The inner circle around Indira Gandhi, led by her son Sanjay, was positioning itself to capture the prime ministership in the event of her death, according to an assessment by a U.S. Embassy cable a year after Emergency was imposed.

In an analysis of a succession scenario, the cable (1976NEWDE07459_b, secret) also did not write off the possibility that “in these circumstances currently moribund politicians will revive themselves and attempt to out-maneuver the ‘inner circle’ and secure the selection of an alternative candidate.”

But the embassy also informed the State Department that the Prime Minister was hale and hearty: “So far as we know, she is in good health at age 58 and could go on for another generation. As her son Sanjay matures, she may [f]eel he is ready to move in to her position ten years (he will be 40) or more hence, and may consider ‘withdrawing’ in his favor. But the succession could follow a different pattern should s[h]e die sooner — and suddenly.”

Predicting a rather bleak scenario if Mrs Gandhi died, the cable, sent within a year of the imposition of Emergency, forecast splits in the Congress and instability thereafter. “Tensions and pressures from regional politicians could add to a general uncertainty; the ‘inner circle’ could attempt to use their sympathisers in the intelligence and security services and the Delhi administration to establish their claim, and in these circumstances, the role of the President and the Army could be crucial. If the ‘inner circle’ should succeed in capturing the Prime Ministership, the likelihood of sharply enhanced authoritatianism in India would increase substantially,” the cable commented.

“For the foreseeable future, say at least the next year or two, we anticipate no substantial threat other t[h]an personal violence to her position at the helm of Indian politics,” the cable noted.

Describing her approach to running a “country of 600 million” as “adhoc,” “short-term,” and pointing out her flaws, including her “rigid unwillingness to delegate responsibility (except to her son),” the embassy also lists the achievements during Emergency: “Nearly all achievements registered since the Emergency have occurred in areas susceptible to the GOI’s direct application of executive power. The suppression of strikes produced a degree of labor peace unknown since independence. The Center’s arm-twisting of Congress state governments led to a number of long-postponed solutions to a number of inter-state river disputes. The GOI’s increased emphasis on population control has brought political commitment to family planning for the first time. The legal-police offensive against black money has helped lower prices and increase the availability of goods, and has been a major factor in the increase in India’s fo[r]eign exchange reserves in recent months. There have been impressive achievements in slum clearance, urban cleanliness efforts and the law and order situation countrywide.”

But the embassy also foresaw the possibility of an increasingly authoritarian response to the domestic problems faced by the government. “As India's economic and law-and-order problems continue to worsen, Mrs Gandhi and her government may become progressively less mindful of democratic norms and constitutional deterrents,” says a cable sent on December 19, 1974 (1974NEWDE16910_b, secret).

“Though Indian democracy is still far from dead, the present authoritarianism trend is disquieting. India remains one of the few functioning democracies in Asia. India has so far remained the principal reminder in underdeveloped Asia that political freedoms can survive if the will exists. If [sic] is in the interests of the United States, in the context of a long-term perspective, to see Indian democracy flourish. On balance, however, there is relatively little the US can do to affect India’s political system. The will and capacity to preserve India's open society and democracy will have to come from within, not from without.”

The embassy was also worried that her unpopularity on account of the Emergency regulations could lead to assassination attempts on both Indira and Sanjay, and alerted Washington of the possibility. “The bureaucracy and security forces might become progressively demoralized and vulnerable to infiltration. The threat of assassination of Mrs Gandhi or her son, Sanjay, might increase,” it said (1976NEWDE02750_b, confidential).