Indira Gandhi’s legacy: The successes and the mistakes

Published on Oct 31, 2021 06:05 PM IST

Though she failed to establish peace in Punjab, Kashmir and the Northeast, her legacy remains strong even 37 years after her death. Her memories will live on.

Indira Gandhi had the ability to mesmerise the poor and disadvantaged. In 1971, her slogan, “They say remove Indira, I say eradicate poverty” was a crowd-puller (HT)
Indira Gandhi had the ability to mesmerise the poor and disadvantaged. In 1971, her slogan, “They say remove Indira, I say eradicate poverty” was a crowd-puller (HT)
ByShashi Shekhar

Some terrible moments stay with one for years. October 31, 1984, is a day I remember every year with a degree of horror. It was on this day that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her bodyguards at her official residence, following which a cycle of violence and riots took over the country for several days. As a journalist, I witnessed some of those tragic moments first-hand.

Today, when we remember Indira Gandhi, many think of her as one of the architects of modern India. As soon as she assumed office, she made a series of hasty, populist decisions. The abolition of the privy purses and the nationalisation of banks were among her early decisions, which were considered at that time to be positive socio-economic reforms.

The most marginalised segments of society reposed high hopes in these reforms. This formed the foundations of her long and successful stint in politics. Indira Gandhi had an amazing ability to communicate with and mesmerise the poor and disadvantaged. In 1971, her slogan, “They say remove Indira, I say eradicate poverty” was a crowd-puller.

Poverty, of course, was not eradicated but the poor turned up in droves to vote for her.

We should also remember that, just before she came to power, India fought a fierce war with Pakistan. India was badly affected; there had also been a period of shortages and an inability to feed a huge population. We had to rely on wheat provided by the United States (US). Using this as a lever, then US President Lyndon B Johnson took to threatening India in various ways. It is also believed that the US once actually stopped a ship laden with wheat meant for India at a port for some length of time. This was hurtful and embarrassing for India as the warehouses did not have enough food grains. India had no choice but to survive at the mercy of the US.

This was the time when Indira Gandhi, on the advice of experts, instituted a series of improvements in the field of agriculture. The historic Green Revolution was the product of the decisions she took. If India’s warehouses are overloaded with grain today, much of the credit must go to Indira Gandhi.

She was also extremely sensitive on the matter of India’s borders. She strategically changed the map of this subcontinent a second time by making Sikkim a part of India. That was an extremely bold move. There was a possibility of strong resistance from China, and it was also feared that small neighbouring countries might react badly. But she was firm in her resolve.

She had already divided Pakistan into two parts in 1971. That battle will always hold a high place in the military history of the world. This was the first time that more than 90,000 soldiers from one country were forced to surrender before the Indian Army. Imagine what would have happened if Pakistan had not been divided like this? We would have had much more insurgency in the border-states such as Kashmir and in the Northeast.

Despite having been personally insulted by former US President Richard Nixon, Indira Gandhi did not back down. By signing a long-term strategic treaty with the erstwhile Soviet Union, she gave India a considerable degree of security. The first nuclear test at Pokhran on May 18, 1974, is no less important. This put the brakes on any possible misadventures by audacious neighbours. These were remarkably bold moves.

Despite her many successes, she stayed in touch with people. When I was in primary school in Allahabad, we would be taken to greet her during her visits. We often found people there holding black flags and chanting hostile slogans When asked by journalists, her answer would be that the Opposition had every right to protest. But was she really so generous?

Those were the days of political heavyweights in the Opposition. Leaders such as Ram Manohar Lohia, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, George Fernandes and many others were bitterly opposed to her, at times calling her a dictator. She proved her dictatorial tendencies by imposing the Emergency. The 21 months of the Emergency from June 25, 1975, to March 21, 1977, blotted her political record.

She is also known as the real founder of dynastic politics. She tried to promote her younger son, Sanjay, and after his tragic death in a plane crash, she pulled her reluctant older son into politics. A dynast herself, she perpetuated this trend.

Though she failed to establish peace in Punjab, Kashmir and the Northeast, her legacy remains strong even 37 years after her death. Her memories will live on.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan

The views expressed are personal

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