Indira Gandhi: A PM who cared about people, plants & flowers

Principal Secretary to former PM Indira Gandhi, in his book “My Years with Indira Gandhi” recalls his surprise at her varied interests & how her image was often at odds with her real persona

Indira Gandhi:  A PM who cared about people, plants & flowers

PC Alexander

What impressed me most about Indira Gandhi was the versatility of her interests and tastes. The public at large knew her as the Prime Minister and the undisputed leader of the Congress party. To most people, she was a political leader and the coverage in the Press in India and abroad was invariably about her pronouncements and activities as a politician. But those who knew her closely knew that she was equally interested and active in a wide range of subjects which had little to do with politics. Her interest in flowers and trees, forests and wild life, mountains and environment and arts and architecture was as intense as her interest in politics.

Other equally intense interests for her were the amelioration of the sufferings of the physically handicapped, particularly the blind, and the eradication of leprosy. The cause of children and women and the welfare of the tribal communities was another area of great concern for her. Indira Gandhi's interest in and commitment for these causes were not just peripheral, but total.

I have often wondered how a person so deeply involved in politics and administration could have such intense involvement and interest in these matters. In fact, even in the midst of the busiest of schedules, she would always find time for meeting persons connected with these causes and even give precedence to such meetings over other official engagements.

The "Iron Lady" image

The "Iron Lady" image which the media in India and abroad had built up around Indira Gandhi is a totally ill-fitting and undeserving one. Perhaps this image stuck to her after the Bangladesh war. No doubt she had strong convictions of her own on many matters and would not hesitate to take such action as she considered appropriate, without bothering about the criticisms it might provoke. But this was only one aspect of her personality. By nature, she was neither hard-hearted nor dictatorial as is often made out by her critics.

The decision to go to war with Pakistan was forced on her by the stupidity of General Yahya Khan in ordering the strike on Indian air-fields without any provocation. Yahya underestimated the grit and courage of Indira Gandhi and Pakistan had to pay a heavy price for this.

While the war was forced on her, her decision to announce a unilateral ceasefire and to recognise Bangladesh as a new sovereign country was entirely hers. It is in these two decisions that the remarkable qualities of courage and statesmanship of Indira Gandhi come out most conspicuously. She had told me how almost her entire cabinet and the Chiefs of the Armed Forces had vehemently opposed the idea of a ceasefire when India could, if it wanted, wrest large chunks of territory on the Western front immediately after Pakistan's humiliating surrender at Dacca. But Indira Gandhi's statesmanship prevailed over the quite understandable wishes of her political colleagues and military advisers and a ceasefire was declared without going in for territorial gains.

Recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign state at that juncture prevented the possibility of that country emerging as an autonomous unit in a loose Pakistani confederation. If Indira Gandhi had not taken the crucial decision to accord full-scale recognition to Bangladesh, the history of the subcontinent could have taken a different course. International pressure would have become irresistible to find some sort of a face-saving formula in order to keep, at least nominally, the territorial integrity of Pakistan.

If time was allowed for an examination of the pros and cons of an independent Bangladesh and a Bangladesh as an autonomous unit of the Pakistani confederation, the decision would in all probability have been in favour of the latter. It was here that Indira Gandhi showed exceptional courage and foresight. India's promptness in recognising Bangladesh took the issue out of the hands of constitutional pundits and international pressure groups. After India's announcement of its decision to recognise Bangladesh, it was only a question of a few days for the new nation to gain worldwide recognition. Indira Gandhi's decision in announcing a unilateral ceasefire and prompt recognition of Bangladesh as an independent nation demonstrated the cool courage of a great statesman and not the brashness of an "Iron Lady".

Dismissal of the Communist Government

Perhaps, another reason for her "Iron Lady" image was her alleged role in dismissing the first communist government of E.M.S. Namboodiripad in Kerala in 1957. Indian communists have been persistently propagating the story that it was Indira Gandhi who as Congress President prevailed upon her father to dismiss the ministry in the wake of the mass agitation known as "Vimochana Samaram" or "war of liberation".

