Iron Lady At 100 – Remembering Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi

19th November,2017,marks the 100th birth anniversary of India’s first women prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Popularly regarded as the Iron Lady of India, the imprints of Indira Gandhi’s legacy on Indian politics and society are too vast and deep. She’s an embodiment of various sorts – the one who thwarted Indian democracy by imposing Emergency, as well as the one who brought ‘Garib’ (poor people) and marginalized to the centre-stage of Indian politics. Today’s occasion demands an analysis of her wide-ranging legacy.

From Goongi Gudia to Incarnation of Durga

Indira Gandhi served as a Minister in the government of Lal Bahadur Shastri, however being the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, her interaction with politics dates back to the days of freedom struggle. The famous letters of Nehru written from prison to her daughter are a classic example of her early political socialization. Yet, when she was made the Prime Minister by the “Syndicate”- a group of veteran congress leaders like K Kamaraj, Atulya Ghosh etc, after the demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966, she was regarded as a political novice and hence the term Goongi Gudia (meaning silent doll). But to the surprise of the Syndicate, Indira Gandhi started to assert herself strongly after the 1967 general elections, which came as a big blow to the Congress. For the first time since independence, there were Non-Congress governments formed in at least 8 states. In order to assert her position both in the government as well as her own party, Indira Gandhi began a new era in Indian politics as she chose to build her vote-base from within the marginalized sections of the society. She therefore targetted Women, poor, Dalits, Muslims, tribals, as her political constituency. She took “bold” measures like abolition of privy purse, nationalisation of 14 banks, and the the introduction of 10 point programme to bring socio-economic transformation. The slogan “Garibi Hatao” symbolized these measures, and resonated well with the masses. This coupled with the military victory over Pakistan in 1971 war, which led to the creation of Bangladesh, elevated her status further as she was hailed as the incarnation of goddess Durga. Thus, the period around 1971 highlighted the peak of Indira Gandhi’s political career as she became the supreme leader of the country.

India is Indira and Indira is India

Like all stories, there is a dark side of this story as well. The sweeping changes that India Gandhi heraled have had an ever-lasting impact on country’s politics and political culture. Like noted historian Ramachandra Guha notes, India Gandhi thought that she knew better than any other Indian about what was good and best for India. Hence, her lack of interest in parliamentary institutions and complete disdain for procedures. She destroyed the culture of inner-party democracy which her father Nehru had cultivated and reduced the politics to a single personality thereby bringing in personality cult to Indian politics. A single person became more important than both the institutions as well the party. Her ideas of “committed judiciary” and “committed bureaucracy” undermined the institutional autonomy and independence of these pillars of constitutional democracy. For a democracy to work effectively, it is imperative that there is a strong opposition and autonomy of institutions is maintained, but Indira Gandhi did everything to undermine their authority. All this finally culminated in the form of imposition of National Emergency in June 1975, which marks the darkest phase of Indian democracy. Although, quite dramatically, Emergency came to an end in the 1977, but the changes that Indira Gandhi brought have only deepened over the years.

Although many readers may not agree with this ,but in the view of this writer, No other Prime Minister in India has influenced the political culture of this country more than Indira Gandhi. Whether that influence has been positive or negative is open to debate but the fact that a profound impact has been made is beyond any doubt. Despite her weaknesses, Indira Gandhi had a vision for this country which was reflected in her focus on measures like population control and family welfare, the push for environmental conservation etc. Unfortunately, it is the vision that many of her successors have lacked since then. Thus, finally as we today remember the woman who became the symbol of India’s indomitable spirit, it will be apt to conclude this article in a rather unusual manner with a question for the readers to ponder over – just think, what would have been the nature of Indian politics and society had Indira Gandhi been alive today ?

-Contributed by Kunwar Suryansh

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