As a politician Indira real test came after she lifted the Emergency, and in the ensuing elections in 1977, was decisively defeated.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Narendra Modi, when preparing for the bid to be Prime Minister, had a choice to model himself on one of two of India’s leading politicians, one from his own party, the BJP, and the other from the party he wanted to defeat. The choice was between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Indira Gandhi. Unhesitatingly, he chose Indira Gandhi. Like her, he wanted to be seen as decisive, authoritative, resolute, determined, focused, strong, and unemotional in dealing with opponents.
Today, on her centennial birthday, it is interesting to ruminate on why India’s only female Prime Minister still occupies so much of the mind-space of the Indian people. It is equally plausible to argue that, a leader who imposed the dreaded Emergency in (1975-77), should be remembered only for this direct assault on Indian democracy. But, Indira Gandhi, returned triumphantly to power in 1980, and even today, is remembered more for her remarkable political acumen than for the — brief but undeniable — authoritarian streak in her.
Legendary leaders become part mythology part history. With the passage of time, their aberrations diminish and their achievements amplify, or vice versa. In the case of Indira, people remember her more for her persona, an elegant woman who never accepted defeat, had her hand on the pulse of the people, displayed an uncanny sense of political timing, was shrewder than the shrewdest of politicians, dealt with opponents ruthlessly, had an unmistakable aesthetic sensibility, took decisions firmly when required, and died a martyr.
What people also find fascinating is the manner in which she transformed as a person. An insecure child with an unsettled childhood, overshadowed by the towering image of her father Jawaharlal Nehru, trapped in a less-than-happy marriage with Feroze, diffident, reclusive and withdrawn, transformed in the space of a few years, from the gungi gudiya (dumb doll) her opponents derisively called her, to a leader who was like a fish in the treacherous waters of Indian politics. Her great moment of glory came when she successfully dismembered Pakistan during the 1971 war. Then, even the leader of Opposition, the ever magnanimous Atal Bihari Vajpayee, hailed her as Durga in action.
As a politician her real test came after she lifted the Emergency, and in the ensuing elections in 1977, was decisively defeated. This was the time when, in a period of great adversity, her adroit political skills stood out in stark contrast to the bungling shenanigans of the motley Janata Dal coalition that came to power. For every ill-planned move they made to pillory her, she had a rapier response. When Charan Singh, the home minister, sent the police to arrest her, she took her time to get ready — and in that period alerted the entire media and her party workers — and then, when the time came to leave for jail, refused to go without being handcuffed. The police were not carrying handcuffs, and what is worse, did not even have clear instructions where to incarcerate her! She spent one night in jail and was unconditionally released the very next day.
In December 1978, she was arrested again. There is an incident of this time which illustrates her remarkable political acumen. Charan Singh’s birthday on December 23 was being celebrated with great fanfare at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi. From the jail, Indira gave meticulous instructions to a senior Congressman. He was asked to take a taxi to a specific florist on Janpath, and purchase a large bouquet. Then, he was told to go to Ramlila grounds, and seek to reach the podium. She warned him that he would be stopped by security, but since he was a known face as a former minister, he must find a police officer who recognises him and manage to reach the podium. Once on the podium he was to ensure that the bouquet is presented to Charan Singh on her behalf, not anonymously, but publicly. There must be, she instructed, a public announcement that the flowers had been sent by Indira Gandhi. The Congress leader managed to implement these precise instructions. Charan Singh, in fact, himself announced with glee that Indira Gandhi herself has felicitated him. Three days later, Indira was out from jail. Next year, Charan Singh ditched his own alliance partners to become PM with Congress support, only to have the Congress withdraw support within days. Fresh elections were called and Indira stormed back to power with a huge majority in 1980.
The enduring image of her on an elephant reaching Belchhi is also a tribute to her political instincts. In May 1977, nine Dalits were burnt alive by an upper caste mob in Belchhi, Bihar. No prominent leader of the Janata Dal went to express solidarity with the victims. Indira decided to do so. She landed in Patna by plane; from there she drove in a car; after a point the road became so bad that she moved to a jeep; a little later even the jeep failed, so she sat on a tractor; when the tractor could not make headway, she climbed onto an elephant and reached Belchhi. That photograph was on the front page of every paper the next day.
No great leader is without her faults, or infallible. Indira trusted few, over centralized power, had little compunction in diluting the autonomy of democratic institutions, was excessively tolerant to the willfulness of her younger son, Sanjay, remained unacceptably vulnerable to mediocre sycophants, and made fatal mistakes by tolerating people like Bhindranwale for too long.
But, she had great redeeming features too, including a private, lesser known aspect, where, as a woman and an aesthete with a fine sense of taste and an enduring commitment to the great legacy of India’s arts and crafts, she was the natural inheritor of the cerebral refinements of her father. If anyone is in doubt in this regard, I would urge them to read the book, Two Alone, Two Together, which is a fairly bulky compilation of the letters between her and Jawaharlal Nehru. What will surprise readers is not the erudition of Nehru — for that is known — but the remarkably intellectual, insightful, informed and thoughtful responses of Indira.