The truth is somewhere in between, and despite her fallibilities, Indira made some lasting contributions to nation-building.
In another two days, the nation will commemorate Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary. Her lingering image is conflictingly portrayed, depending on one’s political orientation or affiliation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his supporters repeatedly stated over the past year that he opted for demonetisation because she did not. Given the current nature of our political discourse, India’s only woman Prime Minister is more vilified than eulogised. However, it will be wrong, especially on an occasion like this, to depict Indira either as a paragon of virtue or the reason for all contemporary troubles. The truth is somewhere in between, and despite her fallibilities, Indira made some lasting contributions to nation-building.
Indira is targeted mainly for being an authoritarian and autocratic leader who destroyed the democratic character of the Congress party, ensuring that the era of politically significant satraps counterbalancing the central leadership was put to an end. Indira is accused of either being party president herself or installing rubber stamps. She furthered dynasticism in the party and even after Sanjay Gandhi’s death in a plane crash, inducted a clearly reluctant Rajiv Gandhi into the party. Other accusations include putting Punjab on the boil to get even with the Akalis for their opposition during the Emergency. This misadventure was the reason for two great tragedies — one perpetrated by her and the other on her. Indira is also indicted for her paranoia and raising the bogey of the “foreign hand” every now and then.
Let us examine the charge that she foisted dynasticism on the Congress. Those who level the accusation forget two significant leadership changes in 1929 and 1959. In the first instance, the baton of Congress president passed from father to son for the first time in the party’s history when Motilal Nehru stepped down for Jawaharlal. Three years after Independence, Nehru assumed charge of the party presidency while simultaneously being Prime Minister. He took over the Congress presidency in not very savoury circumstances as Purushottam Das Tandon stepped down when the government and ruling party leadership led by Tandon held conflicting positions. Finding the situation untenable, Nehru resigned from the CWC and took the matter to the AICC delegates. Tandon realised he was in a minority and resigned, making way for Nehru. For four years Nehru held both positions and the onset of the organisational leadership’s subservi-ence to those in government can be traced to this period.
Thereafter, in 1959, Nehru allowed Indira to become Congress president. Though he did not propose her name, if Nehru did not wish the principle of dynasty to be applied, he could have ensured that she turned down the offer. Indira in fact was not keen but picked up the challenge after a campaign began within the party that she was not cut out for the job. Indira inherited a fragmented Congress where one faction was constantly in attempts to topple the rival’s applecart. But she proved detractors wrong and showed no “feminine grace” that they expected but presided over the edifice with an iron fist. She did not continue as president beyond a year of her own volition not because of any qualms that Nehru was gripped with or due to opposition to her leadership. Given the circumstances under which Indira became president of the Congress and the past elevation of Nehru, she cannot be accused of introducing dynasticism in her party. What she can be charged with is introducing a greater extent of centralism, and this too was precipitated by attempts by party veterans who thought while she could remain the charismatic front of the party, with the real control remaining in their hands. This obviously was not to her liking, and Indira wasted no time to bite the bullet and split the party when she got a chance in the form of the untimely death of President Zakir Hussain, that forced a presidential election wh-ich was not scheduled.
Indira’s golden years were 1970-71 when she could do no wrong. The party had been split, banks had been nationalised and though the legislation abolishing the privy purses of former princes had been decaled untenable in the Supreme Court, she converted this into one of the major electoral issues in the first snap poll in the country. Her victory in 1970 put the Congress back into its dominating position and established that the breakaway group did not have much support among the people. Events in what was then East Pakistan moved at lightning speed and provided Indira with an opportunity to carve a niche as a national icon by handing a humiliating defeat to Pakistan, breaking up that country and engineering the birth of Bangladesh. It is a misconception that Atal Behari Vajpayee likened her to Goddess Durga — that was the handiwork of a junior Jan Sangh leader — but the moot point is that for at least one year after the 1971 war, Indira could do no wrong.
Every leader has to mark the spot that is later termed her or his peak by historians of the future. In 1971, the future beckoned Indira yet she faltered, allowed hubris to sow seeds of her eventual fall. By late 1973, nothing was rolling her way and the agitation in Gujarat snowballed into a major crisis. Even as it was posing a major threat, the students’ agitation spread to other parts of India and in panic she imposed the Emergency. Her defeat and eventual comeback are like a fairytale. But her second term, though marked by certain innovations on the economic front, was a disappointment on other domestic issues, most importantly on the handling of the Punjab crisis. Call her a strong-willed leader or authoritarian, the tragedy was not just the manner of her death but the fact that she fell short of her own potential. Her peak can be marked almost a-decade -and-half before her career and life ended. In that there could be a lesson worth remembering for contemporary leaders.