The Only ‘Man’ in Her Cabinet

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Indira Gandhi never shied away from taking tough decisions, often sailing through choppy waters, and she came out as India’s foremost prime minister

Sharad Gupta

Sharad Gupta

Sharad Gupta is a political commentator with over 30 years experience of working with publications like The Times of India, The Indian Express, India Today, Hindustan and Dainik Bhaskar. He is presently Senior Editor with Parliamentarian

She had a short but very tumultuous life. Had she been alive, the country would be celebrating her birth centenary on November 19 this year. Indira Gandhi never shied away from taking tough decisions, often sailing through choppy waters.

Indira ‘Priyadarshini’ was an introvert and a voracious reader. A trait she probably developed due to a lonely childhood. She was the sole child of Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. Most of her childhood saw Indira finding her father participating in the freedom struggle, often spending a good amount of time in jail barracks. With mother not keeping good Heath and passing away of tuberculosis when Indira was only 19, made her lonelier. She had been sent to a boarding school and later to Somerville College, Oxford to study history. On her return to India, she participated in the independence movement.

In March 1942, despite the disapproval of her family, Indira married Feroze Jehangir Ghandy, a Parsi lawyer, who changed his surname to Gandhi on Mahatma Gandhi’s instructions. They were never a happy couple who, after having two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay separated. The reason for the separation was simple. Having become PM in 1947, Nehru too was very lonely, and asked his only daughter to move into the PM’s house to play hostess to visiting dignitaries. Feroze refused to become a ghar jamai. Indira then also started accompanying her father on his frequent visits to all corners of India and the world. This gave her an insight into problems facing the country and the changing contours of world politics.

She was elected to the prominent 21-member working committee (CWC) of the Congress Party in 1955 and, four years later, was named its president. Upon Nehru’s death in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the new prime minister, and inducted Indira into his cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. But after Shastri’s unfortunate demise due to a heart attack that many now ascribe to a CIA conspiracy, she took over as the PM.

Trial by Fire

Her sharp ascent to the top job wasn’t liked by the old guard in the Congress, the Syndicate, who first branded the shy lady as ‘Gungi Gudia’ (dumb doll). Besides former Finance Minister Morarji Desai, the Syndicate included stalwart leaders like K Kamaraj, S. Nijalingappa, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy and CB Gupta, besides others. They had assumed control of the party by stuffing CWC with their supporters and wanted the government to run on policies set by the party.

The Syndicate wanted a rightist approach, having better ties with America, while Indira Gandhi wanted to adopt a Socialist approach – pro-poor policies – and good relations with the Soviet Union. Indira trod cautiously initially. She didn’t want a split in the Grand Old Party. She won a slim majority in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections and had to accept Desai as Deputy Prime Minister. The Congress under her stewardship lost control of key states like UP and Bihar, the same year. This made the Syndicate to make efforts to regain control of the party and the government reduce Indira to a puppet. She resisted. She was thrown out of the party for “indiscipline” – one of the rare instances in world history.

She formed her own party – All India Congress (R) as opposed to Syndicate’s Congress (O). In the 1971 elections, Indira’s party won 352 out of total 518 Lok Sabha seats and 43.68 per cent votes. Congress (O) was relegated to the fifth spot after CPM, CPI and Jana Sangh, with just 16 seats and 10.4 per cent vote share. All their stalwarts had been defeated and Indira got a free hand to run the party and the government.

Bangladesh Victory

Within a few years, Gandhi gained enormous popularity for introducing successful programmes that transformed India into a country self-sufficient in food grains — an achievement known as the Green Revolution.

In 1971, she supported the Bengali language movement to separate East from West Pakistan, providing refuge for the ten million Pakistani (East) civilians who fled to India in order to escape the marauding Pakistani army, eventually offering troops and arms to the rebels. India’s decisive victory over Pakistan in December led to the creation of Bangladesh, for which she was posthumously awarded Bangladesh’s highest state honour – Bangladesh Freedom Award - 40 years later. Indira resisted pressures from the United States of America, which had already dispatched its elite Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal to intervene on behalf of Pakistan.

