The Huddle 2019: Day 1

Dynast or democrat? Unpacking the ‘mixed legacy’ of Indira Gandhi

Demystifying Indira: Srinath Raghavan, author; Jairam Ramesh, Congress leader; and Shekhar Gupta, journalist; in conversation with Mini Kapoor, Ideas Editor, The Hindu.  

The legacy of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is a set of contradictions, and the session “A mixed legacy: the many facets of Indira Gandhi” turned out to be an attempt to sort out the various skeins that made that fabric.

Moderated by The Hindu's Ideas Editor, Mini Kapoor, the session with historian Srinath Raghavan, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta saw lively questions from the audience that included The Hindu Group’s Chairperson N. Ram and acclaimed historian Ramachandra Guha. While the Emergency and the run-up to it were discussed in detail, including the punitive rates of inflation (at 33%), it was the mystery of why Mrs. Gandhi called snap polls in 1977, ending the Emergency, that provided valuable historical insight.


Three theories and one more

Mr. Raghavan discussed three theories with regard to the polls of 1977.

“One, that the Intelligence Bureau had told Mrs. Gandhi that she would win by a landslide; two, that she knew she wouldn’t win but that calling the polls was better done sooner rather than later; and lastly, that she saw herself as a radical democrat especially after managing to attract the depressed sections in an unprecedented manner into supporting the Congress,” he said.

Mr. Ramesh had an interesting theory of his own, saying it was the time when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, had declared polls in his own country. The international press, with which both Mrs. Gandhi and Bhutto were familiar, were painting the latter as a democrat and her as an authoritarian ruler. “A psychological explanation can be that she was more Nehru’s daughter than Sanjay (Gandhi’s) mother,” he said.

Shekhar Gupta, founder editor of The Print, wanted an answer to another mystery of why Mrs. Gandhi signed the Simla Agreement with the kinds of terms and conditions. Mr. Ragahvan said territorial ambitions with regard to West Pakistan were never the brief at that time. “It was to make Kashmir a bilateral rather than an international issue,” he said.

Mr. Ramesh quoted C. Rajagopalachari as describing the Simla Agreement as the “Pact of Good Hope”.

Strong leaders post magnificent achievements if they are surrounded by people who can speak truth to power Jairam Ramesh Congress leader

As Ms. Kapoor rounded off the discussion asking each panellist what they thought was the enduring legacy or facet of Indira Gandhi, her questions attracted the intervention of Mr. Guha and Mr. Ram.

While Mr. Raghavan said the Green Revolution was the most important contribution of Mrs. Gandhi, “without which we would have had Indian troops in Afghanistan today, such was our dependence on food aid and imports”, Mr. Ramesh said she placed ecology at the centre of her governance imperatives, which was important.

Mr. Gupta said Mrs. Gandhi’s contribution to handling internal security, citing her actions in Nagaland, sending the Air Force to Mizoram and handling of the Suba movement in Punjab were often overlooked.

Mr. Guha said the most positive contribution of Mrs. Gandhi was in her respect for science and scholarship, while the most negative aspect was to validate and promote dynasty politics. “If tomorrow the head of the science programme in India dies in a crash, will Rahul Gandhi be able to call up another man to take his place, like Indira Gandhi did by calling up Satish Dhawan? No,” he said.

Mr. Ram intervened to say that it was not really necessary to reduce the contributions of a strong leader to one facet.

The last word was given to Mr. Ramesh, who said “strong leaders post magnificent achievements if they are surrounded by people who can speak truth to power. When she [Mrs. Gandhi] had those people around her, she did great things, and when you don’t have such people you take Tughlaq decisions like demonetisation,” he said, adding that Mrs. Gandhi's contradictions were evident in that she knew scientist Satish Dhawan and also R.K. Dhawan (her late aide).

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 2:39:08 PM |

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