Indira Gandhi- A patriot and a nationalist

During the Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971, foreign owned pvt oil companies had refused to supply fuel to the Indian Navy and IAF; Indira ji retaliated by nationalising oil companies in 1973

Indira Gandhi with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (right), the founding father of Bangladesh
Indira Gandhi with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (right), the founding father of Bangladesh

Dr Tushar Jagtap

She was 30 in August 1947 when India became free. She was 67 when as Prime Minister she fell to bullets fired by her own bodyguards.

Thirty-seven years after her martyrdom, the day commemorated as ‘Rashtriya Sankalp Divas’, Indians need to renew the pledge to preserve and strengthen freedom and integrity of the nation, the Constitution and maintain peace and harmony.

Her belief in India’s unity in diversity and concern for a strong and united India shone through her life, prompting Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State and security advisor to President Richard Nixon, to pay her a glowing tribute in his book. “Mrs Gandhi was a strong personality, relentlessly perusing India’s national interest with single mindedness and finesse. I respect her strength even when her policies were hurtful to our national interest.”

Throughout her life she was fighting for ‘self-esteem’ for herself, for her people, for her country and for ‘nationalists’ all over the world.

Her enigmatic personality, charisma, her imperious behaviour, often interspersed by her cold, calculated silences, a sharp glance or a terse comment were often enough to put people in their place. They could be her friends, colleagues, adversaries or even heads of state or socialites.

On July 29, 1982, speaking at a reception after her meeting with US President Ronald Reagan, she tersely said, "as history goes your country is the young one …"

After nationalisation of banks in July 1969, deposits in the public sector banks rose by 800% and advances went up by more than 11,000%. The bank branches multiplied from 8,200 to over 62,000. Most of these branches were opened up for the first time in unbanked-mofussil rural areas.

The Nationalisation helped increase household savings and also provided funds for investment in both industrial and agriculture sectors. Even her opponents praised nationalisation of banks. The third volume of RBI’s history describes nationalisation of banks as the single most significant economic decision taken by any government since 1947, even more significant than the 1991 liberalisation.

In 1971, Mrs Gandhi’s government nationalised coal, steel and copper, petroleum refineries, cotton, textile and insurance sectors. The principal motivation was to protect employment and interests of organised labour.

It is worth recalling that during the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971, foreign owned private oil companies had refused to supply fuel to the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force; she retaliated by nationalising oil companies in 1973.

Her announcement in Parliament on December 16, 1971 that Pakistani forces had unconditionally surrendered in Dhaka and that Bangladesh was now a free country sparked celebrations across the country. The Economist of London called her the ‘Empress of India’ and opposition leaders hailed her as ‘Durga’.

In response to the Test number six – a code name for China’s nuclear test, she gave a go ahead to Indian nuclear scientists to explore possibilities of a peaceful nuclear explosion. India successfully carried out its first nuclear test on 18th May, 1974, becoming the sixth member of the ‘Nuclear Club’, the most respected and feared club in the world.

Her domestic politics centred around the marginalised, the oppressed, the depressed classes; alleviation of Poverty (GaribiHatao) was not only an election gimmick but it was part of her political, social and spiritual quest for self-esteem. Her connect with the masses, especially with the poor and the women was natural. She was lovingly called by them as ‘Mother India’ or ‘Indira Amma’. She was the torch bearer of the ‘welfare state’.

Her concern for environment and wildlife, science, art and technology, sports and culture was genuine. She was the only head of the government to attend the first global conference on the human environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm in June 1972 and delivered her keynote address.

She was acutely conscious of being a politician in a volatile democracy and possibly felt she could afford to be neither a statesman nor a saint. After getting elected as the Congress president at the young age of 42 in 1959, she never quite looked back.

Her extensive travels with her grandfather and father, as Congress leaders and then Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister, within the country and abroad, provided her with valuable insights into diplomacy, foreign affairs and politics as the art of the possible.

She apologised for the excesses during the Emergency but was not repentant about it. In interviews at both home and abroad, she asserted that there were internal and external threats to the security of the country which had made her impose the Emergency.

As we remember her leadership and sacrifices, even the Emergency, let us not forget that she was a patriot and a nationalist. A pledge to make our country strong, safe and secure for the generations to come will be a fitting tribute to her legacy.

(The writer is a medical practitioner based in Mumbai. Views are personal)

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