English News

  • youtube
  • facebook
  • twitter

Indira Gandhi: A flawed stateswoman

When Indira Gandhi was born, on November 19, 1917, communists had already taken control of Russia and begun the process which resulted in the dystopia called <em>1984</em>, also the year in which she died—on October 31. Her achievements were great: she was at the helm of affairs when India won the only war in second millennium; she shares the glory of making India self-sufficient in food with her predecessor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had begun the process of the Green Revolution. Her failings, however, were no less great (her detractors would say greater) than her feats: the Emergency (1975-77) when all individual rights and civil liberties were abrogated and a reign of terror was unleashed on the world’s largest democracy; and her tryst with socialism, whose deleterious effects the economy is still facing.

She first became prime minister in January 1966. By then, our socialists had left no stone unturned to starve India. Even as America was feeding us, our pinkish foreign office functionaries were slamming it no end for its involvement in the Vietnam War. US president Lyndon Johnson was so exasperated that for a while he stopped the food shipments, leading to a huge crisis. He was requested to relent; the Indians were not saying anything different from what the UN Secretary-General and the Pope were saying, he was told. Johnson retorted: “The Pope and the Secretary-General do not need our wheat.” While prime minister Indira Gandhi said nothing in public about the incident, she reportedly told her confidants, “If food imports stop, these ladies and gentlemen won’t suffer. Only the poor would starve.”

To ensure that we didn’t depend on the charity of Americans, she supported the Green Revolution.

In 1971, Indira Gandhi, unlike her father Jawaharlal Nehru, had the sagacity to respect expert military opinion. The result was comprehensive victory in the Indo-Pak War.

Unfortunately, she was not very sagacious when it came to economic policy. On July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind.” A day before that, Indira Gandhi had already taken another giant stride—to tighten the politician’s stranglehold over the Indian economy. This is what bank nationalization—an evil of astronomical proportions—did.

We will, however, be excessively and unreasonably harsh if we shift the entire culpability to Indira Gandhi. For while it’s true that by nationalizing banks Indira Gandhi gifted enormous economic powers to her own government, every government since then has been loath to give up. The gift, one may add, was not at the expense of the supposedly heartless bankers and ruthless capitalists as the folklore goes; it was at the expense of millions of Indians whose tax money, lakhs of crores, has been used to keep public sector banks (PSBs) alive.

Secondly, she nationalized banks, but it was not a bolt from the blue; the momentum was building up; demands were made by Leftist intellectuals (Right-leaning ones didn’t exist half a century ago) and politicians for ‘social control’ over banks, indeed over the entire economy. She was just bold and shrewd enough to read the pulse of the people and the thrust of public discourse—and use the decision to bolster her pro-poor image. She took a decision which paid her rich dividends in the next general election in 1971.

Victory in the war with Pakistan further added a few inches to her stature, which also resulted in heightened expectations, especially in the wake of the <em>garibi hatao</em> slogan. This is where her problems began. Two decades of socialism, with more regulation, had weakened the economy. She decided to cure socialism with more socialism. Coupled with the oil shocks of the early 1970s, this led to soaring inflation, massive unemployment, and nationwide agitations. The denouement was the Emergency.

And then came the ouster in 1977, the first time a non-Congress party came to power. The great leader who seemed invincible just five years ago not only lost the top office but also failed to retain her own parliamentary seat.

There is a lesson every politician can learn from her life, best expressed by Shakespeare in <em>Julius Caesar</em>: “The evil that men do lives after them/The good is oft interred with their bones.” She at least has a few feats to flaunt which have lived, and will live, after her. Every contemporary politician should introspect and try to answer the question: can the same thing be said about me?.