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Wednesday, October 31, 2001

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Remembering Indira Gandhi

By Inder Malhotra

On Indira Gandhi's Seventeenth death anniversary, there are intimations of a perceptible change for the better in the public opinion about her. Some, even among those who have been her inveterate foes all these years, appear to be softening their attitude. Among the people at large, nostalgia for her and her leadership is clearly on the increase.

To be sure, a hardcore of Indian intelligentsia remains uncompromisingly hostile to her because of her many failings and excesses, of which the Emergency of the mid-70s was undoubtedly the worst. The poison that it pumped into the body politic has not yet been fully flushed out. Also, fresh in many minds, are her relentless undermining of almost all the institutions of the republic; centralisation and personalisation of power; and furtherance of the dynastic succession to a degree that the Congress, since renamed the Congress(I), continues to be both an ``inverted pyramid'' and a ``family concern''.

However, time has perhaps lent a better perspective to the past. Consequently, many people disinclined to do so earlier are more willing to weigh her failures, flaws and foibles against her numerous and substantial achievements. Leave alone the brilliant victory in the war for the liberation of Bangladesh that transformed the lady once lampooned as the ``dumb doll'' (goongi gudiya) into invincible Durga. Having become Prime Minister at a time when the country was living, almost literally, from ship to mouth, she had presided, within a few years, over the Green Revolution. It was in her time that India became the sixth member of the most exclusive nuclear club and the seventh in the race for space.

But, interestingly, it is not because of these and other attainments of hers that there has been a sudden surge of feeling in her favour. This is due more to the growing belief that she was the one leader who was incapable of compromising India's honour and prestige and that she was the only decisive, determined and firm Prime Minister the country has had. The country hankers for these attributes.

Unsurprisingly, developments after September 11 and October 7 have accentuated this trend. Many Indians are distressed because in the wake of America's decision to enlist Pakistan as its ``front-line ally'', the Pakistanis are ``preening themselves and gloating'', while this country has wrapped itself in a cloak of ``pique and gloom''. Some of them even assert that Indira Gandhi ``alone would have known'' how to deal with both the U.S. and Pakistan''.

To an extent there is some irony in this belief. For while Indira Gandhi did act most decisively at crucial junctures and could be ruthless whenever she found it necessary to do so, the reality also is that she was a procrastinator. She deferred a difficult decision for as long as possible and acted only when she had her back to the wall. Only when pushed to that position did she fight back not just valiantly but also brilliantly. Her adversaries, domestic or foreign, then did not know what had hit them. However, it is the popular perception in her time, now enjoying a revival, that matters.

Are we on the verge of a new revisionist history of the Indira era being written? Perhaps. Indeed, the process began nearly three months ago when the India Today newsmagazine, together with ORG and MARG, conducted an opinion poll on who was the ``best Prime Minister India has ever had''. The unambiguous verdict: Indira Gandhi. Whatever the shortcomings of the poll's methodology or of the voting cross-section, the preference for her was overwhelming.

It was no surprise that Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee got only 11 per cent vote compared with her whopping 41 per cent. What did cause surprise was that her illustrious father. Jawaharlal Nehru, unquestionally a more towering figure in the colourful pageant of modern Indian history, also polled no more than 13 per cent. The share of the modest and self-effacing Lal Bahadur Shastri who, during a short-lived tenure, led the country in the 1965 war with Pakistan and then back to peace only a few hours before dying, was 9 per cent.

There is not the slightest doubt that the people who yearn for her leadership compare her with her successors (there have so far been seven of them, with Mr. Vajpayee having been sworn in thrice in less than three years). Evidently, they find her record to be far more shining than that of the band of seven, individually or collectively.

The fiasco of globalisation and economic reforms over the last decade has also contributed to Indira Gandhi's renewed popularity. The number of those living below the poverty line may have been reduced. But both unemployment and economic misery are growing fast. Indira's socialist rhetoric might have been hollow. But until the end the poor of India believed that she cared for them. Evidently they still do. Otherwise, how does one explain that an average of 6,000 persons visit Indira Gandhi's memorial at 1 Safdarjung Road every day throughout the year. This is a larger number than of those going to the Mahatma's samadhi at Rajghat or the Nehru Memorial at Teen Murti.

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