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Indira Gandhi's death remembered

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi remains very popular among many Indians

Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her bodyguards on this day 25 years ago. Ramachandra Guha looks at the legacy of India's most controversial and best-known politician.

In the summer of 1965, Indira Gandhi was thinking of shifting base from Delhi to London.

She was then serving as a junior minister in the cabinet of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had succeeded her father Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister of India.

With her political prospects fairly bleak, she was attracted to England for personal reasons. Her sons Rajiv and Sanjay were both studying in the United Kingdom; besides, living in London would allow her to further her interest in culture and the arts.

In the end, Mrs Gandhi chose to remain in her homeland and would reap a wholly unexpected reward.

When Mr Shastri died of a heart attack in January 1966, she was asked to replace him as prime minister. The choice was made by the "Syndicate", the group of crafty old men who ran the ruling Congress party.

Hesitant start

They calculated that the elevation of Nehru's daughter would reassure a nation reeling from the deaths in quick succession of two prime ministers; besides, as a novice in politics she could be easily manipulated.

After a hesitant start in office, Mrs Gandhi grew in confidence.

Indira Gandhi's body before taken to the cremation
Mrs Gandhi refused to remove Sikh guards from her security detail (Photo: Ashok Vahie)

In 1969 she cut herself loose from the "Syndicate" by portraying them as a bunch of reactionaries while she represented the progressive forces of history.

She nationalised banks, mines, and oil companies; abolished the titles and privileges of the former maharajas; and comprehensively won the general elections of 1971 on the stirring slogan of "Garibi Hatao" (Remove Poverty).

The elections were held in January; in the last month of the same year, Mrs Gandhi played a key role in India's military victory over Pakistan, which led to the dismemberment of that country and the formation of an independent Bangladesh.

Among a certain section of the middle class, Mrs Gandhi remains very popular.

In polls conducted by English-language magazines she is usually chosen as "India's best-ever prime minister". This endorsement is principally based on her performance during the 1971 war, invariably contrasted with her father's disastrous leadership during India's border war with China in 1962.


Others admire her for her identification with the whole of India (although a northerner by birth and background she had a special affection for the south). Socialists sympathise with her pro-poor rhetoric.

A news ticker in Delhi announcing Mrs Gandhi's condition in hospital
Mrs Gandhi's assassination was a traumatic moment in Indian history (Photo: Ashok Vahie)

On the other hand, there remain many Indians who are lukewarm about Mrs Gandhi's legacy.

They point to her authoritarian tendencies, which came to the fore after her annus mirabilis: 1971.

At this point she asked for a "committed bureaucracy" and "committed judiciary", seeking to make these previously autonomous institutions subject to the whims and fancies of politicians in power.

In 1974, the respected Gandhian politician Jayaprakash Narayan launched a countrywide movement against corruption in government. In June 1975 the Allahabad High Court found the prime minister guilty of electoral malpractices.

Mrs Gandhi's response to this twin challenge, political and judicial, was to declare a state of emergency, censor the press, and put hundreds of opposition politicians in jail.

The emergency lasted until January 1977. In elections held in March, the Congress were routed by the Janata Party, a coalition of four previously distinct entities.

However, the new government lasted less than three years, collapsing under the weight of its contradictions. In 1980 Mrs Gandhi and the Congress were voted back to power on the plank of "stability".

Stoking trouble

The first two years of her fourth term were uneventful, but then, almost at once, Mrs Gandhi was confronted with discontent in the state of Andhra Pradesh, secessionist stirrings in the north-east, and a fully-fledged insurgency in the Punjab.

Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi in March 1977
Mrs Gandhi has been accused by critics of promoting dynastic politics

It was claimed at the time that the prime minister deliberately stoked the troubles in the Punjab, so that when elections were held in 1985 she could put herself forward as the one person standing between India and anarchy.

In June 1984 she ordered the army to storm the Golden Temple, where a band of Sikh extremists were holed up. The "terrorists" were killed, but the action also led to the destruction of the second holiest building in the complex.

Five months later, two Sikh security guards gunned down Mrs Gandhi in an apparent act of revenge.

"I see that marble conceals a multitude of sins," remarked Aldous Huxley on seeing the Taj Mahal.

In the same manner, the fact that she died a martyr's death - and after contemptuously rejecting advice to purge her staff of Sikhs - has led to a posthumous evaluation of Indira Gandhi that exculpates or ignores her very many mistakes.

That she was a thoroughgoing patriot we may not doubt; nor, indeed, that she led India nobly and well during the refugee crisis of 1971 (when nine million East Pakistanis fled into India) and the war that followed.

At the same time, the historian is obliged to record her failings.

Foremost among these was the perversion of public institutions.

In Nehru's time, the bureaucracy and judiciary were insulated from political interference; recruitment, postings, and promotions were decided on the basis of diligence and competence.

Damaging tradition

Mrs Gandhi inaugurated an altogether different (and deeply damaging) tradition, whereby ministers, chief ministers and prime ministers decided the assignments of civil servants on the basis of kinship or loyalty.

Golden Temple, Punjab
Mrs Gandhi's decision to send the army into the Golden Temple alienated Sikhs

Among the institutions damaged in this fashion was the Indian National Congress.

In Nehru's time, the Congress was a genuinely decentralised and democratic party, with district and state committees chosen on the basis of inner-party elections.

A chief minister was elected by the legislators of the state. Mrs Gandhi, on the other hand, worked unceasingly to make the Congress an extension of herself. Inner-party elections were abolished. Chief ministers were chosen by her alone.

That was not all.

Since Mrs Gandhi knew she was not immortal, and since she could not bring herself to wholly trust anyone who was not related to her, she brought her sons into politics.

Family politics

From 1976 Sanjay Gandhi worked closely with her, on the understanding that he would succeed her when she retired or passed on.

When it was Sanjay who unexpectedly died in June 1980, his elder brother Rajiv was drafted into politics, on the same understanding.

(The conversion of the Congress into a family firm has been emulated by other parties. Had Mrs Gandhi not showed the way, it is impossible to conceive of the Akali Dal or the Dravidra Munnetra Kazhagam [both state-based parties in India], for example, becoming, as they have now, captives of the interests of a single family.)

These criticisms are not merely retrospective.

Sanjay Gandhi
Sanjay Gandhi was a very controversial politician

They were made at the time, as indeed were criticisms of her economic policies.

By the late 1960s, India had built industrial capacity and a technological base through promoting self-sufficient economic growth.

Leading economists such as Jagdish Bhagwati now urged a dismantling of the industrial licensing system and an encouragement of foreign trade. However, instead of freeing the economy from government control, Mrs Gandhi instead further increased the stranglehold of the state, which caused (as might have been expected) gross inefficiency and corruption.

Although the economy was finally liberalised in 1991, two decades had been lost to ideological dogma and personal expediency.

Great patriot, but deeply flawed democrat - that is how history should remember Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy. He lives in Bangalore. He can be contacted at

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