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Twenty-five years after her death, Moni Malhoutra pays tribute to the iconic leader who saw India as an idea more than a country.

india Updated: Oct 28, 2009 02:27 IST
Moni Malhoutra

A quarter of a century has passed since Indira Gandhi’s death. Yet she lives vividly in the collective memory of millions of our people. Nothing is blurred. She was Indira Gandhi. Different, special.

There was about her an indefinable aura, a feline grace, a restlessness and a sense of calm, a veil of mystery. Her silences sometimes spoke louder than her words. She was conscious of her high-pitched voice, and often joked about it. She was conscious about her nose, and always wanted to do something about it. She was very human.

She was a mix of daring and deliberation, of impulse and calculation. She was passionate about the causes she believed in. While a student at Oxford, she auctioned her bracelet to help the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. She was down-to-earth and practical, with a sharp eye for detail. She tracked every ship and train carrying food to our drought-affected areas. She wanted Indian science to reach for the stars, but also to improve the design of the bullock cart.

She had style, an innate sense of beauty, of simplicity, of elegance. She was a gifted linguist who spoke several languages. But when she spoke to the people of India, she knew only one language: the language of the heart.

She loved books, music, theatre and the creative arts. The world of ideas fascinated her. She sought out thinkers, scientists, philosophers, artists, both in India and abroad. She enjoyed good conversation, wit and humour and the graces of civilised conduct. She could laugh at herself in a self-deprecating way.

She had an emotional bond with nature. She loved animals. When in prison during the freedom movement, she gave her meagre ration of milk to the jail cat and its kittens. She loved the seasons. When the monsoons broke, she would rush home from a cabinet meeting to walk in the rain, face to the sky.

Her doors were always open to an unending stream of people from all walks of life, rich and poor. She kept her hand on the pulse of India. She inspired love as well as awe. One ambassador, calling on her for the first time, was so dumbstruck to be in her presence that he could not utter a word.

She was at ease in the chancelleries of the world, speaking up for India and defending India’s interests. She could be charming as well as charmless, and revel in both roles to advance her objectives. She would brook no patronising, either of herself or her country.

For much of her life, even when elected Prime Minister, she was undervalued and underestimated. She was shy, reserved and sensitive, a very private person not hungry for power. She did not appear cut out for the rough and tumble of political life. Yet, within a few years, she was politically dominant and a world figure.

Her childhood had been exceptionally difficult. As the daughter of Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru, she was also a daughter of the freedom movement. Separated frequently from her imprisoned parents, often entirely alone, shunted from school to school, the young Indira had to cope with circumstances that would have crushed a lesser spirit. She learned to be self-reliant. Her beloved mother’s protracted illness and premature death added to her tribulations and enduring loneliness. But it was a loneliness that fostered inner strength. “I am as tough as they come,” she said later, “or I would have been dead long ago.” And tough she showed herself to be.

Today, it is easy to forget Indira Gandhi’s troubled inheritance. No prime minister after her has had to confront so many major challenges in such quick succession — a nation still demoralised after its defeat in the 1962 war with China, a Congress with an ongoing struggle for power, a country unable to feed itself and thus vulnerable to external arm-twisting, an economy increasingly dependent on foreign aid, droughts one after another, the burden of hosting 10 million refugees from Bangladesh, war with Pakistan, a world financial crisis and the skyrocketing price of oil. Tough decisions were needed. Indira Gandhi had the courage to take them.

Courage and patriotism came to her early, inspired by the conduct of her own family members in the struggle for freedom. During the Quit India movement, she held the Congress flag aloft despite coming under police blows. She flew to Assam in 1962 during the India-China war to reassure the people when the military situation was extremely dangerous and there was talk of evacuation. She rushed to Srinagar in September 1965 to put spine into the local administration in the face of Pakistani infiltration and the imminent outbreak of war. Throughout the nine-month long Bangladesh crisis, her courage, steadfastness of purpose and skill on the international chessboard steered India to victory. She taught India that salvation lay in relying on its own strength, not in expecting help from others. The legend of Indira as Durga was born.

Sensitive, as well as sensible

Victories in war attract admiration. They cannot inspire love. It was her deep sense of compassion that earned Indira Gandhi the love of India’s millions. For her, poverty was not a matter of statistics. She had seen it face to face during her travels. It offended her sense of human dignity. It was Indira Gandhi who first introduced anti-poverty programmes, reaching out to the poorest and most destitute as no one had done before. The legend of ‘Indira Amma’, the carer and protector of the poor, endures.

To courage and compassion, she added the conviction that India was destined for greatness. No sacrifice was too great if it served this goal. She saw the world as it was, devoid of sentiment and emotion, tempering idealism with realism. She threw her full weight behind the Green Revolution to make India self-sufficient in food, freeing it from humiliating foreign pressures. India’s atomic and space programmes explored new vistas. Ocean exploration was encouraged. India sent its first expedition to Antarctica. The Indian flag fluttered where it had never been before.

On the big issues of our time, such as the environment and man’s relationship to it, Indira Gandhi was ahead of almost all her contemporaries in politics. Nature instilled in her a sense of wonder and a deeply felt experience of the unity of all life. She was a pioneer in urging a development agenda that gave primacy to removing poverty, but without assaulting and destroying nature, and in demanding an equitable sharing of environmental resources between the industrialised and developing worlds.

Without her decisive interventions, India would have lost even more of its forests and wild life, becoming a country of impoverished landscapes and denuded natural resources — and even greater tribal unrest. Had she been alive today, she would have been distressed at the lack of political will in protecting India’s rich natural heritage. She warned that development did not mean imitation of the wasteful patterns of living of the affluent societies. Rather, India’s design for development should be respectful of nature and in consonance with its own traditions and genius, defining where the line of satisfaction should be drawn. It is a challenge we have yet to answer.

No Prime Minister did more to conserve India’s arts and combat tasteless urbanisation.
Indira Gandhi had her weaknesses. She was human and fallible. Some of her decisions to protect the nation’s unity and stability were controversial. Some of her gambles failed. In the fullness of time, history will judge the totality of her endeavours. For the present, it is enough to remember that she was like a great lighthouse from which unflickering beams shone throughout her years in office.
India, she proudly proclaimed, was more than a country, it was an idea. And to this idea of Indianness, of the ancient and the new, of tradition and modernity, of unity and diversity, of the sacred and the secular, she bore unflinching loyalty.

How would she herself have wished to be remembered? By her consuming passion and love for India. It was as if some karmic thread tied her to India, and India to her, before and beyond her lifetime. Although written in a different context, Karen Harrison’s poem ‘Karma’ eloquently expresses Indira Gandhi’s feelings for India:

I have loved you before,
This meeting, this life, seems just another round:
One of thousands;
One of one, endless current,
In which new love is recognition:
Nothing more than a new shape
For two pieces of an ancient heart.
And I will love you again;
And toss my soul to the sea until it breaks upon the tide
As it will, as it must, to take shape again:
A limpet soul that clings to you.
For I would make this round a thousand times
To find your love in every life

Let that be her epitaph.

Moni Malhoutra served in the Secretariat of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1966 to 1973. The views expressed by the author are personal