Six months later, she signed the Shimla Pact with her Pakistani counterpart Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, releasing all 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, besides returning Pakistani territory captured by India across Punjab and Rajasthan borders. The decisive victory over Pakistan was hailed globally, including by the Indian opposition, which famously compared her with Goddess Durga. However, the Shimla Pact came in for severe criticism for having ‘squandered on the negotiating table the advantage earned by the army in the battlefield’. Indira Gandhi, according to her aides like DP Dhar and ML Fotedar, was more concerned about Pakistan’s recognition of Bangladesh as a separate country than in getting back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Bhutto too had cited domestic constraints, pleading for an honourable exit, lest he be dethroned by the army and the Pact is consigned to the dustbin of history.

Hardening ‘Gudiya’

She was in her early fifties then. Resistance from within the party and outside apparently hardened her as a politician, making her autocratic, ruthless, and unsparing towards her political opponents. She reportedly liked and encouraged sycophancy. Congress (R) was rechristened Congress (I), in which I stood for Indira and then party president Dev Kant Barooah surmounted all heights by giving slogan “Indira is India”. These tendencies led her to have only lackeys as advisors. She also did not allow regional satraps to develop vested interests, changing chief ministers and state party presidents frequently.

Emergency

The logical culmination of this political process was suspension of democracy by imposing Emergency on the country on June 25, 1975, after the Allahabad High Court found her guilty of using “official machinery” during 1971 election in her constituency – Rae Bareli in UP. The verdict meant that she would be deprived of her seat in the parliament and would be required to stay out of politics for six years. She appealed against the ruling to the Supreme Court but did not receive a satisfactory response.

The entire opposition was locked up in jails under Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). Citizens’ civil liberties were suspended, the press was censored and the majority of opposition leaders were detained without trial. Throughout that “Reign of Terror”, thousands of dissidents were imprisoned without due process.

What she had not bargained for, however, was excesses committed by the bureaucracy and the police during this period. The common man was angry at forced sterilisation programme, which was part of her 20-Point Programme. There were allegations that even unmarried persons had been subjected to sterilisation by government officials, who had targets to meet to get increments and promotions. In Delhi, police demolished encroachments in Old Delhi’s Turkman Gate area without providing alternative accommodation for the displaced, under instructions from then DDA chairman Jagmohan. Convinced that opposition had been vanquished and people were happy with improved governance during this period, she lifted Emergency on March 11, 1977, and ordered for fresh elections. She badly lost to a joint opposition – both left parties and right wing Jan Sangh coming together with socialists and breakaway Congressmen. She used to say in her public speeches that I want “garibi hatao” (remove poverty), but the opposition has just one agenda Indira hatao (remove Indira from power). Opposition’s counter-slogan was - Kha gai shakkar, pee gai tel, ye dekho Indira ka khel (neither sugar is available nor kerosene).

The Janata Rule

Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister and ambitions knew no bounds in other leaders. His government fell after a year and his colleague Charan Singh became PM with outside support of Congress. Indira Gandhi turned the tide in her favour by raising issues like Dalit massacre by visiting one such village, Belchhi, in flood-affected Barh district of Bihar (see accompanying article by Bhishma Narain Singh). She also won a Lok Sabha by-election from Chikmagalur in Karnataka and highlighted misgovernance by disparate opposition leaders, who came together with no agenda other than displacing Indira. There evidently was a single-minded pursuance of flimsy cases of omission and commission against her. So much so that she was evicted from her official residence and her aide Mohd Yunus offered her to stay in his Willingdon Crescent residence in Delhi while moving his family to his personal house elsewhere in the Capital. She was arrested and while being sent to jail she created quite a scene by alighting from the police jeep midway. All this painted a picture of her being persecuted without much substance and created a political wave of sympathy for her. She made a grand comeback to power in 1980.

