afternoon after the return of President Giani Zail Singh from Yemen. Rajiv Gandhi was touring West Bengal.

1983 had been an outstanding and rewarding year for her. She presided over the Seventh NAM Summit in March and the Commonwealth Summit in November the same year. Both Summits were huge successes. Her already high international profile acquired additional influence and authority. She was now looked upon as a political star of the highest calibre and authority.

Unlike her great father, she had to constantly struggle to get to the top and remain there for 16 years with a short break—1977-79. The odds against her between 1966 and 1969 were formidable. She had taken care of most of them by the end of 1969. The Syndicate was demolished and Morarjibhai Desai was put in his place with consummate skill. She also cut the wings of senior colleagues—Messrs Y.B. Chavan and Jagjivan Ram.


Twentyfive years is a long enough period to sit back and ponder over her achievements and her place in history. In surveys held from time to time—“who is the best Prime Minister India has had?”—she tops the list, not her father. On the whole, Jawaharlal Nehru had an easier time from 1947 to 1962. Not her. She had to navigate the ship of state through treacherous waters, and did so with consummate skill. Those who began by jeering turned to cheering.

Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundations of a democratic, secular, pluralistic India. He wanted to create a just country by just means. Indira Gandhi not only strengthened those foundations, she built on them a structure which endures to this day. She once wrote:

Our democracy is dedicated to the peaceful transformation of an old social order and the uplifting of millions of our people from conditions of social, economic and technological under-development. Thus, what we are attempting in India is not a mere imitation of the Westminster system but a creative application of a meaningful democracy to the vastly different economic and social problems of India.

Severe droughts, shortage of foodgrains plagued her early years in office. We were living “from ship to mouth” from America. She came forth with the Green Revolution which made India self-sufficient in food-grains.

Her foreign policy successes were spectacular. In her article, published in the Foreign Affairs quarterly of October 1972, she defined the objectives of our Foreign Policy in these stirring words:

India’s foreign policy is a projection of the values which we have cherished through the centuries as well as our current concerns. We are not tied to the traditional concepts of a foreign policy designed to safeguard over-seas possessions, investments, the carving out of spheres of influence and erection of cordons sanitaires. We are not interested in exporting ideologies.

Her Weltanschauung reflected the realities of the international diplomatic map. It combined idealism with well-thought-through realpolitik. She had guts and insights. She underpinned her policies through intellectual stiffening. She was a risk-taker. But no political short-cuts were followed or encouraged.

Her lasting achievement was her most skilful and deft handling of the crisis in East Pakistan, from March 25, 1971 to December 16, 1971 till Bangladesh was born. She waited with patience for the right moment. In the meanwhile she converted world opinion in favour of the independence movement in East Pakistan. She got the world media on her side, she won over Western Europe, got the support of American liberals, thus isolating Messrs Nixon and Kissinger. No small achievement. She did not take credit. She gave credit to the people of East Pakistan/Bangladesh. This is statesmanship.

I am a devotee of Indira Gandhi and shall remain so. However, in an objective appraisal one must mention that she erred in declaring Emergency in 1975. She paid a heavy price. But within two years the Lok Sabha was dissolved. She won hands down and was back as Prime Minister.

The attack on the Golden Temple was a very serious misjudgement. In fact her specific instructions (no damage to Harmandar Sahib) were ignored. From June 6, 1984 to 31.10.1984 she was aware that her life was in grave danger.

31.10.2009 is a day to remember this great leader, a passionate servant of the people of India, a statesman of world stature, a high-minded humanist, graceful, elegant, loveable. Her work endures. Her memory inspires. She remains the woman of the millennium. Rightly so.

Nikhil Chakravatty (1913-1998) was not only the founder and editor of this magazine, but was among the most admired and respected journalists of his generation. His integrity was inspirational. His writings, memorable. His intellect was that of an outstanding visionary, whose feet were on the ground. Educated at Oxford, he returned to India an ardent Marxist. He parted company with the Communist Party after the 1975 Emergency. He vehemently opposed the Emergency and shut down Mainstream as long as it lasted. He was an immensely likeable person. Never raised his voice. Presidents and Prime Ministers consulted him, respected his wisdom.

I got to know him during the last 15 years of his life. It was a rare privilege to know him. I cherish his memory as so many others do.

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