The 19th was Indira Gandhi’s 97th birth anniversary and it brought to mind two questions: was she a great Prime Minister or simply a long-serving one? And why is it that opinion polls repeatedly suggest she’s considered the most successful?
Not being a historian I can’t answer those questions with insight. Instead, let me present a few pertinent facts that could help you answer for yourself. But I warn you, it’s not going to be easy.
Most people agree Indira Gandhi’s high point was the Bangladesh crisis of 1970-71, which culminated in the surrender of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. Contemporary accounts suggest she had the wisdom to give Field Marshal Manekshaw the time the army needed to prepare as well as the skill to conduct a tireless campaign to win international support for India’s stand. I doubt if many today would disagree.
Two questions remain: first, was she wrong to stop the war after the fall of East Pakistan? Many critics say she should have fought on in the west and finally sorted out Kashmir. I suspect if she had done so that would have invited international repercussions, including from our only supporter the Soviet Union. It would not have been a risk worth taking.
The second concerns her handling of the Simla summit, where she trusted Bhutto’s word only to be let down by him. No doubt it was an error of judgement but did she have an alternative? I think not.
If Bangladesh was her high point, the emergency was her nadir. I don’t believe Jayaprakash Narayan’s call to the army and police to disobey illegal orders really threatened a serious law and order situation. Indira Gandhi was simply fighting for her personal political survival.
In her second spell in office Indira Gandhi had to handle the Sikh unrest, which culminated in Operation Bluestar. Was that the only course of action left to her or should she have attempted to force the militants out by cutting off access to power, water and food? It was a question raised at the time. The answer then is the same as the answer today: a prolonged siege could have created worse unrest in Punjab than a swift, even if failed, storming.
However, what’s undeniable is the Congress nurtured Bhindranwale as a tool to curb the Akalis and he turned into a Frankenstein monster. The blame for that rests entirely with Indira Gandhi. She can’t escape it.
Of her politics you can say that her tight control of the Congress decimated internal democracy and reduced India’s oldest party to an appendage of the Gandhi family. More than Nehru, she started the tradition of dynasty. Thirty years after her death the Congress has to still struggle with both legacies.
Indira Gandhi’s handling of the economy was perhaps one of her weakest points. She left behind the licence permit raj and a very tightly regulated economy. Successive governments, including Mr Modi’s, are still trying to reduce the controls she thoughtlessly created.
Two facts, however, stand out above the contradictory impressions I may so far have created. The goongi gudiya of 1966 became the Empress of India in 1971, lost power in 1977 only to bounce back in 1980 and get assassinated in 1984. No other prime minister’s career has such dramatic highs and lows.
The second is that whilst she was superb at winning elections she had little vision of what to do with the power she won.
Let me end by sticking my neck out. Hers was undoubtedly a horrible death but would Indira Gandhi have wanted to die of old age or illness? I suspect she would have preferred assassination to defeat or being forgotten in retirement.
The views expressed by the author are personal