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Mrs G force

She gave us Emergency and dynasty politics. But Indira Gandhi also made India ready for the 21st century, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2009 01:29 IST
Vir Sanghvi

On this day, 25 years ago, Indira Gandhi was struck down by assassins’ bullets. A quarter century later, you would think that with the benefit of hindsight, India might have arrived at a consensus over Mrs Gandhi’s legacy or that we were able to judge her time in office with some detachment.

In fact, we seem as divided and as confused about Indira Gandhi today as we were when she was alive. Over the last month, I asked people I met casually, those I interact with on Twitter and visitors to my website what they thought of Indira Gandhi.

There was no unanimity at all. Many praised her for her strength and leadership. But the critics attacked her on two principal grounds: dynasty and her left-wing economic policies which they argued had severely damaged India.

Funnily enough, hardly anybody mentioned the one reason why many people of my generation (including me) opposed her in life: the Emergency.

The amnesia about the Emergency extends to the BJP which hardly ever mentions the issue (though the RSS was banned and Jan Sangh leaders were locked up), and seemed content when party workers raised slogans hailing Varun Gandhi as the new Sanjay Gandhi during the election campaign.

Asked by an interviewer how the BJP could allow the glorification of the man responsible (along with his mother) for the lowest phase in Indian democracy, L.K. Advani twinkled, “That is a small matter.”

So while the Congress seems embarrassed by the Emergency (“even Mrs Gandhi apologised for the excesses and remember, she was the one who called the 1977 election”), the BJP seems to have forgotten about it and is content to hail the legacy of Sanjay Gandhi (a man whose notorious record has led the Congress to photoshop him out of its history)!

Who said there was no irony in Indian politics?

If you put aside the Emergency (which, unquestionably, was A Bad Thing), Mrs Gandhi’s record is complex. There are the spectacular political achievements: the 1971 landslide, the triumphant come-back in 1980, the creation of two separate parties (the Congress-R in 1969 and the Congress-I in 1978) based on little more than her own charisma and many years in office (around 15 years in two separate spells).

But equally, there is a dark side. Her own insecurity led her to take steps that had damaging consequences for India. By the end of her first term in office, she had become so mistrustful of her political colleagues that she abandoned Cabinet government for a centralised style of functioning. At first, power was concentrated in her office. And then, more sinisterly, in her Private Secretary. (By 1981, R.K. Dhawan’s power was second only to Mrs Gandhi’s.)

To be fair, the damage to those institutions was temporary. The Cabinet’s primacy has now been restored and nobody even knows or cares who the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary is these days.

However, one consequence of her insecurity still haunts us today. It was Indira Gandhi who legitimised dynasty. While there had always been a family aspect to Indian politics, no Prime Minister had ever been brazen enough to pick up a delinquent, motor-mechanic son with no previous experience of government and to declare that he would now be her effective second-in-command.

That decision opened the floodgates. Now, nearly every party (except the Left) treats genetics as a means of determining political advancement. And India is living with the consequences.

Whatever your views on Mrs Gandhi’s style of functioning — as you can tell, I was not a fan — there’s no denying that as a Prime Minister, she was largely successful.

Her primary achievement lay in holding India together in the 1966-1984 period when the neighbourhood was collapsing. Pakistan broke up. Afghanistan was taken over by the Soviets, Sri Lanka was rocked by civil war and Burma shut itself off from the world.

It is possible now to underestimate this achievement but till the 1980s, Western political scientists would routinely predict the break-up of India, its Balkanisation or a military take-over. It is to Mrs Gandhi’s credit that none of these predictions came true and that elections during her time were vigorous, issue-based exercises that yielded national mandates.

Her handling of the economy is harder to judge. You’d have to be crazy to argue that India could have opted for an entirely free market (as Pakistan did) in the Sixties and the Seventies — we needed government investment to build up infrastructure and to ensure equitable development — but equally, there’s no doubt that many of Mrs Gandhi’s left-wing populist measures did not work: nationalisation of the grain trade, punitive taxation etc.

By 1980, Indira Gandhi had abandoned socialism and begun to liberalise but in retrospect it is clear that India moved too slowly to end the licence raj. However, it is not clear that this was Mrs Gandhi’s fault alone. She followed the prevailing consensus among economists and political parties and was dead by the time this consensus changed. (Even Manmohan Singh was hardly a radical reformer during his time as an economic civil servant — the consensus changed later).

Her area of greatest success was foreign policy.

Can you imagine the mess India would be in today if East Pakistan still existed and if terrorists flooded across both our borders? By bisecting Pakistan, she ensured that it would never be more than a nuisance.

A united Pakistan, on the other hand, would have been a serious threat. Moreover, since 1971 when Pakistan lost the war, we had no trouble with Islamabad till Mrs Gandhi’s death. Kashmir, today’s flashpoint, was entirely peaceful.

It’s easy now to say that she put too much faith in the Soviet Union. But, in reality, India had no choice. In the Sixties, Pakistan was a client state of the US. In 1971, it facilitated the rapprochement between America and China and by 1980, it had become the base for the American operation against Soviet-held Afghanistan.

The consequences of Islamabad’s engagement with Washington are visible in the debris of Pakistan today. So not only could India not have offered the US the strategic assistance that Pakistan did, we are probably better off for not having done so.

So, finally, how does one assess Indira Gandhi?

I’ll give you my own perspective. When she was alive, I opposed her for the Emergency, for dynasty and for the bypassing of cabinet government. Those are still my views.

But where I did not give her enough credit was in keeping India together, in making the electoral process vibrant and energetic and in forging a foreign policy that put a great democratic experiment on track to become a superpower of the 21st century.

Time has not softened my views on her flaws. But it has taught me to appreciate her achievements more.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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