Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) changed the status quo

Socialism and secularism became the hall mark of the Indira Gandhi era, even milestones of the Constitution but were resisted by the old order both within the Congress party and beyond

Opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Delhi with President Alhaji Shehi Shagari of Nigeria, Margaret Thatcher and India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. (Photo by Ron Bell - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images, 23 November, 1983)
Opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Delhi with President Alhaji Shehi Shagari of Nigeria, Margaret Thatcher and India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. (Photo by Ron Bell - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images, 23 November, 1983)
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Salman Khurshid

Indira Gandhi strode tall in a world full of larger than life figures.

She took hold of India when many of our dreams were weighed down with doubt, our plans for a modern democracy embroiled in the contradictions of a maturing democratic society. Our difficulties were the outcome of our steadfast commitment to freedom and participatory governance.

She saw social status quo and boldly opted to take it on in the quest for change and transformation. Where the Constitution impeded transformation that it was conceived to achieve, she sought to amend it.

She succeeded in making property rights malleable for social welfare but of course when she pursued welfare at the cost of liberty of individuals, the Supreme Court went along but the electorate resisted. Ironically her endeavour to change social reality at break neck speed brought about the reaction of Basic Structure jurisprudence. Essentially it puts a break on amendments to the Constitution where they impinge upon the core of the constitution and without which the Constitution would lose its identity.

She may have found it obstructive of Parliamentary supremacy and she was certainly not alone in that view, shared by many contemporary scholars and jurists. Fortuitously that jurisprudential device may today turn out to be our saviour from what some people describe as the undeclared emergency.

The abolition of Privy Purses and Bank Nationalisation were two major steps to break free from the established order and open up the economy to a greater number of citizens. Without these two far sighted steps we would have remained stuck in an economic oligarchy.

The emergence of the new middle class of course did not happen without some people taking unfair advantage and that made it necessary to introduce stringent laws. The confrontation with vested interests led to the need felt for greater discipline and accountability to the State, finally culminating in the declaration of the internal emergency.

Nothing of such moment comes without collateral developments or partially contributed by them. People may have their own explanations about the emergency being a device to escape the consequences of Justice Sinha’s election petition judgement but it might just have been the tilting point.

Indian polity was becoming unmanageable for a variety of social and economic reasons, sort of unwholesome expectations unleashed by the policies of democratisation that the ‘Garibi Hatao’ campaign represented. Socialism and secularism became the hall mark of the Indira Gandhi era, even milestones of the Constitution but were resisted by the old order both within the Congress party and beyond. The foundations of modern India thus fortified by Indira Gandhi allowed us to bridge the past with the future.

The pragmatism that we were forced in 1962 to replace the preferred idealism of Panch Sheel we had pursued since Independence under Jawaharlal Nehru has stood us in good stead. If we can today speak as equals to powers across the globe (provided we want to) it is largely because of Indira Gandhi’s strategic foresight that notched unmatched accomplishments of being the cradle for the new born Bangladesh and all but ready for weaponising nuclear devices.

If ever there were flags of atmanibharta that adorn our national outlook and outcome it was inter alia those. They remain unmatched and far from surpassed despite the passage of several decades and our economy having reached great heights. Walking hand in hand with President Trump hardly matches the firm and unequivocal responses given to President Richard Nixon.

Daughter of a dreamer and visionary, Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi figured that those dreams would not come to fruition without getting her hands soiled and personal welfare put at risk. The internal emergency kept her in power but at a personal cost spelt out by the electorate in the election that followed. The Indira Gandhi who personified India lost her own electoral constituency.

We are constant reminded of that defeat by our present-day adversaries who have no problem sharing power with persons closely identified with the emergency. Be that as it may, our adversaries forget that within 18 months of being ousted from power Indira Gandhi romped back to office, decimating for good the rag tag opposition to her political personality. It cannot be that democracy is fine when you win but it is unacceptable when you lose.

It is sad for our country that the ground fissures in our polity did not heal with Indira Gandhi’s return to power and if anything returned in a more vicious manner. The simmering discontent in Punjab morphed into a full-scale rebellion with open challenge to life and liberty of the ordinary citizen.

It was not a war between Sikhs who had been the backbone of India’s military prowess, outstanding sportspersons, and most secular adherents of constitutional values, and the State of India. It was a confrontation between two ideas of India in which honest and courageous Hindus and Sikhs paid for the of disruption and disorder.

Indira Gandhi too must have felt the loneliness of the long distance runner in ordering the Indian Army to crush the rebellion. She saved India from unimaginable consequences but paid the price with her life, a sacrifice for the country. That a deeply lacerated Punjab should rapidly return to a path of security and prosperity is a lasting tribute to the great lady and her devotion to the idea of India.

People who worked with her and knew her closely recall the awe they felt in her presence. She was frail but with nerves of steel. Her life story should be a reminder to politicians of the present generations that crushing one who believes in a cause only strengthens the resolve. That resolve ultimately blossoms into success.

But no success is permanent. There is but a few years to etch a legacy on the national psyche. The deep impression left on India by Indira Gandhi on the generation that grew up during her time cannot be erased by passing political winds. Perhaps it is that reason that the incumbent establishment that seldom tires of undermining Nehru does not muster the courage to question Indira Gandhi.

(The writer is a former External Affairs Minister)

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