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Mainstream, VOL LV No 48 New Delhi November 18, 2017

Indira Gandhi As I Knew Her

Sunday 19 November 2017


by Madhu Limaye

Indira Gandhi held the supreme political office for a long period. She was the country’s Prime Minister for sixteen years. Unlike Jawaharlal her Prime Ministership was not uninterrupted. Jawaharlal never tasted defeat. Indira Gandhi’s party was thrown out of power in 1977 and she herself lost the election to the Lok Sabha.

The Nehru household cannot be called a happy household. The relations among its women members were not on the best of terms. Indira silently watched all the goings-on. Speaking about her mother, Indira later said that she saw her mother being hurt and she was therefore determined not to be hurt.

From Jawaharlal’s remarks in the forties it can be conjectured that in the early years of freedom he expected Jayaprakash Narayan to play a very important part in shaping India’s destiny. Whether he looked upon him as a possible successor or not, it is difficult to say. But when JP displayed aversion for power and strayed into Sarvodaya, increa-singly Jawaharlal began to think of grooming Indira for succession. Indira was neither active in the youth movement nor in Congress politics. From the chief of local Vanar Sena (children’s brigade) she was elevated to the membership of the Working Committee and then to the Presidentship of the Congress in 1959. She did not have to put in any apprenticeship as others, including her father, had to do. In her short term of one year, she gave two demonstrations of her strong will. The first initiative proved to be portentous. As the Prime Minister she used to condemn the Opposition (in the seventies) for taking recourse to extra-constitutional agitation, for not showing respect for electoral verdicts and subverting elected Assembiles. Yet it was she who blessed the agitation against the EMS Ministry in Kerala and pushed the Home Minister (G.B. Pant), Prime Minister (Nehru) and President (Rajendra Prasad) into dismissing the Communist Government in Kerala. Everybody knows that the Centre has since been repeatedly taking recourse to this practice. Indira’s second, this time positive, initiative consisted of persuading the Central Government to terminate the experiment of bilingual Bombay and give Gujarat and Maharashtra their separate States. Indira‘s action saved the Maharashtra Congress. Indira remained sympathetic to regional aspirations, and was instrumental in the creation of States like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal, Meghalaya and so on.

Indira Gandhi entered the Rajya Sabha after her father’s death in 1964 and became the Information and Broadcasting Minister in Shastri’s Cabinet. Indira, I know from personal experience, did not much like Parliament. She barely tolerated its existence. She thought Parliament was a nuisance. Her attitude to Parliament alternated between fear and contempt. In the early priod fear was dominant. In 1969 when she seized the supreme power in the state and the Congress, she became self-confident and began to display contempt towards Parliament. By 1974 contempt changed into fear again. In her second innings (1980-84) the Opposition challenge was virtually absent and her old contempt returned. One thing is clear, fear or contempt, she was never comfortable in Parliament.

Indira Gandhi’s approach to politics—national or international—was not intellectual. She did not subscribe to any dogma. Her understanding of politics was intuitive, not cerebral. She did not lay claims to learning. She was a pragmatist. To her the pursuit of national interest and personal interest—she equated, even identified, the two—were the supreme goals. Henry Kissinger acknowledged this when he said that Indira had “few peers in the cold-blooded calculations of the elements of power”. In this respect Indira had more in common with Sardar Patel than her father. No Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai nonsense for her. Even her attitude to the Soviet Union was unsentimental. I never believed that she was a stooge of the Soviet Union. She used India’s friendship with the USSR for her own purposes. She understood perfectly the compulsions of power politics.

It was during the Bangladesh crisis of 1971 that Indira Gandhi proved beyond doubt her skill as a practitioner of realpolitik, although she was not the head of a mighty industrial power. Although I was strongly opposed to many of her politics, especially her drive for dynastic succession, I found a point of contact with her approach to foreign policy.

