Hundred years of Indira Gandhi
V R Raman
She was imperious, she was shy; she was called a goongi gudiya but she became Ma Durga; she was the frail teenager who became India’s first political bahubali; she was the dictator who was the daughter of India’s most idealistic constitutional democrat. If Indira Gandhi had been alive today she would have been 100 years old, a child born in the same year as the Russian revolution whose life was one of storm and trouble. Assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards, her end was as dramatic as her birth. Born in the fires of a nation about to become independent, she went out in the fiery blaze of a nation at war with itself.
Indira Gandhi was a formidable, complicated woman, an ambitious alpha-female, steely, tender, cripplingly insecure. One of her biographers said about her: “Indira Gandhi did not like her husband Feroze Gandhi, but she loved him.” Indira Gandhi: she who loved what she didn’t like.
She loved Indian politics, but she didn’t like Indian politics and manipulated and harmed as many politicians as she could. She loved Indian constitutional democracy but she didn’t like the restrictions democracy imposed on her power. She loved institutions like the free press but didn’t like the press’s freedom. She loved the men in her life—her father Jawaharlal Nehru, her husband Feroze Gandhi, her son Sanjay Gandhi—but she didn’t like them and rebelled against them when they tried to dominate her. She didn’t like hereditary princes, but she loved dynasty and created a dynasty and a rajkumar cult in politics.
She played politics like a natural athlete, politics was her natural terrain, she could have sleepwalked her way through it. Born into the glittering aristocratic household of her grandfather Motilal Nehru, in the grand mansion of Anand Bhawan in Allahabad, she realized quickly the virtues of defiance and self reliance in standing up to accomplished and scornful relatives. Her stylish aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit once called her “ugly and stupid.” It was a remark she never forgot and in 1970 when she gave away her ancestral home Anand Bhawan to the government, she denied her aunt the opportunity to stay at the family home one last time. Indira Gandhi never forgot and she never forgave, her fierce temper simmered underground and she bided her time for revenge.
Vengeance and rage drove her politics. She was India’s most powerful prime minister because when it came to using and manipulating power she left even her father, her Papu, flat on the mat. For 18 years she ruled supreme, supreme in government and party, the first “supremo” of Indian politics. Today any leader who wants to be supreme in government and party, reduce party colleagues to pygmies, any leader who collides with institutions and aims to control the media and information or install constitutional functionaries as rubber stamps, is playing by the Indira Gandhi playbook. Narendra Modi or Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar or J Jayalalithaa, MGR or NTR, Naveen Patnaik or Lalu Yadav: they are all following the Indira Gandhi example. She was the first personality cult of post-Independence Indian politics, India’s original High Command leader.
Unlike her grandson Rahul Gandhi she did not have the leadership of the Congress party handed to her on a plate. Nehru had never taken her seriously as a politician and all speculation of him having groomed her is nonsense. Nehru’s chosen successor was Lal Bahadur Shastri which is why 11 January 1966 is the most important date in post-Independence Indian politics. It was the date Shastri died. Had Shastri not died, there would probably have been no Indira prime ministership and no Nehru Gandhi dynasty.
Party bosses of the Congress—the `Syndicate’ appointed her as Prime Minister in 1966, thinking that like the Queen of England she would be a timid figurehead and they would rule from behind. The socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia mocked her as a “goongi gudiya” in Parliament. Within two years the goongi gudiya became the nemesis of her rivals: she had destroyed the veterans, split and taken over the party (fatally damaging Nehru’s Congress in the process), and streaking to the zenith of power with her garibi hatao campaign in the 1971 elections. After the big victory of the Bangladesh war she climbed even higher in public perception. A new deity was born: Abhinav Chandi Durga, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee called her.
Isolated in the world, called “witch” and “bitch” by President Nixon, the lone woman leader looked the mighty United States and the entire world in the eye. India was no banana republic. India would pursue her national self-interest with tenacity and courage. In December 1971, with Generals Manekshaw and Aurora leading her armies, Indira Gandhi invaded East Pakistan. The war was over in 14 days. Never in the history of the world has a country been created in 14 days.
Showing exemplary valour on and off the battlefield the Indian army retreated in record time, a statesmanlike ceasefire quickly declared on the western border. “The people of Bangladesh have our good wishes,” Indira Gandhi announced in Parliament. The House rose in standing ovation. The Indian nation once humbled by the Chinese, bounded to its feet, its nationalism and moral purpose flying high. In place of Indira Gandhi, stood a newly minted goddess: Shakti incarnate.
However, within three short years she went from zenith to nadir when she declared the Emergency in 1975, a time when she became a victim of the `Dhritrashtra syndrome,’ or the syndrome of the blind parent, blinded by love to the child’s folly. Sanjay Gandhi ruled supreme during the Emergency and she was not able to decide whether she was the prime minister of India or Sanjay Gandhi’s mother. The Emergency revealed Indira as both as a failed democrat and also as a failed parent.
Yet she was only a half -hearted dictator. She imposed dictatorship but revoked it and by herself submitting to the power of the vote, she paradoxically reaffirmed faith in democracy. She took away democratic rights but in submitting to electoral defeat and resigning her post, she reaffirmed the power of the vote. After defeat she achieved what no other politician has so far pulled off: within two short years of a crushing failure at the polls she returned to power with a thumping majority. Yet by her second term she had lost her fiery spirit and acute insights and wrote her own death warrant when she sent the army into the Golden Temple.
But then as Jim Morrison sang, death makes angels of us all and gives us wings where we had claws. Her epic death made her an urban legend. Today thousands stream into the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum in New Delhi, in far greater numbers than they do even to Gandhi or Nehru’s memorial. She’s passed into folklore, even into myth, she was the virangana who defended India with the last drop of her blood.
Controversial, tempestuous, stylish and emotionally rich, with an abiding interest in India’s arts, civilizational heritage, environment and wildlife, (she was the only Indian PM to be member of a bird watching society), Indira Gandhi is hardwired into the Indian DNA. Marked by extraordinary courage, she was a woman who called the only man in her government, the queen of the poor; she was the memsahib who died like a grimy soldier in battle, in politics she was India’s James Bond in a khadi sari.