| Lending a ear
There are first-time voters who will be going to the polls in Gujarat next month who were not even born when Indira Gandhi died. It is getting to four decades since she became prime minister in January 1966, and nearly two since she was cruelly gunned down by her own guards on October 31, 1984. Therefore, is she history — or does she continue to be of relevance today'
Her 16 years as prime minister, in two instalments from 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984, were years of turbulence, of great victories like the liberation of Bangladesh and continuing controversy like the Emergency of 1975-77. Virtually her last words were those recorded in her testament: “I cannot understand,” she wrote, “how one can be an Indian and not be proud.” That is a sentiment the India of the Eighties had no difficulty in identifying with, but the Nineties have seen a precipitate decline in national self-esteem. Most thinking Indians compare the country unfavourably to China, even Singapore.
In that sense, the India of Indira Gandhi barely survives. The instability of the Nineties, in contrast to the earlier decades of independence is, perhaps, one reason. The decay in our institutions of democracy, from the judiciary to the legislatures to the executive is, of course, another. More palpable still is the failure on the economic front compared to the runaway success of south-east and east Asia. What, it is asked, is there in such an India to be proud of' What would warrant citing today the hyperbole of Indira Gandhi'
Therein, I believe, lies the key ingredient which might still restore that national pride which was abundantly in evidence through much, if not all, of the Indira era. To understand what I am trying to get at, one must refresh one’s memory of the Times of Indira. She had been made the prime minister by a syndicate of Congress leaders in the belief that she would do the bidding of the satrapy which had crowned her. She would reign; they would rule. She initially broke from them over the devaluation of the rupee in June 1966 (then considered an apostasy!). The alienation grew after the elections of 1967 revealed the state satraps to be hollow men in empty shells. By mid-1969, Indira Gandhi had found the ideological cause — socialism without Nehruvian ambiguities — which was to mark her out.
The Congress expelled her. She hit back by positioning herself in direct confrontation with the entire political establishment bar the left, ranging from the organizational Congress which had removed her to the Jan Sangh and the Swatantra Party, the political representatives of the princely houses, big business and large swathes of the media, grouped together in what they called the Grand Alliance. It seemed a hopelessly unequal battle, with Frank Moraes railing against Indira in front-page editorials through the election campaign. The Grand Alliance focussed on Indira Gandhi as a person: “Indira hatao!” That was when Indira Gandhi hit her stride: “Woh kehte hain Indira hatao; mein kehti hoon, garibi hatao.” The retort electrified the nation. In a sweep that scarce seemed credible, Indira Gandhi became the darling of the poor — of the millions of the deprived who determine the outcome of any Indian election. It was the poor who re-elected her prime minister in March 1971 with a massive two-thirds majority.
It is that vast segment of the Indian people whose concerns and preoccupations have been moved from centre stage to the wings in the articulation of economic policy in the Nineties. Economic reforms have zeroed in on industrial sector reforms (the dismantling of the licence-permit-quota raj, foreign investment, disinvestment); financial sector reforms (priority to the profitability, as against the social purposes, of nationalized banks, tentative moves towards de-nationalization, new private banks, Indian and foreign); external sector reforms (inexorably declining exchange rates, lower tariffs, higher imports); and fiscal reforms (lower taxes, restraints on social sector spending) — all very well in their place, but where do the poor come in' Everywhere, of course, but indirectly, incidentally. The reforms grab the better-off where their pocket-books are; the poor, who were initially indifferent, are now getting hostile as second-generation reforms (labour, agricultural imports, electricity and power charges) begin invading their economic space. None of this would have much mattered if reforms had spurred a miracle in economic growth. For a while, in the Manmohan Singh years, that seemed possible as the economy soared to a sustained and growing plus 7 per cent growth from 1994 to 1997. But in the last five years, everything has slowed down. Not even the well-off are on a rising curve. Inevitably, the poor are on an even lower trajectory.
To raise the spirits of the nation, a return to Indira Gandhi’s “garibi hatao” is critical. Without the prioritization of the poor, there can be no general support for even the continuation, let alone the intensification, of the reforms process. The poor are less concerned with outcomes than with attention: sunwaayi — being listened to. Indira Gandhi listened. That is why she became their voice in 1971. They lost her ear during the Emergency. So they sent her packing. And it was her mounting an elephant to reach “inaccessible” Belchi which signalled her astonishing come-back.
In India, the policies which made economic miracles of the right-wing dictatorships of southeast and east Asia will not work, unless, of course, we, like China today, convert ourselves into a right-wing dictatorship. So long as we remain a democracy, we will need an economic policy for a democratic polity. Since the poor are the determinants of our democracy, it is the poor who must be restored centre stage. That can only come about through the political empowerment of the poor, through participatory planning and implementation, by making the poor the architects and builders of their own destiny, by grassroots development through grassroots democracy, in a word, through genuine panchayati raj. It is by making panchayati raj the centre-piece of economic reforms, by restoring “garibi hatao” to the heart of economic policy that, without becoming a dictatorship, we can re-generate our pride in being Indian.
So in foreign policy. To recall in the craven India of today how Indira Gandhi took on the mighty West is almost to recall another country. By December 1971, over the question of Bangladesh, it was nearly India versus the world. Indira Gandhi kept her iron nerve. It was her resolve that steeled India’s resolve. But it was not only the victory over Bangladesh or the Shimla Agreement which followed which made one proud of being Indian, it was her endless espousal of the basic values of the evolution of our civilization which made India’s voice a voice that mattered in opinion-making throughout the world. She made nonalignment the “biggest peace movement in the world”. Now as we watch every political party — other than the marginal left — shut ears, eyes and mouth over US aggrandisement in Iraq, how can one take any pride in an India rendered a lap-dog'
India misses Indira. If Indira were here — 85 proud years old today — the voice of India would have reverberated through the councils of the world. And that is what would have made it inconceivable to be an Indian and not be proud.