The Empress’s long-term legacies

CENTRALISATION OF POWER: Indira Gandhi contributed significantly to promoting an idea of power that was highly personalised and weakly institutionalised. Here, she is seen with some of her cabinet colleagues in April 1984.   | Photo Credit: PIB

Thirty years ago today, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards. She had been the Prime Minister of India for sixteen years and involved in politics for much longer.

When she became Prime Minister in 1966, many senior politicians believed that she was just a “dumb doll”. Just five years later, the London’s Times called her the “Empress of India”.

Mrs. Gandhi’s impact on India’s political system was immense. From today’s perspective, what are the long-term legacies of her rule? What features of today’s political system can we attribute to “the Empress?”

Regionalisation of politics

Mrs Gandhi contributed significantly— sometimes intentionally, sometimes not — to the radical transformation of India’s political system. In short, what Mrs Gandhi left behind when she was assassinated in 1984 was a new political system, very different from the one that she had found, and quite similar to today’s one. Under her watch, India took the path that would eventually lead to the liberalisation of the economy; she contributed in no small way to the rise of Hindu politics; and she (unwittingly) contributed to the regionalisation of India’s political system.

However, the most important features of Mrs. Gandhi’s legacy are a somewhat paradoxical combination of destructive and constructive elements. On the one hand, she contributed significantly to making corruption a systemic feature of India’s political system and to promoting an idea of power that was highly personalised and weakly institutionalised. On the other hand, and paradoxically, Mrs. Gandhi contributed to the democratisation of India’s society and brought the issue of poverty to the centre of the political discourse.

Mrs. Gandhi’s promise to abolish poverty turned the attention of politicians to the poor. The emergence of an embryonic welfare state is also due to her

In 1969, Mrs. Gandhi banned corporate donations to political parties. Since then, as noted by analyst Prem Shankar Jha, a parallel economy of gigantic proportions has come into being. Political parties have literally been forced to resort to black money to fund their electoral campaigns. No doubt, this well suited Mrs. Gandhi’s political objectives. The Congress party dominated India’s politics both at the Centre and at the State levels. Thus, the control of the “Licence raj” system ensured abundant funds to the ruling party, leaving the crumbs to the opposition.

However, political corruption survived the demise of the Congress as India’s dominant party and became a systemic feature of the Indian polity. Today, black money is considered a “legitimate” way of financing politics, as witnessed by the broad consensus that emerged in the Parliament — across party lines — to exclude political parties from the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The institutionalisation of corruption is crucially intertwined with another destructive legacy of Mrs. Gandhi’s rule. This is the principle that the leader is more important than the institution that she leads.

The concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office; the suppression of alternative power centres; the subjugation of the State governments; the institutionalisation of dynastic rule; the virtual annihilation of the Congress’s party organisation; the politicisation of the bureaucracy; the violent attacks on the judiciary; the arbitrariness of decision-making; and the suspension of democracy during the Emergency left indelible scars on India’s institutions. In particular, the idea that the power of the state can be used for the pursuit of personal and partisan ends became an accepted norm of India’s political life.

Perhaps no clearer example exists than the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The politicisation of this crucial institution began during the Emergency at the behest of Sanjay Gandhi. Since then, the CBI has become an instrument in the hands of the central government to keep allies and opponents on a leash. Another example is the proliferation of political dynasties in every party, barring the Left. A chief ministership or a Lok Sabha seat became a public good that could be left as inheritance.

But it is at the State level that the combination of highly personalised institutions and widespread corruption had the most evident consequences. The arbitrariness of the decision-making process — a direct consequence of the personalisation of institutions — allowed many Chief Ministers over the last 25 years to acquire the control of the sources of illicit funding and use these funds to tighten their grip on their States. The result is that institutions in most Indian States function in a distorted way, as they are conceived as docile instruments in the hands of powerful politicians, rather than safeguards of the democratic order.

Overall, the combination of these legacies contributed to make India’s political system scarcely transparent and largely unaccountable; and it provided the incentives to keep the system so.

The implementation of the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005, coupled with the growing concerns about corruption among India’s society, is an extremely positive development; but it remains to be seen whether it will be sufficient to curb the massive black economy (born and raised under Mrs. Gandhi’s watch) that gravitates around politics.

Mrs. Gandhi’s legacy can be seen from a more constructive point of view too. Her massive electoral victory in 1971 was a turning point in India’s independent history. Mrs Gandhi’s direct appeal to the poor had no small role in promoting the emancipation of the Indian masses.

Her promise to “abolish poverty” dealt a fatal blow to the semi-feudal relationship between the poor and their patrons that had made the former a passive actor in India’s democracy. Mrs. Gandhi’s direct appeal to the needy demonstrated that — at least in theory — democracy could work in favour of the poor majority. The effects on the awakening of the masses were immense.

Bringing poverty to the discourse

Finally, Mrs. Gandhi brought the issue of poverty to the centre of the political discourse. Her promise to abolish poverty, although not followed by any concrete attempt to do so, shifted the attention of politicians to the poor. Since then, every single party has had to address the question of poverty. Most of the time, this translated into merely a rhetorical commitment. But, in recent years, the UPA government did try to give some substance to the Congress’s social democratic tradition.

There is still a lot to do. But the emergence of an embryonic welfare state in India is also due to her former Empress.

( Dr. Diego Maiorano is the author of Autumn of the Matriarch — Indira Gandhi’s Final Term in Office .)

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 8:17:43 AM |

Next Story