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Updated: October 29, 2009 15:28 IST

Loved, hated, admired: The enduring legacy of Indira Gandhi

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Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Photo taken in February 1976.
The Hindu
Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Photo taken in February 1976.

Twenty-five years after she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, India’s only woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, has an enduring presence in the minds of most Indians.

For some she remains a messiah who connected directly to the poor and underprivileged with her social welfare programmes and catchy populist slogans like garibi hatao (oust poverty).

For others she is the monster who unleashed the Emergency, the darkest period in India’s democratic history when political opposition was put down ruthlessly, opponents jailed and the free media that India is so proud of muzzled for 19 months.

As daughter of independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi grew up in the midst of the struggle for independence in a highly political family.

She was elected president of the youth wing of the Indian National Congress in 1956 and was elected to parliament in place of her father when he died in 1964. Her estranged husband Feroze Gandhi had passed away in 1960.

Seen as a political and intellectual lightweight, Indira Gandhi was dubbed a gungi gudiya or dumb doll when she was catapulted to power as Prime Minister in 1966 by a group of Congress party leaders who hoped to control her.

Understood power dynamics

But within five years Indira Gandhi emerged as one of India’s most powerful prime ministers.

Veteran journalist Inder Malhotra, who published a biography of the former Prime Minister in 1989, feels Indira Gandhi understood the importance of power and how to manipulate it better than most politicians.

Under her stewardship India won a war against Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

She ushered in the green revolution that ensured food security for India, nationalised banks in a move that cushioned India from the worst of the current global recession and abolished princely states.

It was during her stint as Prime Minister that India joined the nuclear club and took big strides in the field of science and technology, but at the same time put in place draconian laws and elaborate red tape that hobbled the administration and the economy.

In international diplomacy Indira Gandhi was an effective and strong leader who dared to take on the United States.

Connecting to the poor, her primary strength

But her primary strength lay in her ability to connect with the poor, which her critics dismissed as a tactical ploy.

To this day leaders of her Congress party seek votes in remote areas of the country in the name of Indira Amma (mother). In many houses in the south of the country she’s worshipped along with religious deities.

The Emergency is an event the Congress party tends to push under the carpet. The Indian electorate decisively voted Indira Gandhi out of power in 1977 in the first election after the Emergency, but re-elected her in 1980.

Mr. Malhotra, in his biography, described the Emergency as Indira Gandhi’s cardinal sin. But today, he said, with the passage of time, the anger against the Emergency is much less.

The Indira Gandhi who returned to power in 1980 ensured unswerving loyalty among her party members and this bred a culture of sycophancy that endures within the Congress party to this day.

Idealist or manipulator?

Gandhi also perpetuated dynastic politics, first promoting her younger son Sanjay Gandhi in the party and when he died in an air crash in 1980, making sure her elder son Rajiv Gandhi was seen as a prospective leader.

The pilot-turned-politician was chosen by Congress members to be the next Prime Minister to contain infighting among leaders when Indira Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards.

The bodyguards were seeking revenge for her ordering the Indian Army to launch an assault on their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, to flush out Sikh militants.

Gandhi’s death was followed by three days of riots by party sympathisers in which more than 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in Delhi and, according to unofficial estimates, another 4,000 in other towns around the country.

For large numbers of Indians, Indira Gandhi remains a progressive and idealistic figure. But for others she remains a master political manipulator who, as yet another biographer Zareer Masani puts it, drifted from her promise of democratic socialism to blatant dynasticism and suppression of dissent.

The bungalow in Delhi where she lived and died has been turned into a memorial and draws up to 10,000 visitors a day.

They peer into rooms which are kept as they were and crowd before numerous awards, photographs and the bloodstained sari she wore when she was shot.

“She was a strong and enterprising woman. I admire her immensely,” Janaki from Bangalore said after her pilgrimage to Indira Gandhi’s home. “They don’t make leaders like her anymore.”

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Mrs. Indira Gandhi was a great leader among greatest. Indians must always be indebted to Mrs. Gandhi for the creation of an independent nation, Bangladesh, for which reason we are conveniently ignoring eastern border in the event of facing any military threat from neighboring Pakistan. On the other hand, we would have had to man east and west borders with military personnel. Glowing tributes paid to late Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

from:  Saleem Ponnambath
Posted on: Oct 30, 2009 at 17:38 IST

With all due respect to Indira Gandhi and her legacy as one of the Prime Ministers of India.

