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IN THEIR PRIME - The paranoia and pride of Indira Gandhi

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By Politics and Play - Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 1.11.14

In the summer of 1971, the most powerful Indian then alive visited my home town. Never had Indira Gandhi’s stock been higher; she was verily what both her friends and opponents called her, the “Empress of India”. She had just won an emphatic victory in a general election; and was to win an even more emphatic victory on the battlefield before the year was out.

Mrs Gandhi had come to Dehradun on vacation, but was persuaded to speak to the boys of the school in which I studied, for her own boys had once studied there too. With her came her elder son, Rajiv, and his wife, Sonia. (In view of the fact that he had effectively been expelled from the school, Sanjay was sensibly left behind.)

I remember three things from that visit. First, the spontaneity with which Rajiv touched the feet of his old teachers. Second, a remark made by Mrs Gandhi in her talk, to the effect that one must learn to concentrate upon more than one thing at a time. Third, the aftermath of the talk, when the prime minister called a man from the audience on the stage and introduced him to us thus: “Inka naam Ram Niwas Mirdha hai. Ye hamare neta hai. Unko aap sab namaste kijiye.” We obediently stood up and saluted the minister, while he preened, like a pet poodle petted by his mistress.

The gesture (on both sides) was characteristic. The Empress would condescendingly patronize her loyal subject, and the loyal subject would be enormously gratified at being noticed at all. Unlike her father, Indira Gandhi had little respect for her party colleagues. There is a lovely (if possibly apocryphal) story of how, before one of her visits to the United States of America, Lyndon Johnson asked the Indian ambassador in Washington how he should address the visitor: ‘Madame’, or ‘Mrs Gandhi’? What did her own cabinet colleagues call her? — he further asked. The query was related back to Delhi, whereupon the prime minister instructed the diplomat to tell the US president that her ministers usually called her ‘Sir’.

Mrs Gandhi’s arrogance was in part born out of insecurity (a not uncommon combination). She had a lonely childhood and a difficult marriage (her husband was said to be notoriously unfaithful). When, in January 1966, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s premature death made her an accidental prime minister, she was subject to savage and sometimes sexist attacks by the Opposition. The ‘Syndicate’ of ageing, conservative men which then controlled her party gave her little freedom to operate. Her own deputy prime minister made manifest his ambition to replace her.

To outflank her opponents — outside and within her party — Indira Gandhi made the prime minister’s office the key locus of decision-making. All major appointments were to be made through the PMO, rather than by members of the cabinet. The second most powerful person in government was her principal secretary, P.N. Haksar, a former diplomat whom Mrs Gandhi had known in Allahabad and in the United Kingdom. Haksar was a man of unimpeachable personal integrity, this combined with strong (albeit sometimes out of date) views on politics and the economy.

Between 1967 and 1974, Mrs Gandhi relied more, much more, on Haksar than on any member of her cabinet. Her other advisers were also not party men — and, in what cannot entirely have been an accident, were also (like her and Haksar) most often Kashmiri Pandits. They included the economist, P.N. Dhar, the diplomats, D.P. Dhar, T.N. Kaul and B.K. Nehru, and the intelligence expert, R.N. Kao.

Between 1967 and 1974, it was these advisers, led by Haksar, who designed the policies that the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was to implement. In economics, this meant a further nationalization of industries and banks, and a tightening of the control on private sector operations. In politics, this meant the delegitimizing of other Congress leaders at both state and Central levels, with the prime minister reaching out directly to the electorate. In foreign affairs, this meant the support, moral, financial, and ultimately military, to the independence struggle in East Pakistan, combined at the global level with a decided tilt towards the Soviet Union. In administration and the judiciary, this meant the undermining of internal processes of evaluation and promotion in favour of senior appointments made directly by the PMO.

In 1974, Haksar fell out of favour. This was because he had warned his boss that the business dealings of her son, Sanjay, were bringing discredit to her government. With a mother’s blindness, Mrs Gandhi disregarded Haksar. In 1975, the Emergency was proclaimed and Sanjay replaced Haksar as the second most powerful person in the country. Congress chief ministers cravenly lined up to salaam him (and in one case, even carry his slippers).

Between 1975 and 1980, Sanjay Gandhi was Indira Gandhi’s principal (and often sole) political adviser. Sanjay was a boor and a bully (as his interventions during the Emergency showed) but he was also an extremely canny political operator. When the Congress lost power in 1977 and his mother was losing heart, Sanjay rallied her around and rebuilt the party through a cadre of younger leaders loyal to him. The Congress’s return to power in 1980 was largely scripted by Sanjay.

After Sanjay Gandhi’s death in a plane crash, the prime minister brought her previously apolitical aviator son, Rajiv, into politics. The electoral defeat in 1977, and the death of her beloved younger son, had made her paranoia and insecurity even more intense. Haksar and his colleagues were unrelated to Mrs Gandhi. But now, there was no one she could trust who was not her closest blood relative.

In personality and political style, our current prime minister bears a striking resemblance to Indira Gandhi. Like her, he has subordinates and enemies, but few peers. In fact, perhaps only one — his party president, whose role in the current dispensation is not unlike that once played by Sanjay Gandhi. Like Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi has subordinated a once powerful party machinery to his personal will. Like her, he has made assembly and general elections a debate about him and him alone. Like her, he has used the media to build a cult of personality around himself. Like her, he has sidelined his cabinet colleagues (with the exception only of Arun Jaitley) and made the PMO responsible for key appointments and policy decisions.

To be sure, whereas Mrs Gandhi was born to privilege and into a political family, Modi is entirely self-made. In her case, it was a lonely childhood and a bad marriage that promoted insecurity. In his case it may have been the arduous struggle up the party hierarchy, coupled with the intense criticism he faced for his handling of the riots of 2002.

There are, however, clear differences in the realm of economic ideology. In the 1970s, when an industrial base was in place and self-reliance in food assured, the time had come to open out the economy. Indira Gandhi unfortunately chose to bring business under even more strict State control. Modi, on the other hand, is a vigorous promoter of enterprise and entrepreneurship. While questions may be raised about his perceived closeness to particular businessmen, his general orientation towards loosening the State’s stranglehold over the economy is to be welcomed.

If the comparison in terms of economic policy is in Modi’s favour, in other respects Mrs Gandhi comes out looking better. She had a deep commitment to religious, linguistic and cultural pluralism. She would never, implicitly or explicitly, endorse the ‘Hindu-first’ ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. This pluralism led to her death, for she had been advised not to keep Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath of the invasion of the Golden Temple.

Indira Gandhi also had an abiding respect for modern science and scientists, coupled with scepticism about exaggerated claims for ancient wisdom. When our Mars mission was launched, Modi praised Aryabhatta. Had Mrs Gandhi been around she would, I am sure, have singled out the two modern men who made ISRO what it is — Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan. She also had a genuine appreciation for ecology and conservation. It was during her tenure as prime minister that the department of environment was started — a department the current government seems determined to render redundant.

What we have here is distinct (and opposed) political ideologies, but similar political styles. When I see Narendra Modi, and when I think of Indira Gandhi, I am invariably reminded of words I have previously quoted in these columns: the words from Ambedkar’s last speech in the constituent assembly, warning of the dangers of bhakti or hero-worship in politics. The Congresswoman who died 30 years ago this week, and the BJP man who is our current prime minister, are united by their domineering instincts and by their desire to be worshipped. An authoritarian personality at the apex of a professedly democratic polity: that was once the paradox of Indira Gandhi, and that is now the paradox of Narendra Modi.