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Mainstream, VOL LV No 51 New Delhi December 9, 2017

The Legacy of Indira Gandhi and Inherent Perils of Populism

Sunday 10 December 2017


by Sheel Bhadra Kumar

On November 19, 2017, we have celebrated and marked the birth centenary of late and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This is also an appropriate moment to reminisce about her political actions, her struggle against hostile political odds and her contributions to the making of India. But before recollecting those, let us discuss the current terminologies being hotly debated but reminiscent of the Indira Gandhi era. They are popular and populism. Etymologically a popular leader is accepted, liked, followed and enjoyed by the majority of people in a community, society or group. A popular leader claims to represent the ordinary people. A popular leader enjoys the support and allegiance of the general public. When policies and programmes are supported by a majority of the masses, he or she is called a popular leader.

But such a situation is laced with inherent dangers too. Populism is a distinctive mode of politics. Popular leaders are elected by the people but when populism intoxicates and ignites the ego of mass leaders, he or she starts betraying scant respect for the procedures and institutions of democracy, civil liberties and dissent. A popular leader turns himself or herself into a messiah, concentrates power in his or her hand and directly speaks to and for the people. The former regime or government is made accoun-table for every mistake of the system. Populism captures the popular imagination but populist politics may prove dangerous for the health of democracy in the long run.

Even today, democratically elected Presidents of America and the Philippines are being questioned in their own land and the world over. The President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, was forced to quit his post after prolonged public chaos and resentment. Even the military establishment had to intervene. Democratic accomplishments of 37 years were violated and the democratic process was throttled by an arrogant democrat, Mugabe.

Foundational Phase of Prime Ministership in India

The first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawahar- lal Nehru, on the strength of his towering personality, magnetism, leadership qualities and mass support, steered the Indian National Congress party to impressive victories in the first three parliamentary elections of 1952, 1957 and 1962 after independence. There was no opposition to Pandit Nehru’s leadership within the Congress party or outside.

In 1964, after the death of Pandit Nehru, the locus of power shifted to the ‘big men‘ of the Congress party. By adept manoeuvring through the thickets of politics, they usurped power. The group of big men comprised of powerful Congress veterans—K. Kamaraj, S. Nijalingappa, N. Sanjiva Reddy, Atulya Ghose and Biju Patnaik who intended to dump Indira Gandhi. In the Lal Bahadur Shastri Cabinet, Indira Gandhi was made Information and Broadcasting Minister. But these Syndicate veterans of the Congress party used to heckle and harass her in Parliament. Rammanohar Lohia, a senior parliamentarian, used to call Indira Gandhi ‘mom kee gudia [a dumb doll]’.

Initial Phase of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister

In 1966 when all of a sudden Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away in Tashkent, the Congress party was wracked by political rivalries. The Congress leadership decided to swear in Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister of India in anticipation that they would control power in a government headed by a weak and meek woman. They thought that Indira Gandhi would be unable to control power and critical situations and would vanish into the mists of time.

But this was not to be. Indira Gandhi proved everyone wrong. She proved to be iron-willed, determined and a great fighter in times to come. She single-handedly wrote and enacted the script of populism in India and slowly but firmly controlled the Congress party and ousted the Syndicate leaders from the corridors of power in future political bouts. When she visualised that the senior leadership of the Congress party was making it difficult for the party to function and forcing her to take decisions that were counter-productive, she decided to go for a fresh Lok Sabha election and seek a fresh mandate. She knew she would have to wage a total and decisive fight if she had to survive politically. And she did so.

Emergence of a Strong Leader

In the 1967 Lok Sabha elections, she campaigned for the party across the country single-handedly. She travelled thousands of kilometres in open jeeps and addressed hundreds of election meetings. Soon she grasped that older power equations in rural India had given way to palpable tensions between the landed and the landless groups. Displaying political acumen and a great sense of timing, Indira Gandhi positioned herself firmly behind the poor. She forged and nurtured a national constituency over the heads of other national and regional leaders.

