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The incomparable legacy of Indira Gandhi

Her compelling statesmanship and bold response to the challenges she faced made her one of the most admired and successful leaders of her time.

opinion Updated: Nov 19, 2017 16:57 IST
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A young Indira Gandhi with Mahatma Gandhi at Anand Bhavan, New Delhi, 1935. On November 21, 2017, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust will commemorate her birth centenary by inaugurating an exclusive photo exhibition at her erstwhile residence, now memorial. (Courtesy Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust Archive)

A stroke of fortune took me into the prime minister’s secretariat where I was to remain for a few years. This was Indira Gandhi’s office and to work there was a great privilege. Serving any PM at close quarters is a source of pride for a civil servant but serving a person like Indira Gandhi was something particularly special. She was at her peak when I was inducted, in full command, a resplendent personality, the cynosure of admiring attention at home and abroad. She was known to set uncompromisingly high standards and anyone who joined her staff had to be alert and careful in trying to measure up.

As I soon discovered for myself, the secretariat was like no other office of the government of India. Its procedures and ways were particular to itself, its sole task being to ascertain the PM’s wishes on the numerous items of government business that required her attention and to convey her decisions onward to the agencies concerned. It was intended to be a lean, swift process, without long-winded notings and confabulations. A good part of the work was done orally, for Indira Gandhi was approachable to her staff, as long as you were not wasting her time.

As someone deputed from the ministry of external affairs (MEA), I was expected to be in regular contact with my parent ministry and be a conduit for its regular business. Indira Gandhi herself had much experience of the diplomatic world and enjoyed meeting her peers from different parts of the world, and sometimes her diplomatic good sense achieved better results than could be attained by her advisors, as for instance through the good understanding she established with President Ronald Reagan at a conference in Acapulco at a time when India-US ties were in a trough.

In her office my MEA-related duties were largely in the sphere of protocol. She was a meticulous hostess and required her staff to maintain very high standards of courtesy and decorum. She herself, even after many years of supreme authority, never lost the attributes of a great and gracious lady. No one could take any sort of liberty but she treated people around her with thoughtfulness, and all of us on her staff enjoyed many signs of her consideration.

I was invariably part of her entourage when she travelled abroad, which gave me many opportunities to see her at work. The first oil crisis came up at that time and placed the country in serious difficulty; the price of oil had shot up overnight and, more problematic was the fact that some of the traditional suppliers were wavering about future supplies. Matters were serious enough for Indira Gandhi to intervene personally, and she responded bravely. Only the country’s dire need could have driven her to visit traditional suppliers in the Gulf in search of assured oil supplies, for it was not in her nature to look for favours. Nevertheless, in the pressing circumstances of the time, she felt it necessary to visit Iraq, where she was warmly received by Saddam Hussein who was the Iraqi leader at the time, and who did not hesitate to meet India’s needs. I recall the state banquet where to my surprise I was suddenly summoned to the small conference room where the two Heads of State were in private conclave, there to do nothing much for the next several minutes while they conversed. Later I understood that I had been summoned because Saddam Hussein, unlike Indira Gandhi, had an aide with him and she wanted an equal match: nothing was just given away!

In the same period and on the same quest she went to Tehran where the Shah gave her an equally cordial welcome. Here, too, the PM’s personal diplomacy was rounded off by a generous agreement on the supply of oil.

In Indira Gandhi’s small secretariat, various incumbents were required to undertake a variety of tasks, some of them outside their normal area of activity. There was no specialist for education for instance, or for cultural affairs, matters in which she was deeply versed and took particular interest. It fell to my lot to do some of the required staff work for regular contact between the secretariat and cultural institutions of interest to her. One of the most prominent of these was Rabindranath Tagore’s university Viswa Bharati whose annual convocation was an important annual fixture on her calendar. She kept in touch with scholars and artists from India and elsewhere and took obvious delight in meeting them, so that creative people were drawn to her as a kindred spirit.

A particular area in which she took special interest was the environment and wildlife. In this, she was well ahead of her time, for conventional wisdom regarded the bounty of nature as something to be exploited for the benefit of humankind, not as something to be cherished in its own right and conserved for future generations. One of my most pleasing tasks within the secretariat was to keep in touch with the growing tribe of conservationists and take them on occasion to meet Indira Gandhi. She never baulked at it and her personal commitment was an irreplaceable asset to the movement for the conservation of nature.

She was no less supportive of efforts to conserve the country’s built heritage and those who were trying to stem the decay of historic monuments could count on her support. She once learnt that the Taj Mahal could be affected by an oil refinery being set up at Mathura, which is some distance away but still within possible range of chemical pollution that could damage the marble. I was sent to Agra to find out what I could. She was too canny to order drastic measures like shutting down or relocating the refinery on the evidence available at the time, but her interest in the matter was sufficient to persuade polluting agencies like the coal burning railways to modify their habits. She was no less zealous in providing protection to the world famous bird sanctuary at Bharatpur. In fact, it was her deep interest spurred by the great Indian birdman Salim Ali that gave Bharatpur an assured future.

All this was undertaken by Indira Gandhi or at her bidding at a time when she was deeply absorbed in leading a highly complex and often unruly country. Her compelling statesmanship and bold response to the challenges she faced made her one of the most admired and successful leaders of her time. As I have tried to present, she was distinguished not by the virtues of a political leader alone but also by her human sensitivity and sophistication. She touched the nation’s life at many points, cared deeply and left an incomparable legacy.

Salman Haidar has been India’s foreign secretary. He was also director in the prime minister’s secretariat during Indira Gandhi’s tenure.

The views expressed are personal.

First Published: Nov 18, 2017 17:24 IST