By Tirthankar Mitra
Decades after her life was snuffed out by bullets fired from her bodyguards’ guns, Indira Gandhi’s stature remains undiminished. Much water has flown under the bridge since that fateful October day and a dispensation diametrically opposed to her ideology has the reins of governance in this country where once her family members had held the same.
Things have come to a pass when her father and sovereign India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian National Congress, the political outfit he led are blamed for almost all the present ills of the country. But even the critics sans a trace of unbiasedness do not dare to raise an accusing finger at Indira Gandhi.
Barbs are aimed at her son Sanjay Gandhi for the excesses of the Emergency. His elder sibling late prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi receive flak among other issues on the Bofors gun deal.
Yet how come Indira Gandhi, the individual at whose diktat Emergency had the entire nation in its stranglehold, is given a go-by. If Rajiv was stripped of the epithet of Mr Clean for accusation of kickbacks on a deal to purchase state of the art weapons, one wonders why his mother whose regime was no stranger to corruption is spared.
Remember the Nagarwala scam? Money changed hands in an illicit manner and a man was murdered leaving a trail of blood which went right upto the top.
But the existing ruling dispensation of BJP pulls its punches at Indira Gandhi, though it never lets go an opportunity of mudslinging at Nehru and other Congress leaders occupying the prime ministerial office, are now strangely silent about the country’s shortcomings during the tenure of the country’s only woman prime minister. The saffron camp has its reason behind the reticence.
After all, its top leaders of those days including Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani had spent the time span of the Emergency behind the bars. Why then does BJP, an arch critic of the Emergency, fire its broadsides wide off Indira Gandhi?
It is for the deceptively simple explanation that Indira Gandhi laid down the pillars of wisdom that must constitute the face of the ruling party. Whether it had the nod of federalism was another matter.
In fact, Indira Gandhi is remembered by many even these days as if she is one of the makers of modern India. She indeed had the impression of her policies which marked the emergence of a nation which fought off hunger.
The momentous Green Revolution was the outcome of one of her policies. If its architect was M S Swaminathan, she can claim the credit for firing the starter’s gun to the project.
In the time of a dispensation welcoming privatisation, admonishing fingers may be raised at her for abolition of privy purses of the former rulers of native states, nationalisation of banks, coal mines and some of the biggest business houses. They were indeed socio-economic reforms and won her runaway popularity among the common people.
It was a Cold War-torn world in which the hopes of the Indian masses for the amelioration of their economic backwardness rode high on these decisions. Even if they did not quite deliver the moon, the populace did not think of them as ploys to cut a burgeoning Opposition to size.
Fact remains that more Indians are poor than rich. The economically backward section of the populace saw her as the individual centred round whom major battles to deprive the rich and privileged then raged.
In a functioning democracy, no political party worth its salt can afford to rub the majority of the voters the wrong way. Here it is the economically backward cutting across caste and creed.
Thus Indira Gandhi’s policies were a balm to the less privileged. It offered them a psychological high. Addressing election rallies, Indira said: “They say remove Indira, I say eradicate poverty.” Poverty could not be eradicated, but people queued up in front of polling booths scripting a resounding victory for Congress on which the impression of its supreme leader, Indira Gandhi was unmistakable.
She was called Indira Amma (Mother India) by many. The last thing ruling BJP-led NDA government seeks to do is to train its guns on Indira Gandhi.
India’s victory in Indo-Pak of 1971 in which 90,000 Pakistani soldiers were taken prisoners of war was arguably the brightest feather in Indira’s cap. As the Indian Prime Minister the birth of Bangladesh was indeed her finest hour.
Admiration of the some of the Opposition stalwarts for Indira Gandhi can be traced to India’s overwhelming victory over Pakistan in the 1971 War. It was none other than Atal Behari Vajpayee, then in Bharatiya Jan Sangh and arguably the most eloquent parliamentarian who dubbed the prime minister “Devi Durga”, knowing little that he would be put behind the bars in a few years time when she declared Emergency.
One may split hair now over Indira Gandhi’s decision of annexation of Sikkim. Apprehension of Chinese reprisal was dismissed and that of international approbation which her father was so chary of was brushed aside.
The present dispensation has every desire to follow her example. But though circumstances stand in its way it does not reduce its admiration for a prime minister stated to be the “only man in her Cabinet.”
Therein lies the reason of the saffron camp never firing any broadsides let alone barbs at Indira Gandhi. Long before its leaders and foot soldiers had come to endeavour to make the nation proud, Indira Gandhi had done it. Of course her dispensation and her persona had its share of warts. She had a bagful of them.
The ongoing raid Raj is a legacy of her regime. On the face of it, the raids might be aimed at bringing to book perpetrators of economic offences, but the Opposition charge that they are actually mounted to bring in line political opponents and their supporters have a ring of commonality with allegations raised against the country’s only woman prime minister.
Keeping in awe leaders of the ruling dispensation including Cabinet colleagues is another trait this regime shares with her dispensation. Everybody is expected to sing the praise of the Big Brother as was the practice when she ran the government.
The Allahabad High Court judgement disqualified her from holding the prime minister’s office. Tweaking of the Constitution and the imposition of Emergency ushered in Indian democracy’s darkest hour which blotted the political record of Indira Gandhi
The founder of dynastic politics, Indira Gandhi tried to promote her younger son Sanjay which cost her close colleagues and valuable support base. After Sanjay’s tragic death, she thrust his elder sibling Rajiv into the political arena.
Replying to a US president as how to address her, Indira Gandhi in a moment of rare candour replied that some of her Cabinet colleagues address her as “Sir”. Does not one see the bending over backward act often now?
Such is the lasting influence of her persona that often West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee seems to follow Indira Gandhi’s footsteps. Similarities between Banerjee’s acts and the slain leader is often unmistakable as her followers too cannot speak of any government project’s achievement without mentioning her “inspiration”.
The similarities of action do not end there. Like Indira Gandhi who had spilt Congress, Banerjee too had left state Congress and turned it into a wreck of a party.
Indira Gandhi’s period of office in the ’70s was often marred by intra-party squabbles in the states. The malaise is perceptible in other parties in power and Opposition though the Left has remains an honourable exception.
Indira Gandhi’s least noticed legacy to the men and women in power was her liking for a simple life. For all her elegance, and strong preference for intellectuals’ company, she seemed to be the happiest with her family members, especially her grandchildren.
For all the power and pomp at their command, Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee lead simple lives. One wonders whether Modi in his yoga determined regime and fasts, Kejriwal in his bush shirt and Banerjee in her flip flops unknowingly follow the footsteps of a leader they never speak ill of who was an amalgam of style, substance and simplicity. (IPA Service)