 When the evocative slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ seemed working, she adopted pro-poor policies, nationalised 14 commercial banks in 1969 and abolished privy purses. She exposed the pro-rich stand of the existing leaders. She outwitted the leaders of the Congress party who were advanced in age and ready to take radical moves to counter Indira Gandhi’s populist measures. But their incompetency was exposed.

In 1969, there was a split in the Congress party. And after the split, the senior leaders were outwitted by the manoeuvrings of Indira Gandhi. Now Indira Gandhi emerged as the undisputed leader of the dominant wing of the party. Her consolidation of power was total. In the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress party came back to power with overwhelming majority. Indira Gandhi secured the sort of legitimacy that Jawaharlal Nehru used to enjoy. The electoral verdict gave her supreme authority to select and dismiss any leader from ministerial post. The Chief Ministers and Governors used to be her choice. Dissent was not tolerated by the High Command of the Congress party. Under her leadership, India defeated Pakistan decisively in the 1971 war. India secured food self-sufficiency and made great strides in the development of nuclear and space technology.

Pitfalls of Inflated Power

But her total control on authority made her authoritarian. Parliamentary procedures and proprieties were violated. Committed judiciary and committed bureaucracy were much talked about. The rules of Indian politics were changed. Thus the democratic institution declined sharply. With the rise of her personality and stature, the Congress party and its internal organisation and democracy nose-dived. The Congress party, which used to discuss, address, negotiate and resolve issues and demands of different groups, became captive to the whims of the leader. It was the time when the popular expectations from the ruling political party and government had escalated. When the authority of the leadership was challenged under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan, Indira Gandhi, in place of democratic settlement, resorted to the undemocratic and unpopular route. She imposed Emergency in the country from 1975 to 1977. Opposition leaders were jailed, demonstrations were banned, but the public mood did not favour the leader. The country was agitated and public fury was on its brim. The government tried to legitimise the Emergency by introducing a 20-point programme for social and economic reforms. But it was not to work. The Emergency was not accepted.

People’s protest intensified and ultimately in 1977, the Emergency was lifted and a fresh Lok Sabha election was declared. In the parlia-mentary election, the people’s verdict was against Indira Gandhi and her programmes. The imposition of Emergency pulverised the political life of the country. Mrs Gandhi was voted back in 1980 but she had lost her ability to judge the political moment. Her political acumen also misled her. The decision to storm the Golden Temple to flush out terrorists ultimately proved to be a big blunder and that agitated the Sikh community. She fell victim to the bullets of her own two trusted Sikh bodyguards. This incident infuriated the country and riots against The Sikhs started all over the land. The country had to experience another communal inferno.

Indira Gandhi, who bravely fought against the old elite of the Congress and established a direct and unmediated relationship with the electorate, became an ultimate leader loved and adored by her countrymen. Her politics epitomised populism. However in her effort to marginalise the opponents and her party colleagues, she became suspicious of everyone except her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi. The consequences were disastrous.

She incorporated new terms ‘Socialism’ and ‘Secularism’ in the Constitution in the sixth year of the extended tenure of Parliament during Emergency. She had conviction and was in total command of politics. She not only dominated her party but also tried to marginalise the Opposition parties to the maximum. Populist measures, unparliamentary practices and misuse of Article 356 of the Constitution were some of her measures which she undertook frequently in the latter phase of her political career.

Her hegemonistic style of functioning resulted in personalisation of political power and diminishing of institutional capacity. Political populism resulted in neglect of frequent procedures, institutions and propriety. Minis-terial colleagues turned into courtiers and stooges. But the country had to pay quite a price for her populism.The fascination for populist measures often attracts the attention of popular leaders.

Summing up

Indira Gandhi will be ever remembered for her bold decisions as well as for anti-democratic and anti-parliamentary measures. But then political developments do not always pass through placid water, they have to face multiple dilemmas and turbulence.

Dr Sheet Bhadra Kumar is the Associate Professor of Political Science, Government MVPG College, Mahasamund (Chhattisgarh).

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