Sunday, October 30, 2005

Indira Gandhi

The 21st anniversary of the assassination of Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi falls tomorrow. I will be selective given the difficulty in evaluating a contradictory legacy such as hers in a mere 300 words. Her shortcomings have been rectified while her far-sighted vision will continue to inspire decision-makers.

Mrs. Gandhi introduced a highly personalized approach to politics that undermined India's institutions. She valued loyalty above competency and brooked no dissent. The emphasis was on personal charisma, not institutional continuity. Institutions provide resilience to a polity while individuals, their charisma notwithstanding, are transitional. Indira undermined the formidable elected grass-roots base of the Congress Party. There were no party elections from 1971 to 1991. She undermined the federal character of the Indian polity by imposing President's rule in opposition-ruled states and sidelining regional contenders within the party. State-level units of the Congress Party no longer elected the Chief Ministers, she designated them.

Then there was the Emergency. Mrs. Gandhi introduced amendments to the constitution that weakened the judiciary. The 38th Amendment, the 39th Amendment and the proposed 40th Amendment stipulated that the courts could no longer rule on the Emergency, adjudicate on election disputes related to the President, Prime Minister and Speaker, and prosecute the executive for criminal offenses. Indira briefly imposed press censorship and imprisoned opponents. Her emasculation of India's institutional capital left a void. However, successive Governments have rectified these shortcomings and India's institutions remain resilient - be it the courts, the elections commission, the legislature, the state assembly and the media. Her handling of the Punjab insurrection is now thankfully history.

It is her foreign policy, her defence policy, the emphasis on science and the Green Revolution that continue to inspire, like no other post-independence Indian leader. The Green Revolution had resolved the age-old Indian problem of famine once and for all. Indira had a genuine commitment to the marginalized and dispossessed, be it women, Dalits and Muslims. I will only focus on realpolitik.

The Bangladesh independence movement in 1971 led to 10 million East Bengali refugees and the death of 2 million Bengalis in what could only be described as Pakistani war crimes. Never to miss an opportunity, she swiftly signed the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Cooperation with the Soviet Union and lobbied international attention to events in East Bengal. India trained the East Bengali resistance. The alleged Pakistani air raids on Indian soil provided the pretext for Indian forces to enter East Pakistan. The Indian military, that had been stymied by inept political leadership in 1948 in Kashmir, in 1962 in Arunachal Pradesh and in 1965, now performed brilliantly. It "liberated" East Bengal in less than three weeks and captured 93,000 Pakistani soldiers. The army captured Kargil and Siachen in the disputed territory of Kashmir and was ready to proceed further but the entry of the US 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal was a warning to stop.

That experience convinced Indira Gandhi of the need for a nuclear option. India detonated a nuclear device and launched its first space satellite, Aryabhatta, in 1974. Indira leveraged the Nepalese majority in Sikkim to merge with India that year to pre-empt Chinese influence. India invested in missile and space technology. It emphasized deep sea mining, participated in deliberations related to the Law of the Sea, and launched its first foray into the Antarctic establishing a base there in 1982. India built a Blue Water Navy. Indira used the Tamil insurrection in Sri Lanka to undo that country's emerging strategic equation with the United States. Her policy emphasized the importance of the Andaman and Laccadive islands. In Henry Kissinger's "White House Years" published by Little, Brown and Company in 1979 , Mrs. Gandhi is described as "a cold-blooded practioner of power politics" and "a strong personality relentlessly pursuing India's national interest with single-mindedness and finesse".

Indira Gandhi found it hard to work within institutional constraints. This explained her shortcomings in domestic policy. Institutions were not key when it came to foreign policy and she did well there. India reached out to multiple frontiers under her. While successive Governments have now gone much further, it was Indira who got the ball rolling. India thought big and reached for the stars. This was her foremost legacy, one that made her independent India's most high profile leader.


Jaffna said...

Let me quote Kissinger once again. I refer to page 881 of the book.

"And there was an element of truth, she said, in the often-heard charge that India had been brought into being by leaders of an indigenous independence movement while Pakistan had been formed by British collaborators who, as soon as they became "independent" proceeded to imprison the authentic fighters for independence. Pakistan was a jerry-built structure held together by its hatred for India, which was being stoked by each new generation of Pakistani leaders. Conditions in East Pakistan reflected tendencies applicable to ALL of Pakistan. Neither Baluchistan nor the Northwest Frontier properly belonged to Pakistan: they too wanted and deserved greater autonomy; they should never have been part of the original settlement".

