A tribute to the Iron Lady on her 101st birth anniversary

The India we see today is the result of the foresight of its leaders like Indira Gandhi. It took them over sixty long years to build this great nation

A tribute to the Iron Lady on her 101st birth anniversary

Arun Sharma

In one of the many lows achieved by the Modi Government in partisan politics, it did not celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi last year. The twitter-happy prime minister who sends out birthday greetings to the president of Honduras and Haiti was too mean to say a word a word on her birth anniversary or on the day of her martyrdom. On the contrary, a few months later in June 2018, the Modi government observed the fortieth anniversary of Emergency as a black day. It was clearly an exercise to malign the image of Indira Gandhi. It is pertinent to remember that Indira Gandhi had imposed Emergency in June 1975 to curb the anti-democratic movement led by Jai Prakash Narain, the Sarvodaya leader which called for forced resignation of elected legislators and even exhorted the police and military to disobey government order.

People like me who grew up in her times know that Indira Gandhi lived and died for the country. No propaganda can erase her memory, one of the greatest daughters of our country who lives in the hearts of millions and whose own heart was in their welfare. It is, however important to remind the younger generation of the great contribution made by Indira Gandhi in building modern India on her 101st birth anniversary, which is equally auspicious for us. The liberation of Bangladesh and the first successful nuclear test were just a couple of her great achievements among the many she will be remembered for. Indira Gandhi changed the very structure of our society by her policies for the welfare of the poor as I explain in the following tribute.

Indira Gandhi was born in the year and month when the Russian Revolution occurred on 19th Nov 1917. Her father Jawaharlal, who hailed the Russian Revolution as a great event of the 20th century and a victory of the people of Russia over the Tsars, was particularly joyous at this happy co-incidence. The doting parents called her Indira Priyadarshni.

Being the only child of her parents, Indira had to endure a lonely childhood. Her father Jawaharlal was also frequently away from home, being busy with the national freedom movement and his intermittent prison terms. It may be remembered that Jawaharlal Nehru remained in the British Government’s prisons for nearly nine years as he was released and rearrested several times. It can be safely assumed that during Indira’s childhood and till her teens, Jawaharlal Ji was absent from home for nearly one third of the time.

To make things more difficult a home, her mother Kamla was taken ill with tuberculosis. She was to eventually die before Indira would be twenty. As they say, unhappiness sharpens a child’s wit. In Indira’s case, it also made her resolute and iron-willed she was destined to become in her adult life.

Indira Gandhi, who remained our Prime Minister for nearly seventeen years (from Jan 1966 to Mar 1977 and Jan 1980 till her death on 31st Oct 1984) changed the course of our nation’s history and liberated the oppressed people of the then East Pakistan creating the new nation of Bangladesh.

While historians will continue to assess the true legacy of this great lady, a few of her great contributions, can be called revolutionary – revolutionary in the sense that they changed the socio- economic structure of our society.

No wonder India became the biggest producer of milk by 1993, surpassing the US. The India we see today is the result of the foresight of its leaders like Indira Gandhi. It took them over sixty long years to build this great nation

Her first great act was to abolish the privy purses and the titles of the erstwhile maharajas. The following background will bring out the significance of this decision. The integration of the former princely states had happened immediately after independence, but the former rulers continued to receive hefty pay packets (privy purses) from the government to maintain their lavish lifestyle. They also continued to use their royal titles. Even their luxury Rolls Royce cars did not have to carry the common number plates; simply gold emblazoned seals of their respective states.

The motion to abolish the above privileges was brought in the year 1969. It was passed by the Lok Sabha, but failed by one vote to reach the required two-thirds majority in the Rajya Sabha. It was again proposed in 1971. Indira Gandhi argued the case for abolition based on equality for all citizens. The motion was eventually passed as 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India in 1971. Indira Gandhi was a great leveler.

Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of the teeming millions, who were poor. She was very soon to strike at another bastion of the rich – the private bank owned mainly by several industrial houses. These banks served the rich and the upper middle class in cities and towns and were loath to serve in rural areas, leaving millions of villagers without any access to banks. The poor in rural areas depended on money lenders-the proverbial sahukars who followed the practice of usury i.e. lending money at unreasonably high rate of interest. The poor died without repaying the loan, passing on the debt to their children.

Indira Gandhi nationalized 14 major commercial banks with effect from the midnight of 13 July 1969, by issuing an ordinance, later ratified by the Parliament. The banks would now go to the villages and lend to the poor.

We can gauge the amount of social distress this decision alleviated when we see the glaring statistics. Rural bank branches were just 1833 in the country in June 1969.These increased to 35187 by March 1991. With credit reaching to the poor, and other measures, poverty level came down. M. S. Ahluwalia analyzing the NSS data concluded that in the decade after the Green revolution (i.e. from the late 1960s to the late 1970s) there had been a steady decline in poverty.

Indira Gandhi made no secret of her socialist leanings. By the 42nd amendment to the Constitution passed in Nov 1976, she also had the Preamble amended to include the word socialism therein and changed the description of India from “sovereign, democratic, republic” to “sovereign, socialist, secular, republic”.

She once told a reporter that by socialism, she meant to ensure an equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth among its people – rich and poor. Two more steps, among others, taken by her during the seventies bear out her concern for the poor and rural India where two-thirds of the country’s population lived during the period.

One was the establishment of the Grameen Banks (rural banks) vide RRB Act of 1976 and the second was the carving out of NABARD by merging the Agriculture Credit department of the RBI and ARDC (Agricultural Refinance and Development Corporation), vide NABARD Act of 1982. Indira Gandhi herself dedicated NABARD to the nation of 12 July 1982.

These two decisions were soon to bear fruit. The rural banks with hundreds of branches across the length and breadth of the country were to reach the smallest of villages. By mid-nineties, these banks were to have a formidable outreach with their 20,000 branches. With funds scarce and interest rates still high in the early eighties, the NABARD refinanced project lending of the commercial banks via its own resources and World Bank projects.

No wonder India became the biggest producer of milk by 1993, surpassing the US. The India we see today is the result of the foresight of its leaders like Indira Gandhi. It took them over sixty long years to build this great nation.

All the development has not happened in the last four and a half years!

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Published: 19 Nov 2018, 8:00 AM