In fact, even several Congressmen,, hold on to this story as authentic and sometimes cite it as an example of Indira Gandhi's courage in decision-making. The Indian communists, have of course, described this as the most unpardonable crime against democracy and have not grown tired of repeating this charge against her on every possible occasion. But the fact is that it was not Indira Gandhi who played the crucial role in the dismissal of the communist government but Pandit Pant, then Home Minister.

Indira Gandhi told me on a number of occasions when this subject came up for discussion between us that it was Pant's insistence on dismissing the communist ministry that really prevailed with Prime Minister Nehru. I once asked her why she had not refuted this allegation against her even though the communist parties had been using this as an example of her high-handedness and anti-democratic attitude. Her reply was typical of her attitude to the criticism of opposition parties against her. "If I am to refute all the allegations against me by the opposition parties", she told me, "I will have no time for anything else".

Indira Gandhi has been most unfairly criticised by some people for her alleged involvement in the dismissal of N.T. Rama 'Rao's government in August 1984. The truth is that she came to know of Governor Ramlal's action, for the first time, when I got the news from the Intelligence Bureau and brought it to her notice. She was quite upset and annoyed at the action taken and even took it as part of a move on the part of some interested groups close to her to malign her and weaken her authority. M.G. Ramachandran, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, telephoned me from Madras early in the morning of 21st August 1984 strongly suggesting that she should repudiate this allegation publicly as the people in the South were beginning to question her bona fides in this sordid affair. I conveyed this to her and she readily agreed to do so and emphatically repudiated the charge during her intervention in the debate on the Andhra Pradesh developments later in the day in the Parliament. Nevertheless, some critics keep on repeating this allegation against her.

Even though she publicly refuted the charge about her involvement in the dismissal of the N.T. Rama Rao ministry, she chose not to do so about the charge relating to the dismissal of the communist government in Kerala, mainly because she did not want to be seen as shifting the responsibility to Pandit Pant, who was not alive and for whom she had great personal respect and regard. She had, on several occasions, mentioned to me the communists' allegations against her in this matter as an example of the opposition parties' campaign of vilification against her, based on their own assumptions.

A journalist once described Indira Gandhi, in what was intended to be high praise to her] as the "only man in her cabinet" and this has often been quoted in complimentary tributes to her. Indira Gandhi heartily disliked the sexist slant in this tribute. She once told me that statement like this revealed the arrogance in the thinking of some men that courage and excellence are the monopoly of men. if a woman showed such qualities, she had to be described as a man and if a man displayed lack of such qualities he had to be described as a woman.

She strongly resented the condescending superiority complex underlying such statements. She told me that the worst example of the Sexist superiority complex in India was the practice of making mock presents of glass bangles to political leaders as a gesture of insult. If a political leader showed weakness or cowardice in a crisis, the ultimate insult was to present him with bangles, which in other words was calling him a woman. She felt sad that this type of sexist slur was commonly accepted even by persons who were otherwise not biased against women. She mentioned this as an example to show how deep-rooted the prejudices against women in India are.

Neatness and orderliness

Indira Gandhi attached great importance to neatness and orderliness in everything she did and in the environment in which she lived or worked. A flowerpot in the wrong place, a chair in an awkward position, a photograph hanging slanted on the wall, pencils, pens and stationery carelessly thrown about on the table or dust or dirt in a corner would immediately attract her attention. Often, she would not wait for an orderly or someone else to do the job of restoring neatness and order in her office; she would do such jobs herself shaming others who should have been more conscientious in their work.

Once as I entered her office in the Parliament House for my ell usual morning meeting with her, I did not find her on her chair. Looking around, I saw her washing the lower parts of the leaves of, the plants in the flowerpots in her room with a wet towel. I was somewhat amused at the sight of the Prime Minister of India with a towel and a jug of water in her hands, diligently going ahead with the work of cleaning the leaves.

It took a few minutes for her to complete the work of the cleaning she had started but she asked me not to wait till she had finished this gardener’s work and I carried on my discussions on high matters of State with Prime Minister while she was cleaning each leaf of the plant with great care and dexterity,

(Excerpts from ‘My Years with Indira Gandhi’ By P.C. Alexander, who was Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister)

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Published: 19 Nov 2017, 8:58 AM