The trouble with the cold-blooded practitioners of the art of realpolitik like Richard Nixon and Kissinger, however, is their indifference to the moral factor in history and politics. This is their undoing. In the case of Indira Gandhi also her amoralism was a minus point.

Indira Gandhi did not believe in any pro-gressive social programme as a matter of conviction. She became interested in it only if she felt it would help brighten her image and increase her popularity. By 1974 she had already put the economic policy in reverse gear, and in her second administration she sought to lead India—through the Asiad—into the “consumerist paradise”.

Contrary to the general belief, Indira did not create the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. Jawaharlal had sought to establish a PMS, but Vallabhbhai and others protested and Mountbatten persuaded him to drop the idea and function through the Cabinet Secretariat. It was Lal Bahadur Shastri, to whom the Prime Miniserial responsibility appeared very daunting, who created the PMS. It was a Godsend to Indira. She seized it and, with P.N. Haksar’s help, transformed the PMS into a fearful vehicle of power.

Indira Gandhi, politically, was not really committed to parliamentary democracy like her father and other Founding Fathers. But her attitude to the question of systemic change also was ambiguous. She allowed the debate on it to go on, but refused to take a clear cut stand. While she had deep reservations about parliamentary democracy, she was not much enamoured of an American type of Presidential form of government. What she would have liked to establish was a controlled parliamentary democracy such as she sought to create through a series of constitutional amendments she pushed in the seventies, especially the Fortysecond Amendment. Her ideal was some kind of an authoritarian regime of which we had a foretaste in 1975-77. There were excesses during the Emergency. Freedom was suppressed. Even the Feroze Gandhi Act on Publication of Parlia-mentary Proceedings was repealed Thousands of us were detained without charges and without trial.

The Janata Party Government was unable to bring the guilty men of the Emergency to book. The fiasco of Indira’s arrest exposed it to ridicule. The mighty governmental machine was not able to pin anything on Indira. It was my privilege motion on the harassment of four officials, who were collecting information on our Maruti questions, tht cornered Indira and she was held guilty by the Privileges Committee. But the government forgot that for every wrongdoing you cannot pronounce a death sentence. A warning or a reprimand should have served the purpose more effectively. But when I appealed for a lenient view, shortsighted Janata Party members shouted: “No, no.” She was expelled from the Lok Sabha and imprisoned for a week. Indira gained in popularity and the Janata Party Government stood diminished in the eyes of the public. The guilt of putting us in prison for nineteen months without trial was washed by her one week in Tihar Jail!

Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. Her second tenure was different from her first. Now dynastic succession loomed large. She neglected grave problems: Assam and Pubjab. She did nothing to reduce the load of past mistakes in Punjab. The cynical irresponsibility of her son, Sanjay, led him to encourge Bhindranwale to undermine the Akalis.

But political differences apart, Indira was a fascinating person in other ways. Not many men and women in our country understand the importance of proper dress. Indira Gandhi shone in the midst of this small minority. I always found her arrayed in tasteful and attractive apparel. My mind went back to the adiparva of Mahabharata. I remembered the adjective used by the composers of the epic to describe the Pandava Queen, Draupadi: susamveeta. The expression could with justice be applied to Indira Gandhi.

Indira had been our adversary, but on October 31, 1984, in the silence of the night, I reflected over the treachery of her personal bodyguards who were supposed to protect her and greived over her fate. I prayed to Mother Earth:

Oh! generous and bountiful Mother! Try gifted children have laboured hard to bring to birth these great civilisations, built wonderful archi-tectural monuments, produced marvels of sculpture, composed literature of unparalleled power and beauty and have, above all, given us a number of suffering servants. When shall thou, Great Mother, lift this curse of violence and hatred and establish civilised discourse amongst the human race? Oh! How long do we have to wait for this consummation?

(Mainstream, October 29, 1994)

The author, a noted Socialist leader, was the General Secretary of the Janata Party after it was formed following the Janata Government’s assumption to power in 1977 ending the 19-month Emergency proclaimed by Indira Gandhi in mid-1975.

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