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INDIRA GANDHI (1917–1984)

Indira Gandhi was Prime Minster of India for nearly two decades. In spite of controversies, it is impossible to question her contribution to making India a force to reckon with in the diplomatic community of the world, and her absolute commitment to the nation.

Daughter of the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, she was born on 19 November 1917 at Allahabad in the family house of her grandfather, Motilal Nehru. In 1930 at the age of 13 she founded the Bal Charkha Sangh and the Vanar Sena, comprising children who helped the Congress Party during the Non Co-operation Movement. In 1936 her mother Kamala died when Indira was only 19. Her girlhood was spent in boarding schools in Switzerland and India. The most compelling influence in her life at this time was her father who wrote her long letters, subsequently published as Letters of a Father to His Daughter. She attended Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan in West Bengal and Somerville College, Oxford.

In 1942 at the height of the Quit India Movement she met and married Feroze Gandhi, né Mehta, a Parsi journalist who had been given his surname by Mahatma Gandhi himself. She had two sons, Rajiv in 1943 and Sanjay in 1946. There were rumours of trouble with her marriage, and she started spending time with her father, organising his social calendar and hosting functions. Nehru, then Prime Minister of India, had the opportunity to groom Indira to be a political leader. In 1955 she entered the political arena as an ordinary member of the Congress Working Committee, becoming the president of the All India Youth Congress the following year. In 1959 she became president of the Indian National Congress. Feroze Gandhi died on 8 September 1960.

Indira was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1964 and became the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting in 1966. During these years she developed from a shy, introverted, sometimes insecure woman to a confident mature leader, honing her skills in comparative obscurity. In 1966, two weeks after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri on January 10 at Tashkent, she was sworn in as the Prime Minister of India. Many believed that she would be just a figurehead, but in three years they were proved wrong. Finding that the senior members of the party were trying to control her, she engineered a split in the party in 1967, retaining in her own group those who would back her. In 1969 she nationalised the country’s banks. She promoted India’s space programme, and maintained her father’s stand of non-alignment with the power blocs of the Cold War. Despite much international pressure she never abandoned India’s nuclear programme. Her motto as the leader of the country was ‘never negotiate from fear and never fear to negotiate’ and in this spirit she opened a dialogue with Pakistan after the Indo-Pak war of 1971, which culminated in the Simla Agreement and the recognition of Bangladesh. At the same time she negotiated the Indo-Soviet Friendship treaty. This period marked the height of her popularity, the people were solidly behind her and India’s eminent painter M.F. Hussain even painted her as the goddess Durga riding a lion.

Indira advocated and promoted equal rights for women and their social and economic emancipation. She instituted many programmes for the benefit of the underprivileged and the handicapped. She laid great emphasis on the cultural revival of India, promoted crafts and encouraged schemes for the removal of poverty, though many thought her work in this area lacked long-range vision. She was an accomplished orator and her presence in any forum was larger than life. However, many accused her of allowing a personality cult to grow around her in the Congress and in the nation. She was referred to as ‘the only man in parliament’. Her supporters declared ‘Indira is India’, though Jayaprakash Narayan famously pointed out to her, ‘You are not immortal; India is’. The culmination of this was her declaration on flimsy grounds of a state of Emergency in 1977, on the advice of her younger son Sanjay. It was an open secret that the stimulus for this gesture had been the Allahabad High Court’s striking down of the election results that had brought her to power. Rather than submit to democratic process again, she decided to give the country a taste of authoritarianism. There are still people in India who reminisce fondly about how the trains ran on time during the Emergency, but most commentators were critical of the damage done to India’s civil liberties, population control programme, and democratic credibility. Anyone who spoke against her at this time was jailed without trial. Confident that she had convinced the nation of her fitness to rule, she went to the polls and was ignominiously defeated the following year. The government of Morarji Desai tried rather clumsily to prosecute her for the excesses of the Emergency. The Congress split again, with Indira this time naming her faction the Congress(I), ‘I’ for ‘Indira’.

Having vindicated democracy, the people of India acknowledged that there was none to replace her when they returned her to power in 1980. She got over the grief of Sanjay’s death in a plane crash and the bitterness that developed between her and her daughter-in-law Maneka, and embarked upon the last phase of her career, when secessionist forces on India’s western border threatened to fragment the country as never before.

Much ink has been spilled over the Khalistan episode in India’s history and the rights and wrongs of the police action that Indira ordered in the Golden Temple precincts in 1984. But it cannot be denied that Indira herself had no doubt about its necessity: she intended it not against the Sikh community but against terrorists. Hence she retained her faithful Sikh bodyguards, and was tragically done to death by one of them on 31 October 1984. As the Eighth Lok Sabha unanimously resolved on her death: ‘This House mourns the loss of one of the greatest Indians of the twentieth century. Future generations, rising above the turmoil of our times, will look with love and gratitude on the magnitude and splendour of Indira Gandhi’s achievements.’

Her legacy has continued, both in the Congress party’s tremendous reliance on the Nehru family for figureheads, and in her unfortunate example of being a target for political assassination. Her eldest son Rajiv, reluctantly following in her footsteps, also fell victim to terrorist forces seeking revenge. The Congress has made mighty efforts to involve his widow, Sonia Gandhi, in the politics of the nation, thus proving the durability of Indira’s influence long after her death. Her grandson Rahul Gandhi is now active in politics.

Rita Dalmiya
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