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The powerhouse that was Indira Gandhi

  • Published at 12:04 am October 31st, 2019
Indira Gandhi
Photo: COURTESY

Remembering the politician on her 35th death anniversary 

In November 1971, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger kept Indira Gandhi waiting for 45 minutes in the White House, where the Indian prime minister had gone for an official meeting, scheduled earlier, with the American President. 

The next day, it was President Nixon’s turn to pay a return visit to the Indian leader at Blair House in Washington.

Indira Gandhi kept him waiting before emerging from her quarters to greet the President. Nixon, with Kissinger in tow, got the point. India’s prime minister would not be made light of. 

In 1966, Lyndon Johnson lectured her on what India needed to do to feed itself. “Never again,” said the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru as she headed home. Once back in her country, she set her green revolution in motion. India would attain self-sufficiency in food.

As India’s third prime minister, Indira Gandhi remains a pivotal figure in the annals of history. 

There were all the low points in her exercise of leadership, such as her decision to impose a state of emergency in June 1975 and under its provisions have India’s opposition politicians carted off to jail. It would cost her the election in 1977.  

And then there were the high points in her remarkable career.

On the late afternoon of December 16, 1971, she told a cheering Indian parliament: “Dacca is now the free capital of a free country.”

She had not only assisted Bangladesh’s people, through providing their guerrilla army with moral and material support and giving shelter to 10 million refugees in their struggle for freedom, but also toured important global capitals to drum up support for the Bangladesh cause. 

Indira Gandhi was careful about the sensitivities of others. Hours before Pakistan’s new President ZA Bhutto was to arrive in Simla for talks with her in 1972, she was horrified to find, in the bedroom set aside for Bhutto, her portrait on the wall above the bed.

She swiftly ordered it pulled down. She had the curtains on the doors and windows removed and quickly replaced by new ones that were clearly more aesthetic in appeal.

Veteran Indian politician Morarji Desai, unable to accept the young woman’s ascension to the office of India’s Prime Minister following the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966, dismissively referred to her as a “chhokri,” a mere slip of a girl. In 1969, on the death of President Zakir Hussain, the aging men who had helped her assume prime ministerial office put up Neelam Sanjiva Reddy forward as their man to succeed Hussain.

Mrs Gandhi did not take it lying down. She put up VV Giri as her candidate. In the event, Giri was elected President. The prime minister was able to cut her links to the old men and assert her leadership over the country.

Indira Gandhi’s reputation suffered through the excesses committed during the Emergency, a phase in politics that was dominated by her younger son Sanjay.

The young man held no constitutional post and yet arrogated to himself the right to decide, in those dark months, the kind of politics the country was in need of. There were too, the sycophants. Dev Kant Barooah loudly proclaimed that Indira was India and India was Indira.

It was an overblown compliment which did not serve Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter well.

An electoral defeat such as the one which laid Indira Gandhi low in 1977 would have consigned any other politician to history.

The new government was determined to humiliate her. She survived it all.  She came roaring back to power three years later. 

India’s natural leader, as so many perceived her to be, was back in office. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.