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

October 29, 2009 12:52 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 10:47 pm IST - New Delhi

Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Photo taken in February 1976.

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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