Indira Gandhi was not responsible for the massacre of some 4,000 Sikhs in Delhi, Kanpur, Bokaro and other Indian cities which began on this day 25 years ago. But the fact that the influential culprits were able to get away with mass murder — and to get away with it in style, despite several changes of government at the Centre since then — is an indivisible part of the complex legacy she left behind.

A legacy of a strong nation unbroken by ‘fissiparous’ tendencies despite the dire predictions of foreign observers; a nation armed with nuclear weapons and missiles; a nation with the ability to assert an independent foreign policy and independent path of capitalist development, in the main, fully capable of holding its head high in the international community and world economic stage. But her bequest is also a nation with a democratic culture built on the proliferating quicksand of personalised, dynastic politics and money power, of weak and ineffective institutions easily subverted by the individuals carefully chosen to lead them. A nation where the rule of law is a plastic, contingent concept which rarely makes demands on those in authority.

Earlier this year, it took an act of individual caprice — the hurling, in desperate anger, of a shoe at the Home Minister — to effect a small but symbolic dent in the edifice of impunity that all Indians now take for granted. The Congress (Indira) finally decided not to allow Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler to contest the elections on a party ticket.

But even this concession came infected with a pathology caused by decades of valueless machine politics: one of the two tainted politicians was able to dictate that his brother replaces him as candidate.

What is it that allowed a local-level leader to wield such embarrassing influence on a national party? The Congress was not always like this. In a remarkably perceptive assessment of Indira Gandhi’s career as Prime Minister penned barely two years after death, Sudipta Kaviraj traced the decline of ideology and of a robust party apparatus within the Congress to the populistic transformation of party politics. That, in turn, was the product of Indira’s need to overwhelm established party interests, especially at the State level, with top-down campaigns centred around her own personality and the loyalty of a new breed of politicians who could use “resources” rather than “arguments” to deliver votes. “People who were pressed into political service were more in the nature of political contractors who were willing to go to any length to dragoon votes, systematically replacing discursive techniques with money and subtle forms of coercion. Thus, out of the logic of the technique Indira Gandhi brought in, Congress started becoming gradually depoliticised. Even earlier, people had regretted that arguments were being replaced by resources as the primary political asset; now the only arguments used were resources.” (‘Indira Gandhi and Indian Politics’, Economic and Political Weekly, September 20-27, 1986).

Political contractors

Kaviraj does not say so but when Indira Gandhi died, it was these ‘political contractors’ who got mobilised to deliver a headcount of a different kind. And they went about their task with great efficiency.

Their success, however, depended on another factor, which Indira’s India was particularly well-equipped to deliver: the willingness of the police and administration to turn a blind eye to the arson and murder which was taking place. The last essential ingredient in the production of the 1984 massacres was the ability to manage the aftermath by ensuring impunity for the guilty. A sitting judge of the Supreme Court, Ranganath Mishra, was handpicked to head a commission of inquiry which, predictably, found no systemic lapses and assigned no culpability to the ruling establishment. In the best tradition of suborned institutions, Mishra went on to become the first head of the National Human Rights Commission when it was set up and, later, a member of the Rajya Sabha. Proof of the commitment with which he went about his initial brief is provided by the fact that another commission established 15 years later managed to unearth far more details about the violence than he had.

Market economies need institutions in order to function in a stable, predictable and rational manner. Robust institutions function well regardless of the individuals in them; in India, everything hinges on the choice of the individual. Mishra delivered a vapid report but he did so with speed. Others labour for years to produce a similar outcome. When a rare individual like Justice Srikrishna produces a report which indicts the system, as he did in the case of the 1993 Bombay riots, the same system has a hundred ways of consigning his recommendations to the dustbin.

The reality

It is tempting to link this very Indian disregard for the norms of ‘bourgeois’ democracy to the residual pull of feudal impulses in our political and social life. But the reality is that the consolidation of capitalism and the growing power of industrial, trading and mining elites have not led to any emphasis on institution building. If anything, the situation might actually be getting worse.

Indeed, over time, the style of politics the Congress adopted during Indira Gandhi’s time has become the norm for virtually all parties, right down to the induction of sons, daughters, wives and brothers at every level of political power. With the growing salience of ‘resources’ in elections, it was only a matter of time before the alliance between party leaders, kinsmen and affluent regional elites got transformed into the rise of the Seriously Wealthy Politician — leaders like the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and his son, Jaganmohan, Sharad Pawar and the BJP’s ‘Bellary Brothers’ in Karnataka.

‘Fissiparousness’, in the final analysis, even in the Punjab, was ended not by the security forces but by letting a hundred sons bloom.

And yet, it would be unfair to lay the blame for the current decline of politics and institutions and the rule of law entirely at the door of Indira Gandhi, even if the trend began with her. But the responsibility for fixing things lies with the present. Just as one sin, if unrepented, begets the next, 1984 led ineluctably to the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. And there will be future killings too, unless the system is overhauled and impunity ended. Indira Gandhi made her mistakes — the Emergency, the opportunistic fomenting of religious extremism for electoral gains in Punjab — and some would argue she paid with her life for them. Had she lived, she might have chosen to chart a different course, though we owe the formal rise of dynasticism and the top-down politics of ‘nomination’ by supreme leaders and high commands to the last phase of her political career. Ironic, then, that the only politician today who seems to have grasped the corrosive nature of this aspect of her legacy is her grandson, Rahul Gandhi, with his emphasis on grass-root level elections in the Youth Congress — an organisation that, in the darkest days of the Emergency, was a metaphor for the worst possible values in politics.