While passing through the sleepy neighbourhood of George Town in Allahabad, I heard that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was expected to arrive there shortly, unannounced. I knew one of her close relatives stayed in George Town. So, I waited there in my quest for news. In a short while the PM’s cavalcade arrived. She alighted from her car in the portico and went inside. She was accompanied by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Sripati Mishra and two other senior party leaders. While waiting for Mrs Gandhi, I realised another journalist friend had joined me outside the bungalow. Like me, he was passing through the neighbourhood. In those days, cities like Allahabad had very few journalists. That the media would assume such an enormous, multi-faceted avatar was something beyond our imagination.
After a few moments of anxiety, we saw Mr Mishra emerge in the verandah. I beckoned him towards us in a loud voice. Here, I should inform today’s generation that in those days the security apparatus of politicians wasn’t elaborate. Although Mr Mishra did not recognise me, he moved a few steps forward. When he was informed that both of us were journalists who wanted to meet the PM, he mumbled something and went inside the bungalow. A few minutes later, Mrs Gandhi emerged. The attendant had opened the door of her car, but she suddenly turned around and said something. One of the security personnel ran towards us and said the PM was calling us inside. We were taken inside the bungalow. I asked her some questions. She replied to a few of them and peered at me to ask: “Are you really a journalist? You look more like a collegiate.” And then without waiting for my answer, she said if you are journalist, you should get well educated. I hope you know that Allahabad has seen journalists such as Pandit-ji (Jawaharlal Nehru) and Rao Saheb (Balakrishna Rao). Before I could answer, she had already got into her car.
It had been five to six years since the Emergency had been lifted. Operation Blue Star was about to taint her reputation in a few months. Allahabad by nature is a rebellious city. A few people there called her a dictator but she was available to the common man and journalists much more than today’s ordinary leaders. Her queries that day didn’t sound like an admonition to me but lessons from a family elder. Present-day politicians who keep transgressing their limits can learn a few lessons from her. When the woman who began her prime-ministerial career with the nickname goongi gudiya (dumb doll) fell to bullets fired by her own bodyguards in her official residence in 1984, the nation cried for her. As a journalist, I’ve witnessed the shameful riots that followed her assassination. But if you leave aside the rioters, many homes did not light a fire to cook dinner that fateful night. Presidents, vice-presidents and PMs from 127 countries turned up at her funeral ceremony. Nobody had seen Yasser Arafat, the iron man of the Third World, crying like a baby before that.
She was without dispute one of the most influential women of her era.
It was her will-power that broke Pakistan into two despite the world’s opposition. She abolished privy purses at a time people blindly worshipped royalty and by nationalising banks and other public institutions, she announced that she was not one to bow before any corporate house or foreign power. She wasn’t fazed even when American President Richard Nixon called her an ‘old witch.’ Instead, Indira Gandhi boosted India’s ties with top Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to carve out a new platform in international diplomacy for the country.
The list of developmental measures she took on the domestic front is long. Still there are attempts to paint her as authoritarian and a promoter of dynastic rule and the culture of sycophancy. Just compare Indira Gandhi with the politicians of today and you’ll immediately get the answers to your apprehensions.
Her opponents want to remember her only for the Emergency and Operation Blue Star but how can they forget that she won the Lok Sabha election and a number of assembly polls? Not just this, the Congress formed a government in Punjab twice after her tragic assassination. It was the magic of her charismatic personality that made people pull a curtain over her historic blunders by voting her party in.
In a democracy it is the people’s verdict that matters the most.
Were Indira Gandhi alive today, she would have stepped into her centenary year on November 19. The body may wither but famous people actually die when they are no longer part of people’s memories and discussions. In a country where close to 60% of people have been born after her death, why does Indira Gandhi return to be a part of people’s discussions 32 years after her assassination? The answer to this question holds clarifications for all those who level allegations against her.
One hopes the centenary year does greater justice to Indira Gandhi.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan