Today is the centenary of Indira Gandhi’s birth and you’re bound to read several assessments of her career and personality. Even 30 years after her death she bestrides our political horizon like a colossus. However, I don’t intend to inflict one more. Instead, I want to raise questions that might identify areas where greater clarity is required.
Let’s start with Indira the politician. Opinion polls suggest she’s considered our most respected, but was she a great prime minister or simply a long serving one?
Most people agree the high point of her prime ministership was the Bangladesh crisis of 1970-71 and the surrender of East Pakistan. She had the wisdom to give Field Marshal Manekshaw the time the army needed to prepare and the skill to conduct a tireless international campaign to win support for India’s stand.
Reservations arise over her handling of the victory. First, was she wrong to stop the war after the fall of East Pakistan? Was this an opportunity to fight on in the West and sort out Kashmir, which she let slip, or would that have invited international repercussions India could not have handled? And then, at the Simla summit, was it an error of judgement to trust Bhutto’s word on Kashmir or did she have no alternative?
Three years after Bangladesh, the Emergency of 1975 was her nadir. Was she simply fighting for her personal political survival or did Jayaprakash Narayan’s call to the army and police to disobey illegal orders seriously threaten law and order?
Her younger son, Sanjay, was undoubtedly her Achilles heel but was she truly unaware of his sterilisation and slum clearance campaigns? Her secretary, RK Dhawan, insists she was but TV Rajeswar, then director of the Intelligence Bureau, says she knew.
Mystery surrounds the elections she called in 1977. Did she do so knowing she would lose? In other words, was it an attempt at atonement? Or was she misled by the intelligence agencies?
In her second spell as PM, Indira Gandhi handled the Sikh unrest which culminated in Operation Blue Star. But was this the only course of action open to her or should she have attempted to force the militants out by cutting off access to power, water and food?
Bhindranwale was, of course, nurtured by the Congress to curb the Akalis and then turned into a Frankenstein monster. Most biographers accuse Indira Gandhi of mishandling the situation but doesn’t she deserve credit for insisting Sikhs would continue to guard her, a decision that permitted two of them to kill her?
For a prime minister whose forte was politics, her handling of the economy was uncertain. On the one hand, she presided over the Green Revolution but on the other, created the licence-permit raj. Bank nationalisation was done impetuously for political reasons. Is she to blame for India’s poor economic performance in the ’70s and ’80s?
Today, you can’t ignore her impact on the Congress. More than Nehru, she started the tradition of dynasty. Did her tight control decimate its internal democracy and reduce India’s oldest party to an appendage of the Gandhi family?
Indira Gandhi’s career was full of dramatic highs and lows. The goongi gudiya of 1966 transformed into the Empress of India in 1971, only to lose power in 1977 but bounce back in 1980 and end up assassinated in 1984. Few would doubt her skill at winning elections but did she lack vision in office? Was she a superb politician but a poor stateswoman?
We think of her as a powerful virago but she was, in fact, petite with a delightful sense of humour and incomparable taste and style. She was also, at times, a troubled personality. In her marriage, which wasn’t a success, she was often unhappy. Yet in adversity she was brave and defiant. So, did we know her complex and very private personality or only its public facade?
Finally, would such a woman have wanted to die of illness or old age? Is it romantic to suggest she might have preferred assassination to retirement or relegation in defeat?