The non-ideological Gandhi
[31st October is the 30th death anniversary of Smt. Indira Gandhi]
Out of all Gandhis in India, Mahatma Gandhi stands the tallest and is seen the most relevant in India and abroad. If there is any Gandhi next to Mahatma whom the world knows, especially the women kind, for her stubborn and decisive character, it must be Indira Gandhi, the only daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru and the former Prime Minister of India. She had a solid career in politics enjoining with the works of great men and freedom fighters like Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, while also serving in various top-level positions in post-independent India from 1966 to 1984. Hers was a career full of too many ideological shifts and paradoxical set of political equations that drove the nation for many decades.
Having lived almost half of her lifetime in British India, she had a strong sense of India’s yearnings and the British colonial exploitative business and administrative skills. Growing up in a distorted family (Father Nehru was often away from home or incarcerated in prison most of the times; Mother Kamala was frequently confined to bed with illness), she nurtured her ideologies and standards only through experience and education. Her London education had given a suffice exposure to the affairs of the state in British India whilst she was keenly observing the freedom struggle movements carried upon by Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. Her first ideological impact was made by Mahatma Gandhi as she continued to wear Khadi until she assumed the highest office in 1966. She advocated wearing of Khadi by all Indians boycotting the foreign clothes. Her Gandhian thoughts and ideologies rested with her in the form of a modified socialism and simplified absolutism in the later days. She cultivated a democratic, charismatic leadership of Gandhi and Nehru when the Prime minister-ship came to her after Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966. She remained influential and inspirational in the Indian National Congress throughout her life, enjoying the loyalty of other leaders from Conservative and Communist parties.
AS it happens usually in politics, power transforms one’s ideology! Her initial inclinations to Gandhian dictums and socialist principles had become secondary as she continued to come out successfully in Indian politics. In contrast to the Gandian model of decentralization, she nationalized all private and large banks. This move of her indicated the new beginning of the Indian subcontinent which was under the helm of Gandhian preaching considered as the only leading light of the nation. While his father was striving to give a new look for India through his industrialization and schemes with socialistic goals, the centralization of all banks gave a swift turn to the Indian economy. Ideologically, Indira too got into a steeping stone for embarking her power and supremacy.
In 1971, she supported Liberation War of East Pakistan. She vehemently fought with Pakistan that was separated from India during her Independence in 1947. Although Muslim dominated East Pakistan was geographically positioned as independent state on the eastern side of India, it was under the control of Western Pakistan. India had no option except to go with war. When India won that war, Indira Gandhi came out as the “Hero (ine) of Bangladesh”, a new country born out of her strategic efforts and determined vision. Peace is restored permanently between East and West Pakistan. However, India’s relationship with Pakistan began to sore. Nuclear tests conducted at Pokhran in 1974 added fuel to the growing tensions between India and Pakistan. Indira Gandhi once again proved to the world that she was the symbol of power and India’s Swadeshi pride. Nevertheless, she began to lose her ideological standings she learned from Gandhi and Nehru.
Critics started seeing her as “The Iron Lady of India” with no heart for even slightest deviation from what she perceived of India and Indian National Congress. Even while the Congress split in 1966, she remained silent and trusted in her own ideals. She wanted to follow her mentors in her domestic policies but tried to exhibit her own passion and intellect when it came to foreign relations. She always wanted to maintain the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist image of India. While her 20-Point Programme and presiding of Five-Year plan focused more on the rural poor and farmers, her foreign policies were targeted towards upholding the Indian identity and sovereignty. For the same reason, journalists retorted that her Socialism was of “slightly left of self-interest”.
In the cold-war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Indira Gandhi supported the latter for its geographical proximity and communist policies. Domestically, she aligned with the Communist party for electoral purposes intermittently. The Indo-Pak war times saw the support of the U.S.to Pakistan, not India. While she signed a treaty with the Soviet, the former American President Richard Nixon openly referred to her as a "witch" and "clever fox" in his private communication with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Later, after the war, Nixon wrote, “Suckered us.....this woman suckered us."
Her ideological flux reached to unprecedented heights when she opted for army intervention to contain Naxalism in parts of the country. In order to overcome political insecurity and instability, she often changed her alliances; even while she came closer to communists, she went for military action duping off the very purpose of the alliance. Later in 1980s, her socialistic views came to grinding halt when she announced “Operation Forward” to make economic reforms based on pragmatic economic needs setting aside all populist measures and polices. She was accused of “betraying socialism”.
Amid masses, rural and urban poor women and minorities, she was “Indira Amma or Mother Indira”. Her image continued to be socialistic, affirmative political icon. Journalists and Biographers never missed to see this image despite their strong criticism as they went on to support her and the Congress until she opted for imposing state of Emergency in 1975. Her winning of elections in 1971 and second term as premiership was challenged by Raj Narain on the grounds of electoral malpractices. After a four-year long trial in 1971, the Allahabad High Court revoked her parliamentary seat which forced her to defy the order by moving to the Supreme Court. At the same time,, she did not want to undermine the country’s top position. She made plans to arrest the key opposition leaders who were behind this move to throw away from power. She recommended a state of Emergency to the President justifying the law and order situation in the state. Her conviction of being supreme in the Indian political arena never declined even at times of crisis. Instead, it saw an increase in the number of her supporters and loyalists. She was seen as braver than ever before.
In 1977 elections she was defeated. But the new government headed by Janata Party lasted only for two years. She came back to power in 1980. Her popularity grew beyond anyone’s imagination. She was regarded as stable and able. Her political tricks and ideological shifts threw challenging chords to every opposing leader. Within the Congress Party, she changed the chief ministers and heads very often if they were found disloyal to her. But to the dismay, she took a deep turn in her ideology in Punjab politics. She began to support fundamentalist, orthodox religious Sikh group headed by Bhindranwale Not many in the Congress liked that idea. Her religious tendency cost a life in the Congress as Jagat Narain got killed by the Sikh group. As the Prime Minister of the country, she ordered for combing up of the Golden Temple, the holy shrine of the Sikhs. Riots and communal violence erupted all over the state of Punjab.
This turn, her nexus with religious outfits ended in violence. In 1984, she was shot multiple times by her own security guards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. The life of a stable leader with quirky ideologies came to an end. Nevertheless, her long-standing leadership and experience as a valiant, dynamic personality stood as a great moral support and manifestation of a typical self-rule in Indian politics. The history recounted her as “decidedly non-ideological” in her own right.