India is the world’s largest democracy. It is raucous and at times chaotic, but the world knows very little about what makes a fifth of all mankind come together and stay together. People in the West know more about Ho Chi Min and Mao than about any Indian leader except perhaps Mahatma Gandhi. This essay introduces one of the greatest Indians of the 20th Century, who deserves to be better known in the rest of the world. Born in November 1917, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her security Guards in October 1984.
Pugnacious, ruthless and shrewd, Indira Gandhi was without a doubt the most powerful leader India has ever had since independence. Globally she remains the only third-world leader who stood up to American pressure – tellingly in 1971-and got away with it.
Her unorthodox education at home, in school and college in India, including stints in Shanthiniketan, Switzerland, and Oxford conditioned Indira’s national and international outlook. She grew up in the fierce churn of the freedom movement giving her a deep understanding of India.
Her international outlook as well as the vague socialism she practiced – amongst other things leading her to nationalize banks, doing away with privy purses and amending the Indian constitution to explicitly cast India as a socialist, secular republic – came from imbibing the liberal spirit of her times and those that her father fostered in her.
Her years as Jawaharlal Nehru’s confidante and official hostess through his Prime Ministership developed in Indira, even more than in Nehru himself, a profound understanding of the complex mix of social and ideological forces driving free India.
Those within the Indian National Congress who elevated her to Prime Ministership, believing they had a novice who could be easily manipulated and controlled, realized much too late how well equipped she was for the job and how ruthless she could be. It is hardly surprising then, that she could easily navigate treacherous political waters to continue as India’s Prime Minister longer than anyone else except her father, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Indira Gandhi did not inherit her position but earned it through sharp political maneuvering that split the Congress party, ensuring that the breakaway wing she led became the successor to the one that was founded in 1885.
Indira Gandhi did not get an easy country to administer. At the time of her takeover as Prime Minister in 1966, India was less than 20 years into freedom, still raw from a partition that had devastated much of its northern and eastern parts. Pakistan and China were menacing again. The internal threats it faced, made India look very fragile indeed. She tackled them all with ruthless resolution. Long-running insurgencies in the country’s North East in Mizoram and Nagaland were tackled with uncharacteristic toughness.
The only instance where the Indian Air Force was used in an internal conflict was when it was used to bomb Aizwal in early 1966 soon after she took over as Prime Minister. Within a year into her Prime Ministership, violent Maoism had reared its head for the first time in 1967 in Naxalbari and was crushed.
Ever a pragmatist and conscious of India’s diversities, Indira Gandhi could be flexible when she knew she had to be. A classic instance is how she diffused the anti-Hindi agitation in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu with understanding, by accepting that usage of English will continue.
Rampant poverty coupled with a rapidly growing population and mass illiteracy made a bad situation on the food front terrible at the time of her taking over as Prime Minister. Two successive monsoon failures in 1965 and 1966 had laid India low, leaving it dependent on imports to feed its people. The US, which stepped in to ease the shortage and stabilize food prices, kept India on a short leash.
It’s a tribute to Indira Gandhi’s sagacity in the midst of a political churn that she could take a long-term view of things. Her determined pursuit of an on-going objective to make India self-sufficient in food grains saw dependence on imports plummet from 10 million tons in 1966 to 2 million in 1971 and almost nil thereafter.
Indira Gandhi recognized competence, accommodated and rewarded it very well giving it the freedom to carry on. When Satish Dhawan took over as the head of Indian Space Research Organisation, she allowed him to continue as Director of the Indian Institute of Science. Both flourished.
The likes of MS Swaminathan and Varghese Kurian were given the freedom and the time to unfold the green and white revolutions in India. When she saw the need for a dedicated external spy agency Indira brought in an extraordinary police officer, RN Kaw and gave him the freedom to develop one.
Indira Gandhi was a true visionary foreseeing the rising importance of space research as well as a scientific base in Antarctica. In both areas she thought big and put India alongside the most developed nations of the world.
Along with the Communist states of the world especially the former USSR, she was on the right side of history, supporting the North Vietnamese against the Americans, denouncing western imperialism in Africa and Asia and standing by Cuba.
Like other Indians, Indira too was crushed by the 1962 Chinese victory in its border war with us. Under her leadership, the Indian army recovered some of its lost pride by unexpectedly besting the Chinese in a little-known bloody border conflict in 1967.
Although she was passionate about non-alignment, it did not come in the way of concluding a Treaty of Friendship with the former USSR, and reequipping the armed forces with Russian help. Both proved their worth in the 1971 war to liberate Bangladesh. However there were some blunders too, for which India is, even now, paying the price.
While the 1971 war with Pakistan saw her at her best, she made a hash of the peace that followed. The Shimla Agreement she arrived at with Bhutto, let Pakistan off the hook, making the rump state, which had just perpetrated a genocide look honorable. Eventually this led to Pakistan going nuclear, fulfilling a vow that Bhutto had made that he’d do everything to get the Bomb.
By repatriating the 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war (POWs) in Indian custody to Pakistan, Indira Gandhi ensured that not even one was tried for the genocide committed in, what was then, East Pakistan. One wonders if the Pakistan army would ever have returned to a dominant role in the governance of Pakistan, had that not happened.
Contrary to popular belief the 21 month long Emergency she declared in June 1975 was not her worst mistake. Rather it was the excesses that she allowed her son, Sanjay Gandhi, to commit during that period that bordered on criminal. These included mass forced sterilization and the heartless demolitions of places where the poor lived – Turkman Gate being a case in point- that made the Emergency a nightmare. She paid the price for her blunder and was elected out of office in 1977 only to come back as Prime Minister in 1980.
Indira Gandhi’s worst failure was to emasculate a great political party and make it so subservient and beholden to her. She achieved this by blatantly promoting her mediocre sons, first Sanjay Gandhi who became the face of the emergency and the author of practically all the things it came to be notoriously associated with – the forced sterilizations and the destruction of the homes of the poor and the marginalized, best exemplified at Turkman Gate in Delhi.
When he died in a plane crash, she brought in her other son, Rajiv Gandhi who blew the massive sympathy-mandate he got through an ill-advised armed intervention in Sri Lanka, a dangerous game of playing to worst elements in the Hindu and Muslim communities and topping it all with a humongous arms scandal that finally brought his government down. The Congress party, thereafter, has remained a family enterprise leaving a once grand party as a personal fiefdom of one family ever since. By the time Indira Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullets on 24th October 1984, India was a very different country from the one she had taken over. It was more integrated as a nation than ever before. A distinct Indian identity emerged under her long administration. For that, India will remember her, along with her father Jawaharlal Nehru, as one of its greatest leaders.
ABOUT DR. UDAY BALAKRISHNAN
Dr. Uday Balakrishnan, a former Fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Study –Bengaluru, and twice Visiting Fellow at the Central European University has a long association with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.) – Bengaluru. He was a Visiting Scholar at its Centre for Contemporary Studies from 2011 to 2019 and currently teaches public policy and contemporary history at IISc.Dr. Balakrishnan is a former senior level civil servant in the Government of India. He retired in 2010 as Member of India’s Postal Services Board & Chairman of the then USD 3.2 billion Postal Life Insurance Fund. In a long career in the civil services (1975-2010), he has been in charge of programs on financial inclusion of the least well off in rural India as well as the country’s child labor elimination program. He is a columnist for India’s best newspaper The Hindu as well as its business paper, Businessline.