The original Mrs G
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Her assassination and the brutal massacre of Sikhs that followed were, in different ways, profoundly tragic events. But both traced their origins to a politics that Indira Gandhi had tolerated, if not positively encouraged. In many ways, the Punjab crisis, of which these two events were the violent denouement, embodied the worst aspects of her legacy. The Congress consistently fished in troubled communal waters in Punjab, using sectarianism rather than rising above it. The state first let the crisis develop through sins of omission and commission, and then when pushed to the brink responded with brutal force. The legitimation of the violence that followed was premised largely on the deification of her persona. Only in the context where her party members believed that "Indira is India" could the massacre of three thousand people be so easily justified. Even the political shock troopers of the Sikh massacre, most of whom have since become icons of political respectability, were products of a violent street politics she had done little to curb during the Emergency. It was almost as if the context in which her assassination came to be embedded made it difficult for her death to achieve the status of martyrdom. The Congress will be doing itself a disservice by remembering her assassination as a day of martyrdom. Instead it is a day to recall how democracies can become vulnerable to their own worst tendencies.
And yet, the reverence and nostalgia for her has survived this indictment. In part, this is because her personal qualities seem to transcend her politics. While she fomented communal politics, there is little doubt that she did not have a communal bone in her body. Even as she was subverting institutions, she could project an aura of democratic grace; her authoritarianism worked precisely because her persona seemed not dictatorial. As the Congress inches towards becoming an unchallenged force once again, it will be better served by examining how a leader of many remarkable personal qualities could preside over so much conflict and bloodshed. The lessons it will have to take on board are these. Leaders are more effective when they work through institutions rather than attempting to subvert them. Second, sound economic policies are not a matter of simply projecting good intentions; they require a concerted understanding of the causal conditions that make for successful intervention. Third, being personally secular is neither here nor there. The important thing is to fish in the treacherous waters of communal identification, from wherever it comes. Fourth, as the Punjab crisis demonstrated, when the state does not act impartially and in time, it sows the seeds of greater violence in the future. Fifth, democracy is not just about the practice of popular authorisation. It is about a whole gamut of constitutional values that have to be zealously guarded.
But Indira Gandhi's mystique is perhaps best captured by her famous by-election slogan "ek sherni sau langoor, chaalo chaalo Chikmanglur". She has come to represent the paradigm of a decisive leader, someone who not only knew how to create her own power against great odds, but also knew how to decisively use it. Perhaps the most admired aspect of her legacy, one that even her bitterest critics from the BJP envy, is her foreign policy. The nuclear tests signalled India's decisive independence. But they also for ever altered the strategic landscape of the subcontinent in ways we are still coming to terms with. Her intervention in the Bangladesh crisis was a remarkable combination of realpolitik and humanitarian concern. But it has to be said that, though India won the war, it lost the peace. Not only did the Shimla agreement not decisively resolve outstanding issues between India and Pakistan, the traumatic effects of that war still reverberate in Pakistan's psyche. It is difficult for us to now imagine the global context in which India stood in the early seventies. The US was not just hostile to India, but had been actively subverting democracy around the world. And it is important not to forget that the shadow of Allende loomed large on every democratic country in the world. Indira Gandhi converted a legitimate sense of being under siege into a state of paranoia, where every opposition was identified with a foreign hand. But she gets credit for standing up in the face of immense pressure.
But the other side of the slogan "sau langoor" is equally important. While Indira Gandhi's intoxication with power was dangerous, there was nothing petty about it. Even when most misguided, she drew confidence from the fact that she was acting on behalf of a people. We have forgiven her in part because she was a Napoleonic figure of sorts. Even in her subversions of democracy, she could embody an abstract idea of the people; popular identification with her survived all institutional perfidies. Most of her opponents by contrast, even at their most virtuous, seem never to be able to rise above their narrow interests. In retrospect, with a couple of exceptions, almost all political forces that crystallised in opposition to her — from the motley crew of Lohiates, to the trench warriors of the BJP — could do everything but project the idea that they stood for India, broadly understood. The nostalgia for Indira Gandhi is based on a kernel of truth. She was the last leader who could truly belong to the whole of India. And the profound question Indian democracy has faced since is this. Are we safer with a fragmentation of interests, however narrow they appear, checking and balancing each other? Or do we need a leadership that is an embodiment of the people as a whole, with all the risks that such personification of popular power entails?
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi
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