No past Prime Minister of India evokes as much passion as Indira Gandhi. Her admirers believe she could do no wrong and was the messianic leader India needed in her time; her detractors hold her responsible for creating a personality cult, encouraging dynastic politics and weakening the institutions of democracy. As in the case of any leader with a long tenure and an enduring impact, her legacy is one that will be debated long into the future, when today’s politicians and journalists, who tend to make snap judgments, have given way to historians and analysts with a longer and more discerning perspective.
The conventional way of looking back at the Indira Gandhi era is to do an accounting of her policies and programmes, their successes and failures. Such an approach yields broad areas of convergence as much as sharp divergences. Few dispute the success of the Green Revolution, but not all agree that the decision to devalue the rupee in 1966 was beneficial or necessary. There is near-unanimity that the 1971 war was the unmatched high of her years in office — but there are those who see the Simla agreement that followed as having left the whole business with Pakistan unfortunately unfinished.
Her economic policies — the nationalisation of banks and the grain trade, the high taxes, the emphasis on the public sector against the private sector — all have their supporters and denigrators. Yet there is near-unanimous admiration for her space and nuclear programmes, and gathering respect for her championship of nature and the environment, manifested in ways that no other leader in this country has remotely approached.
The imposing of the Emergency (1975-77) and the rise to political prominence of her younger son, Sanjay, have few defenders; but her restoration of the democratic process in lifting the Emergency and calling for elections is grudgingly acknowledged. There is widespread admiration for the way she battled her way back to office in just three years and restored the Congress party to pre-eminence. Her handling of the Punjab and some other domestic issues is criticised, in contrast with her sweeping success on the global stage which she strode with confidence, whether dealing with the two superpowers and the Western world or leading the Non-Aligned Movement and the developing world.
But in the end, the best way to assess the impact of Indira Gandhi is to witness the thousands who visit her memorial at 1 Safdarjung Road every day, ordinary people from all over the country, for whom the journey is almost a pilgrimage to the sanctum of one with whom they still connect, 33 years after her assassination. The Indira Gandhi they see and take away is more than the embodiment of programmes and policies which — if they weren’t necessitated by emerging circumstances — sprang from her deeply held beliefs and values. The image of Indira Gandhi they experience and cherish in memory is shaped by the character and qualities that dictated her actions.
Foremost among them must surely be her fierce pride in her country. “I cannot understand,” she wrote, “how anyone can be Indian and not be proud.” Whether dealing with the likes of US President Richard Nixon, or cementing friendships that would give India an advantage, or handling probing questions during interviews, the strength of her conviction and confidence shines through the years leading up to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Her staunch independence, her determination to act in what she saw to be the national interest, was the rock on which she stood through all her dealings with the outside world.
Indira Gandhi’s compassion and concern for the people whom she governed manifested itself in diverse ways. She was at her best in the midst of India’s ordinary women, men and children — talking to them, listening to them, sharing their happiness and their woes, in what was an almost familial relationship.
Most important, perhaps, was her fearlessness that brought out the best in her when she faced a challenge. It was this quality that prompted her to act resolutely, time and again, defying the odds, taking on the might of the Syndicate in her own party, just as she did the might of the United States during the Bangladesh war. It was this bravery that came to the fore years later, when she fought her way back from a humiliating electoral defeat, and eventually confronted the final battle of her life, against the threat to India’s unity posed by the militancy in Punjab. It is this quality that is enshrined in the website dedicated to her life, appropriately named “I Am Courage”, and in the exhibition being inaugurated in New Delhi on her birth centenary on November 19, called “A Life of Courage.”
(Suman Dubey, a veteran journalist, is the Secretary of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust. The views expressed are personal.)