During a candid press interaction in London, Mrs Indira Gandhi responded to a question by retorting “What do you mean by ‘come back’? I have never gone anywhere. So far as the political scene has been there I [have] always been there… and, if I may say so, it is not I who fight, it is people who fight for me…”
Since Indira Gandhi’s assassination on 31st October 1984, Indian politics has been re-shaped many times, but Mrs Gandhi’s position in India’s political history remains what it was when she was still in power: above all, enigmatic.
Born into the politically engaged Nehru family in 1917, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, a well-educated lawyer and active member of the Indian independence movement, she returned to India in 1936 after the death of her mother, Kamala, in Switzerland from tuberculosis. It was as a member of the Indian National Congress that she met Feroze Gandhi, a journalist and member of the Youth Congress, both demonstrating something of the determination that would carry over in to their political lives by marrying him in 1942 over the objections of his father.
When Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi decided to move to Delhi to assist her father, taking her two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, with her. Feroze, however, remained in Allahabad where he was working as an editor of ‘The National Herald’, a newspaper founded by Motilal Nehru. In the 1951-52 Parliamentary Elections, Indira Gandhi managed her husband’s campaign in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh, but after being successfully elected, Feroze decided to live in a separate house when he moved to Delhi.
In the capital, he became prominent in opposing corruption in the Nehru government, including revealing a scandal involving major insurance companies and the Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari, the latter considered a close aide of the Prime Minister. Feroze continued to challenge the Central government until his sudden death in 1960 from cardiac arrest.
Shortly before Feroze’s death, Indira Gandhi had been elected President of the Indian National Congress Party, and she remained one of her father’s political advisors until his death in 1964, after which she decided to contest elections on her own behalf. Once elected, she was given charge of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s government, an appropriate appointment for someone who was already aware of the power of the media and the importance of image.
In 1965, for example, in the midst of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, she travelled on holiday to Srinagar. Despite repeated warnings that Pakistani insurgents were close to the hotel in which she was staying, she refused to move, an action – or rather inaction – that brought her widespread media attention.
Gandhi’s political rivals might have taken warning from her determination; instead, following the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966, and after much deliberation, she was chosen as Congress’ Prime Ministerial candidate largely on the grounds that she would be easily manipulated. She was to prove them wrong: leading Congress to victory in the 1966 interim elections she elbowed her Congress opponents out of power, instigated proposals to abolish the Privy Purse paid to former rulers of the Princely states and in 1969 nationalized 2 India’s fourteen largest banks in India and four major oil companies. She also acted to address India’s chronic food shortages.
If Indira Gandhi had a clear vision of the need for India to be able to feed itself, she also saw that it needed to defend itself. In 1967, the Nathu La and Cho La incidents saw India gain crushing victories over PLA insurgents; 1975 saw Sikkim incorporated into India as the 22nd state of the Indian Union, following a quarter century of gradually increasing demands for an end to the country’s monarchy and union with India (since 1950, Sikkim had been an Indian protectorate).
Her dual focus on internal growth and external strength continued. In 1971, she campaigned and won on the slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ (‘Eliminate poverty’) then, shortly after, signed an agreement with the USSR to protect India in case of an attack by another super-power. The 1971 Indo-Pakistan war was a direct after-effect of the Bangladesh Liberation War in East Pakistan, in which the Pakistan military specifically targeted the Hindu minority population, forcing some 10 million to seek refuge in India. In response, Mrs Gandhi provided support to the Awami League’s struggle for independence with logistical support and then sending troops to fight against West Pakistan.
By December 1971, the Eastern Command of the Pakistani Armed Forces had signed the Instrument of Surrender and the new nation of Bangladesh had been born. Mrs Gandhi’s support for Bangladesh, and its creation in 1971, had multiple impacts: in Bangladesh, it created a friend for India whose value India perhaps continues to underestimate; for Pakistan, it meant a loss of status as the world’s most populous Muslim country, a loss of access to the Indian Ocean and close proximity to trade with South East Asia; and from a military perspective, losing the opportunity to open two fronts against India in the event of further conflict. The dual focus continued: in January 1971 Himachal Pradesh gained statehood and Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura all followed within twelve months; in July 1971, taking advantage of President’s rule, she sanctioned Operation Steeplechase, targeting the Naxalite movement.
Declaring a State of Emergency is perhaps the single action for which Indira Gandhi is most remembered outside India, and most vilified within it. By allowing arbitrary imprisonment of political opponents, censoring the press and abrogating civil rights, it has also led to claims of dictatorial behaviour, aided by her son Sanjay Gandhi’s leadership in the destruction of slum dwellings and launching a forced sterilization programme.
Selling Indian-made railway 3 locomotives to leaders in oil-rich states such as Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein only added to the ‘dictatorial’ comparison. But Mrs Gandhi’s political antennae failed her in calling for elections in 1977, confident that the opposition would be unable to respond. Instead, Congress’ representation in the Lok Sabha more than halved, and the makeshift Janata Dal coalition came to power.
Earlier this year, Theresa May’s call for an unnecessary election in the UK demonstrated that, sometimes, lessons from history are not learned. That the Janata Party’s reign was so brief reflected its inexperience, incompetence and constant in-fighting. In seeking Indira Gandhi’s arrest, the new Government returned to her the public sympathy and status she had lost when in power; in 1980, she was returned at the head of a Congress Party by a landslide.
In the year before she died, Operation Meghdoot secured the Siachen glacier for India, even if at a continuing heavy military price, aided by Pakistan’s incompetence in ordering mountain equipment from the same London business as used by India.
In late 1984, however, Operation Blue Star, seeking to reclaim the Golden Temple in Amritsar from Sikh nationalists, demonstrated how military actions can lead to civilian casualties and long-term political consequences (the analogy with military actions in the Middle East over the past decade holds true). Her assassination was a direct result.
But placing oneself at the forefront – as Indira Gandhi did for so much of her time in power and consolidating that power into fewer and fewer hands over time, has consequences, both personal and political. Those consequences are evident in India’s politics today.
Nishant R has a background in customer service, relationship management and image building, with a particular focus in almost twenty years of workplace experience on managing and resolving staff and customer concerns in a way that generates positive feedback and improves corporate performance and client satisfaction over time.
Nishant’s work in the private sector, with non-governmental organisations, diplomatic and UN bodies, and with media, in India and the UAE, has given him an in-depth understanding of how different kinds of organisations and companies can meet the needs of their customers, members and other stakeholders.
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