I have objections to the article merely mentioning the people who brutally murdered 3,000 innocent Sikhs as party sympathisers. The men who assassinated her were to be punished and so they were under the law. But no one has been punished for those riots. I'd rather appreciate if the people who murdered those in riots are not merely called party sympathizers, for they were murderers. Moreover, the party of Mahatma Gandhi would not approve of this expression of sympathy and neither should any nation.

from:  Kamal Hothi
Posted on: Oct 30, 2009 at 17:33 IST

She is the only Prime Minister who has a guts to say no to US. Pl read the below article and be proud of India under right leader ship.
Dr S N Prasad in his introduction to the Indian government's 'restricted' Official History of the 1971 War.

Let me recount an anecdote related to me by Major General K K Tewari (retd), Chief Signal Officer, Eastern Command, during the 1971 War.

General Tewari was present at a briefing the three defence services held for Indira Gandhi. She was seated at a large table. On one side was General S H F J Manekshaw, the army chief, and on the other Admiral S M Nanda, the navy chief.

During the course of the presentation, the admiral intervened and said: 'Madam, the US 8th Fleet is sailing into the Bay of Bengal.' Nothing happened; the briefing continued. After sometime, the admiral repeated, 'Madam, I have to inform you that the 8th Fleet is sailing into the Bay of Bengal.' She cut him off immediately: 'Admiral, I heard you the first time, let us go on with the briefing.'

All the officers present were stunned. Ultimately, their morale was tremendously boosted by the Prime Minister's attitude. She had demonstrated her utter contempt for the American bluff.
India won war against Pakistan and the U.S.

from:  Mathew
Posted on: Oct 30, 2009 at 14:49 IST


from:  Saiprassad Gunasegaran
Posted on: Oct 30, 2009 at 09:26 IST

Thanks for an inspirable article, I call her 'Indiamma' because she is in the name of 'Mother India'.

from:  Yadala Apparao
Posted on: Oct 30, 2009 at 06:07 IST

She shall be remembered along with the legends of pre and post Indian independence. The undeniable mark left by her will forever be debated, admired and discussed at length. One can write/read pages about the positive impact she has had. But a more subtle positive or negative imprint of hers is the emergency. To date I have not read an account of why the emergency as an instrument was used by Indira and also when she had all the powers, she could have schemed to get re-elected. But what she did was conduct free and fair elections which she lost. It is this character traits in her which needs to be explored. In my view imposition of emergency was wrong, but the question that needs answering is could she have done anything else to curtail the mass protest and demonstration of the JP movement. Also to understand there is very little that has been written on why JP protested, was it for the people or for furthering one's political interests and was that fulfilled by the Janata rule which was elected to power on the back of JP movement? I suspect the JP movement was more to do with political aspirations of few socialist leaders than anything to do with addressing the needs of the people. A very good example of this is what has happened to the states where leaders of JP movement went on to make a big political impact for themselves - Bihar, UP, Haryana?

from:  Ashwin Kumaraswamy
Posted on: Oct 29, 2009 at 19:51 IST

Great woman of all times!

from:  Rajagopalan Iyer
Posted on: Oct 29, 2009 at 18:15 IST

No doubt Indira Gandhi was a strong and defiant PM of India, to say stronger then her father Nehru. She has the tactics to rule the country with the decisive mandate which she got in 1980. She was the best PM of India. Hats off to Indira.

from:  K Kannan
Posted on: Oct 29, 2009 at 17:56 IST

A great article on an extremely warm and affectionate person...One aspect which needs insight is what really prompted Mrs. Gandhi to decide that Emergency be withdrawn and elections be held. More importantly, what is commendable is that she released all those who were political prisoners under MISA and ensured there was an election in which they participated. But what intrigues me is why call an election? Is there any link in the history lesson where Ashoka gives up killing after winning Kalinga war! Will we ever know? Ramchand Guha came up with 3 hypothesis but these do not fly? The reason has to be more spiritual? Was there any role of J. krishnamurthy? Only Pupul Jaykar or Usha Bhagat or Kaos who had access to her inner thoughts/feelings can comment...

from:  Nitin Mathur
Posted on: Oct 29, 2009 at 16:08 IST

She lived a life full of tumble and turns.It seemed on most occasions that she took decisions by her gut instinct.She trailblazed the Indian political scene with her charisma and pragmatic moves. Emergency imposed by her changed the destiny of India forever. It took the country close to a constitutional dictatorship. She possessed a complex personality. For many,she epitomized woman power, while for others she was a leader with a serious fault.

from:  Sunil Kumar
Posted on: Oct 29, 2009 at 15:30 IST
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