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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 October, 2004, 18:08 GMT 19:08 UK
Indira Gandhi's legacy
By Inder Malhotra

With the 20th anniversary of Indira Gandhi's assassination approaching, there is greater flurry and excitement in India than there was five months ago on the 40th death anniversary of her illustrious father, Jawaharlal Nehru, unquestionably a much greater figure.

Indira Gandhi embraces daughter-in-law Sonia at Delhi airport in March 1977
Mrs Gandhi with daughter-in-law Sonia in 1977
The reason for this is the extraordinarily high drama, to say nothing of the searing tragedy, in her life.

Derided as a "dumb doll" when she first became prime minister in 1966, she was hailed as an invincible goddess barely four years later when India won a war against Pakistan.

From this Olympian height she plummeted to the abyss of ignominious electoral defeat.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, then foreign minister in the long-forgotten Janata government and more recently prime minister, proclaimed that she had been "consigned to the dustbin of history".

He was wrong. In 30 months flat, Indira was back in power and the Janata was history.

In view of this roller coaster ride, it should be no surprise that her legacy is rather mixed.

Stain of 'emergency'

Ironically, the emergency that she imposed in the mid-1970s, delivering a body blow to Indian democracy for 19 nightmarish months, dominates most people's memory of her.

It also clouds some of the brighter elements she bequeathed to her country.

Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi
Rajiv Gandhi - mother accused of promoting dynastic rule
This is so because the poison that the emergency introduced into the Indian system has not yet been fully flushed out of the body politic.

The inflamed polarisation of opinion of her also persists.

Consequently, while the masses continue to revere her even more than they did in her lifetime, large sections of the intelligentsia persist in reviling her.

Even so, the anger against what some have called "Indira's cardinal sin" is subsiding partly because of the passage of time and better realisation of what she was up against and partly because the younger generation, constituting half the population, knows little about the emergency and cares even less.

Moreover, in some strange and paradoxical way the emergency has done some good. It has forewarned all concerned that India would be governed democratically or not at all.

Corruption and sycophancy

There are some other negative trails blazed by Indira that are not so egregious as the emergency but are disturbing enough.

If the list of Indira's faults and flaws is long, that of her achievements, some of them dazzling, is even longer and more impressive
One was her penchant not to bother about means when pursuing her ends, which included concentration of all power in her hands first and then ensuring dynastic succession.

The trouble, however, is that all those who loudly protested against this have flattered her by imitation whenever they have had an opportunity to wield power for however brief a period. Practically every political party in India is run as a fiefdom.

And why blame Indira alone for establishing a dynasty when every Indian politician of any consequence these days is busy doing exactly the same thing?

The courtier culture of sycophancy, bred in her time, also continues to flourish.

Corruption has been an integral part of India's life from times immemorial.

Tanks on display during India's Republic Day parade
Indira Gandhi built up India's military strength
In Indira's time it took a big leap forward because of the rising costs of elections and the promotion of an atmosphere far more permissive than Nehru would have tolerated.

The tragedy is that this undying scourge, too, has also multiplied manifold since her time.

By the end of the 60s the Nehruvian economic policies that laid firm foundations for economic development had run their course.

The policy changes that began only in 1991 had become imperative in Indira's time.

But she adopted exactly the opposite course of dangerous populism for reasons of pure political expediency.

India's rise under Indira

However, if the list of Indira's faults and flaws is long, that of her achievements, some of them dazzling, is even longer and more impressive.

The pride of place in it is occupied by her brilliant stewardship in 1971 of the war for the liberation of Bangladesh, of course.

Villagers in Rajasthan
India's poor always believed she empathised with them
It still has tremendous resonance in the minds of Indians who continue to look upon her as an incarnation of "Shakti", the goddess of power.

Strategic analysts are unanimous that in her awareness of the importance of power and willingness to use it, she excelled above all Indian prime ministers to date, including her father who was a man of greater vision.

Other remarkable achievements of hers have necessarily to be summarised tersely. She pushed forward the Green Revolution to ensure that India could feed itself.

Humiliation suffered at the hands of America during the years of savage drought that were also her first two years in power had something to do with this.

The country has internalised her message.

It was in Indira's time that India became the third largest reservoir of skilled scientific and technical manpower, the fifth military power, the sixth member of the nuclear club, seventh in the race for space and the 10th industrial power.

India cherishes two of her sterling attributes that overshadowed all else.

One was her absolute refusal to compromise India's sovereignty, unity, supreme interests and honour; the other her unique empathy with the poor.

Whatever one might think of her radical rhetoric, the poor of India always believed that she cared. They still do - which has done much good to her party, now back in power in Delhi.

The fiasco of the BJP's simulated hype over "India Shining" in the recent Lok Sabha election speaks for itself.

The author is Indira Gandhi's biographer and has written a recent book on political dynasties in South Asia.


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