He concludes his reference to the Bangladesh war thus:

"It was a sad commentary on the state of the United Nations when a full-scale invasion of a major country was treated by victim, ally, aggressor, and other great powers as too dangerous to bring to the formal attention of the world body pledged by its Charter to help preserve the peace".

doubtinggaurav said...


I am not that ambivalent about Indira Gandhi or for that matter Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
The crimes of the dynasty are too many to write in the comment, so a few points.

1) Followed socialist model of economy even after knowing that it was a disaster.

2) Encouraged statism, discouraged individual initiavitve and enterprise.

3) Conducted foreign affair from ideological perspective than from national interest.

4) Last but not the least, encouraged personality cult


Primary Red said...


The handling of the Punjab crisis was appropriate; the riots in the aftermath of her assasination is a blot, but brave act of reasserting the sanctity of the Golden Temple by evicting and killing terrorists hiding there was spot on.

This post tries hard to be fair and balanced; the problem with such balance is that it loses the big picture and leaves the conclusion somewhat ambiguous. The bottom line is that Mrs. Gandhi was the greatest indian leader post-independence and will forever be remembered for having shattered Pakistan.

Best regards.

doubtinggaurav said...


I am surprised that you will commend Indira Gandhi on handling Punjab militancy, when it was she,who fomented it in first place by encouraging Bhinderwalle to undercut communal politics of Akali Dal

No Sir,

Give me PV Narsimha Rao or Lal Bahadur Shastri Any day to lead my country


Jaffna said...


I agree that Indira might have been responsible for the Punjab crisis in the first place since it was she who built-up Bhindranwale to undermine the Akali Dal. But, I am not sure whether I would necessarily place Lal Bahadur Shastri and Narasimha Rao above her.

I suppose we are using different yardsticks i.e domestic policy vs foriegn policy considerations. Lal Bahadur Shastri and Narasimha Rao worked well to build coalitions and consensus in the domestic arena. They leveraged alliances to forge a workable Government. India had an institutional resilience. Moreover, the economy boomed under Rao with the unprecedented economic liberalization.

But their international policy was poor. Lal Bahadur Shastri presided over a lackluster stalemate vis-a-vis Pakistan in 1965. He shamefully agreed to take back 600,000 "Indians" from Sri Lanka under the Sirimavo-Shastri pact in 1964 on the false premise that it would earn Sri Lankan goodwill. Sri Lanka discreetly supported Pakistan in 1971.

Narasimha Rao deferred the nuclear issue given pressure from the United States but failed to get anything back in the national interest. Meanwhile, it was during his watch that the Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation reached new heights when Pakistan might well have detonated its first ever nuclear device in Lop Nor in China in the early 1990s. Pakistan had become a nuclear power and India did nothing to pre-empt that a la Israel vis-a-vis Iraq in the 1980s. Lal Bahadur and Narasimha are in my "weak guys" list.

doubtinggaurav said...


I agree I am using domestic policy,
but yes if we use international policy then Indira Gandhi does come as better than other PM's.
But here it should be noted that while Indira Gandhi was pragmatic, she encouraged dogma in policy (i.e. NAM, South-South cooperations),mostly for selfish interest, from which India still suffers.

I admit I did not know about Shashtri-sirimavo, which reminds me, could you cover Sri Lanka as well ? for dummies (like me :-)).

But I think it's unfair to blame Shastri for 1965 stalemate, considering how much pressure USSR put, and in 60's we could not afford to lose USSR from our side.

Narsimha Rao took India from the darkness of dogma to light of pragmatism in all spheres whether economic or diplomatic.
India started its irrevocable reconcillation with towards Israel, which still considering notwithstanding presence of "secular dunces" like Mani Shankar Aiyar.
When you say Narsimha Rao forfeited Indian nuclear option then again his main task was to bring India back from bankruptsy, nuclear option could be postponed.
Again Narsimha Rao could not help Sino-Pakistani nexus (I am not sure India cad do anything at present).
US will always need Pakistan for strategic purposes, and I doubt our reproach will change their policy which is based on self- interest.


BangaloreGuy said...

The bottom line is that Mrs. Gandhi was the greatest indian leader post-independence and will forever be remembered for having shattered Pakistan.

The woman who wrecked practically every institution of our democracy, was responsible for the Sikh militancy, and the Emergency is the greatest post-Independence India has had?
Of course not!

Jaffna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
libertarian said...

PR, as much as I cringe when you say "greatest Indian leader" I agree she shattered Pakistan - which overshadows her drawbacks.
Disagree on the Punjab crisis. Blue Star was an unmitigated political disaster. And all to seize control from her own creation, Bhindranwale. Blue Star was also a military disaster when compared to Black Thunder 2 years later. No Sikh I've met and few Punjabis think of Blue Star as a success.


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