This time Punjab became her Achilles Heel. Two Congress leaders from Punjab, Giani Zail Singh and Darbara Singh, used to be at loggerheads. While the latter, as Punjab chief minister, was against militancy, the former -with Indira’s tacit support - propped up people like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a counterweight to Akali leaders. They had not realised the magnitude of the monster they were unleashing. Bhindranwale, with support from Pakistan, started running a parallel government of ‘Khalistan’ and Indira had to use the army to flush out militants holed up inside Golden Temple. Desecration of their most holy place agitated Sikhs no end and Indira Gandhi was shot by her own Sikh bodyguards on the morning of October 31, 1984.

She had paid no heed to the warning by the Intelligence Bureau that she faced life threat from Sikhs and that she should remove all Sikhs from her personal security. That was a fatal error of judgement. She trusted her bodyguards, who used to greet her every day.

Personal Traits

She implicitly trusted her close aides, who had formed a coterie around her. That promoted sycophancy. So much so that at one point in time, it was often said that Indira Gandhi was the only ‘man’ in her Cabinet. This not only emanated from her being decisive, overbearing and an efficient administrator, but also from her being the most popular contemporary leader in the country – making her the biggest vote-catcher. The entire party depended upon Indira for riding to power whether at the Centre, in states or even in panchayats. She was so popular that even her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi is often called ‘Indira Amma’ by people living in remote villages.

People have often described her as a very sensitive person. She was a person of strong likes and dislikes. Her younger son Sanjay was her favourite son while elder son Rajiv’s wife Sonia Gandhi was her favourite daughter-in-law. That explains the turmoil in Indira’s household which resulted in Sanjay’s wife Maneka leaving Prime Minister’s residence in a huff amid media glare after her husband’s death.

A Spanish author Javier Moro in his book, The Red Sari (named after the sari woven by Jawaharlal Nehru in jail and worn by first Indira and then Sonia, at their respective weddings), has described Sonia’s first meeting with Indira Gandhi at India House – the Indian Ambassador’s residence in London Indira received Rajiv and Sonia in her room. Sonia found herself facing a fragile looking woman in an elegant silk sari. Sonia enjoyed the meeting, which ended in the most familiar way possible. The young couple had to attend a student party and Sonia asked if she could change into her evening dress in a room in the embassy. But as soon as she went out she tripped, and the heel of her shoe ripped the hem of her dress. Indira, trying to put her at ease, took out a needle and black thread and proceeded in a matter of factly manner, to stitch up the hem. Wasn’t that exactly the sort of thing my own mother would have done, thought Sonia. On the other hand, in a deleted chapter of Khushwant Singh’s autobiography, which was later reproduced in a book by Ravi Dayal, it is clearly mentioned how Indira Gandhi never liked Maneka. In one particular incident after Sanjay Gandhi’s death, Maneka was asked to sit with PM’s aides like RK Dhawan and ML Fotedar while Sonia and Rajiv were seated along with Indira at an official reception for visiting British PM Margret Thatcher.

Monetary Matters

Fotedar has described her to be very particular about proper utilisation of money. In his memoir ‘The Chinar Leaves’ Fotedar wrote, “I never saw her handle any money and she was very frugal in personal expenditures and use of resources. Before retiring to bed, she used to ensure that no unnecessary lights were burning and would switch that off herself”. Elsewhere, writing about Rajiv Gandhi’s first election from Amethi, Fotedar wrote, “Indiraji had strict instructions that no money should be accepted from individuals except friends of the family. AR Antulay, then chief minister of Maharashtra, sent in Rs 5 lakh in a suitcase. I mentioned it to Indiraji who said it must be immediately returned. Again, Sheila Kaul, then education minister, sent Rs 3 lakh through her PA. Indiraji said, “Tell Sheila Kaul to take back the money. If she resists, ask her from whom she got it, get their address and tell her it will be sent there.” She added, “If you say this, she will immediately take it back. These people collect the money in my name and one does not know how much she actually received.” I called up Sheila Kaul and when she resisted I asked for the name and address of the person from whom she got the money. She said, “I will send my PA immediately to collect the money.” As far as I could make out, the principle involved here appeared to be following – Financial assistance may validly given and accepted from real friends, offered without any expectation of quid pro quo as a gesture of friendship, Fotedar observed, noting that Indira Gandhi had no personal property

in her name.

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