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UNDERSTANDING INDIRA GANDHI

-By Sanjay Jha

I was all of ten years old when my father woke me up early on a chilly winter morning. The Indian Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi was going to be driving down Poona’s ( Pune now) Ganesh Khind Road in an open car to the state guest-house Raj Bhavan during her visit to the pensioner’s paradise city . We excitedly hurried to get ready faster than we would to catch our school-bus, to ensure that we did not miss that precious moment. Just a few weeks before we had sat nervously huddled in dark rooms as ominous sirens wailed and every sound of a distant engine in the night sky appeared as that of an enemy aircraft on a fateful mission. But that was all over now in less than two weeks. India had decisively won the war against traditional adversary Pakistan. East Pakistan was truly liberated and we had at last scored an indisputable military triumph. There was a surge of national pride and patriotic fervor in the air as never seen before across the entire country-side. And the person responsible for the great euphoria and jubilant celebrations was Indira Gandhi. It was 1971.

When her car finally breezed by and we actually first saw her it seemed like an unreal moment, almost incredulous to the senses. In the age of All India Radio we could instantly recognize that inimitable voice, but the image is something else. Her hands folded in a namaste she looked on both sides of the road even as she sporadically waved in all directions. We all waved back with frenetic enthusiasm and shouted her name with a loud zindabad. Afterwards everyone argued interminably that in that fraction of a magical second Mrs Gandhi had actually seen, smiled and waved at them alone. I still believe she saw me only, all of 4ft and some inches, despite my nondescript and scrawny frame.

Thirteen years later I was in XLRI at Jamshedpur doing my MBA, and typically bunking a morning class in Quantitative Techniques, when someone came running from the staff quarters. “Mrs Gandhi has been shot” he announced. Momentarily, I went speechless. “Is she badly hurt? She is alive, right? I asked. The thought of her dying or an India without Mrs Gandhi had not crossed my mind. It seemed beyond the pale of my contemplations. One thought that she would be as timeless as India. Indestructible, invulnerable. The afternoon seemed endless but with every passing hour the inevitable loomed larger, like an oppressive dark cloud. Yet when AIR announced her death officially later that evening, one felt a devastating sense of loss. It was an inexplicable mountainous emotion to experience for someone one did not know personally. My mother, a devout Congress supporter if any, called me and cried. The darkness that followed the sunset seemed to engulf the country in a disturbing uncertainty. I still can feel the impenetrable , disconsolate stillness in the air that dusk. It was clearly the end of a chapter.

I know a lot has been written about Mrs Gandhi over the past few days and some more will be done over the coming weeks. After all, it is a long 25 years since she was assassinated by her own body-guards. But as I reflect on those turbulent days of great upheaval I remember her with unfathomable warmth.

The Indian media (censored during 1975-77) naturally invariably analyses her entire legacy by judging her on the leitmotif of the Emergency;  “anti-democratic, unilateral, authoritarian and power-obsessed” et al. There are several who are critical of her economic policies of following the path of democratic socialism, public sector engagement, and controls on private entrepreneurship that created a “Hindu rate of growth”. And then of course that convenient permanent whipping lash of introducing dynastic politics. I think on all the above counts she deserves a better hearing.

Indira Gandhi was the only child of her parents,  growing up during the worst British excesses as India fought for freedom and insanity overtook the nation as partition dawned. Losing her mother while still in her teenage years only aggravated her loneliness. It was not just an isolated prisoner, her father Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote those famous letters to his daughter, but it was a solitary child who was receiving them, frail in health albeit resolute in character and gritty in spirit. . I believe the Nehru-Indira relationship is one of the most poignant, touching father-daughter equations that has not been sufficiently understood or adequately researched. It has a fascinating fairy-tale expression of love imbued in it, which imperceptibly assumes a political dimension given its historical context. That she lost both her almost- estranged husband Feroze Gandhi and her father later within a short span must have been extraordinarily difficult for her. Her huge emotional void was to later surface in her desperate love of an impetuous and often impulsive Sanjay Gandhi.

I think Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death and Morarji Desai’s abrupt exhibition of his Prime Ministerial aspirations perhaps changed the course of Indian political history, bringing forth for the first time the unrestrained intrinsic political intelligence of Indira Gandhi and her sharp sense of the public mood. The 1971 victory was epochal. The rest is history.

