Indira Gandhi challenged the privileged and placed India’s poor at the centre of politics

What was initiated by the Iron Man of India, Vallabhbhai Patel, was completed by India’s Iron Lady who ended Privy Purse of princes. But her decision to end royal privileges is rarely remembered today

Indira Gandhi at a Public Function, 1976, New Delhi, India
Indira Gandhi at a Public Function, 1976, New Delhi, India

Meenakshi Natarajan

"My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do work and those who take credit. He told me to try to be in the first group, there was much less competition," Indira Gandhi once said.

She could have very easily chosen the path of pleasing the powerful, preserving their hegemony and by using their resources continue to be in power, as the rulers do today. But she became the voice of the voiceless. She challenged the privileged and placed India’s poor at the centre of India’s politics. She lent her ears to those who had never been heard before.

She believed like Mahatma Gandhi that poverty was debilitating not just for the body and mind but destroyed initiative, creativity and even morality. She understood it was the concentration of wealth that enabled concentration of political and social power. Unless the stranglehold of the elite on resources and wealth was weakened, an egalitarian society would only remain a dream for Indians. Babasaheb Ambedkar too had expressed similar sentiments in Constituent Assembly.

She took concrete steps to transfer economic power to the people. Transfer of political power and voting rights were meaningless without empowering the poor. The reforms initiated by Rajiv Gandhi in empowering villages would not have succeeded but for the hard decisions taken earlier by Indira Gandhi.

Banks in the 1960s were controlled by capitalists. While 80% of Indians lived in villages, banks were in the cities. Nationalisation of 20 private banks in 1969 set the ball rolling for dramatic expansion and reforms. While there were just 8,187 bank branches in 1969, by March 2019 the number had gone up to 1,41,756.

In 1969 not even 1% of villages were covered by banks. Peasants and small farmers were not deemed eligible for bank loans. Banks were content to collect money from capitalists and industrialists, service the money and lend the money to the same set of people. Banks were their exclusive treasury. This was when agriculture contributed 50% of India’s GDP and industry’s contribution was a meagre 15%. But 67% of the bank loans were secured by industry

Bank nationalisation put an end to this dichotomy. Agriculture credit received a push. The hold of money lenders in rural economy loosened. This was a period when India was not yet self-sufficient in food. But the Green revolution led by agriculture scientists like M.S. Swaminathan put an end to recurrent droughts and famine. Nationalised banks provided the institutional backing. It is only because of those initiatives that Indians can today open Jan Dhan accounts.

This phase also witnessed initiatives at land reforms, expansion of irrigation and food grain storage. India became self sufficient in food. India no longer had to wait for discarded wheat to land from the US.

Admittedly, over-dependence on chemical fertilisers, which helped usher in the Green Revolution, has eroded fertility of the soil. India certainly needs to move towards an organic revolution in agriculture today. But in 1960s in the environment of recurrent famine and starvation, the immediate need was to increase the productivity.

Increased agriculture productivity helped make rural India relatively more prosperous. In power equations rural India began to weigh in more and put a check on the unbridled power enjoyed by the urban elite. SC and ST sub-plans were initiated and cooperatives were given more teeth.

Her decision to end Privy Purse and royal privileges is rarely remembered today and is dismissed as symbolic. To place it in context, India had become free barely 25 years ago from not just the British Crown but also from over 550 princely states. While British Rule lasted a few centuries, the princely states had ruled over Indians over a much longer period.

Not surprisingly, even after all these years one continues to hear erstwhile princes being addressed as ‘Hukum’ or ‘Maharaj’. The decision to end the Privy Purse, the payment made by the government to royal families for integrating with India in 1947 and then merging their states with India in 1949, and other privileges like gun salutes etc. therefore required strong political will. The decision was challenged in court and it was only after a two-yearlong litigation that the decision could be implemented.

In the 1960s it would have been easier for Indiraji to meekly accept the hegemony of both US and China. It would have been easier to do nothing in East Pakistan on the pretext of India’s lack of resources. But she reached out to the Soviet Union as a counterweight to the US bullying and intervened militarily in East Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh.

She could have dropped some of her personal security personnel after the army action at the Golden Temple. But she refused. She refused to single out an entire community for the deeds of a few. To her they were all Indians and to stigmatise an entire community was not acceptable.

Today’s ruling elite, who in their ignorance or arrogance are busy dividing customs, colours, festivals, towns, garments, jewellery and even languages as Hindu or Muslim, have a lot to learn about being Indian from her. The essence of Indianness, her life and death remind us, is to stand up for the just and the weak.

(The writer is a former Lok Sabha MP. Views are personal)

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