Mrs Gandhi’s ultimate tragedy I have always believed was the extraordinary Allahabad High Court judgment that indicted her on flimsy charges of certain electoral malpractices, which were both subsequently rightly overturned by the Supreme Court. Given the fact that these days there is brazen contravention of election expenditure, use of inflammatory speeches to appeal to vote-banks, abuse of modern technology even on voting day, and virtually unrestrained use of proxy means to conceal expenses and black money, Mrs Gandhi’s supposed violations would seem trifle, if not altogether frivolous. Let me elaborate. After that stupendous 1971 war victory Indira Gandhi would have easily trounced and roundly vanquished any national political leader in any parliamentary constituency of their choice by a whopping margin. The Congress won with a thumping majority, and Indira Gandhi was the single lodestar. It is this hard fact that makes that Rae Bareli election result being declared null and void post-Independence India’s most nasty joke. A real case of horrendous bad luck on innocuous technical grounds, raised by a defeated Raj Narain more enthused to just be Mrs Gandhi’s perpetual irritant, a bug bear . He ended up being her near-nemesis.

Usage of loud speakers, or high rostrums or the employments status of her election agent Yashpal Kapoor were factors over which she had absolutely no control. I don’t think she had any clue about the supposed misdemeanors that she was held guilty of. The Allahabad High Court verdict had allegedly a peculiar political angle that was highly speculated upon, but that has been since thankfully quietly buried. It’s impact was to however, prove colossal.

I thought that the extremely desperate manner in which opposition parties promptly latched on to that famed judgment demanding her immediate resignation was the triggering factor that finally led Mrs Gandhi to declaring internal emergency. It made Mrs Gandhi believe that Jaiprakash Narayan’s “Total Revolution” was no genuine movement for social transformation but an attempt to unseat her using propaganda, protests and a manipulated public mood. It had a vested political agenda.

I believe the Emergency was a Biblical over-reaction in a vulnerable moment post the Allahabad high court judgment. I also feel that she must be given full credit for calling it off in 1977 as soon as she did, a decision Mrs Gandhi reportedly took without consulting anyone. It was her mea culpa moment, so to say. Of course, the emergency was an aberration in Indian democracy, but believe me, there were several citizens, including intellectual media types who also secretly confessed that India looked an organized, disciplined and working country for a change. But maybe we can debate that another day. Her comeback three years later was not happenstance; it manifested the faith that people still had in Indira Gandhi. If 1977 was annus horribilis, 1980 was a resuscitation.

I think this dynastic hand-me-down discussion is all balderdash. Pandit Nehru inducted his only daughter into a political career (even she had not contested an election), so was that dynastic too ? In my opinion, democratic politics and dynastic successions are actually mutually incompatible because it is a distinct, external public mandate that determines continuity, not the writing of a will or the offer of the chair at the head-table. Today the BJP has more beneficiaries of political dynasty than any other party.  Ironically, two of them belong to the Gandhi family. I think this debate is now lame-duck, obsolete and sounds monotonous. The US media has not wasted even 1% media space on Bush and Clintons, and their continued dominance of the White House. Hillary Clinton is evaluated on her singular merit and achievements , not her husband’s eight years in office.  Actually, they dare not because it will excite a huge public ire as it sniggers at voter preferences.

Mrs Gandhi chose Sanjay, and after his unfortunate demise, Rajiv Gandhi because she trusted them more than the others. She was entitled to her personal predilections. I think Maneka Gandhi’s dramatic betrayal of her in public glare when she was still mourning Sanjay’s sudden death, somewhere overwhelmed her. For a private person, that was sheer sacrilege. In the maddening treacherous world of Indian politics, trust is gold. She had a right to that privilege.

Anyone who would have been Prime Minister of India during those difficult years when we were just two decades post-Independence, still a struggling Third world developing country in an age of brutal Cold War global politics with suspicious, inimical and adventurous neighbors like China and Pakistan, facing enormous economic and social challenges at home, would make some mistakes. Yes, Mrs Gandhi made some too. And perhaps one of them, her handling of the complex and what appeared for a while, an intractable Punjab crisis,  ended up taking her life.

The Indian media has been often blindsided by the Emergency and branded her as The Iron Lady but the truth is that Indira Gandhi encompassed a complex character in an inscrutable political personality. She was certainly not monochromatic.  It does little justice to her human vulnerabilities, fails to assess the paranoid mother in the Prime Minister, the lonely wife grappling with dual roles , the doting daughter surviving long lonely stretches of solitude, and yet at the same time a true national patriot and an indefatigable, resolute and passionate Prime Minister.  Finally, when just 19 days shy of her 67th birthday the rising fear of life itself had begun to weigh on her mind.  Her last speech in Orissa is in hindsight called prophetic, as if she could see the straws in the wind. But I guess even she would not have imagined such a tragic and brutal felling. By expressing her apprehensions publicly about her own life, she was perhaps sharing her inner grief and loneliness somewhere with a country and its people that she so dearly loved.

I don’t know if India was Indira, but Indira was certainly India.

The author is National Spokesperson of the Congress party. The views are his own.

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