×

Indira Gandhi: The leader who displayed courage and caprice

No other Indian leader was reviled and despised, not just by political rivals but also by the common people, as much as Indira Gandhi was during her lifetime.
Indira Gandhi
History has often shown that people have a strange way of turning kind to political leaders , post-death, after being unsparingly critical during their lifetime for a variety of reasons. The possible explanation perhaps is, apart from the sympathy for the departed, a passage of time provides a better perspective that is free from prejudices that immediacy normally breeds.
No other Indian leader was reviled and despised, not just by political rivals but also by the common people, as much as Indira Gandhi was during her lifetime. But there is a qualitative difference in the way people, especially the media, look at her in the centenary year that begins on November 19.
Thirty-two years have passed since her assassination on that mellow wintry morning of October 31, 1984.
If she was courageous, Indira was equally capricious as events in her life show. Indira caught the imagination of the world as a truly global leader. Her moment of glory came in December 1971.
War clouds were gathering over the Indian horizon in the aftermath of Islamabad’s military crackdown on East Pakistan after the Awami League had won the national elections and its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, was poised to take over as Prime Minister. But the Punjabi-dominated, Urdu-speaking military would not countenance a Bengali-speaking Prime Minister. Troops landed in thousands in Dhaka and all over East Pakistan and let loose a reign of terror. Panic-stricken East Pakistanis crossed the border into India in their millions.
Indira went on a world tour, apprising leaders of the problems India faced in the wake of the massive influx of refugees. She gave President Nixon, who still tended to side with Pakistan, an earful. The West was dithering and was reluctant to ask a recalcitrant Pakistan to behave and respect the democratic verdict. Her patience finally worn out, Indira took things in her own hand and surprised the rest of the world.
What happened within a few months is history. Indis’s armed forces defeated Pakistan in a war forced on India and helped the Bengalis of East Pakistan win independence to form Bangladesh. Even her political opponents hailed her as `Ma Durga’, Hindu goddess of courage whose mission is to annihilate evil.
Perhaps none paid for the folly of underestimating her courage more dearly than the then Pakistani military ruler general Yahya Khan who boasted to a group of western journalists,” If that woman thinks she is going to cow me down … I refuse to take it. If she wants a war I will fight it.” This was on November 27, 1971. Within two weeks the general lost the war and Pakistan lost its eastern wing that became independent Bangladesh.
Just sample this Sunday Times correspondent’s (London) description of Yahya Khan as he spoke to the journalists over dinner a few days before the full-scale war broke out in December 1971: ” Rage and sweet reasonableness alternated in Yahya’s rambling confidence, ever returning to that woman! To a tough man like Yahya, being caught in a relentless trap and waiting helplessly for the next turn of the screw is bad enough; to a Muslim general the idea that the screw is being turned by a Hindu in a sari is clearly agonising.”
If she displayed statesmanship during the Bangladesh war, a few years later she showed her sense of insecurity over losing power. She clamped emergency on the advice of her son Sanjay Gandhi and a closed coterie around him. She did not resign after the Allahabad high court unseated her from Parliament. She did not want to hand over the baton to a senior leader like Jagjivan Ram because of her distrust of her colleagues.
While politically Indira often displayed her steely guts and appeared somewhat Machiavellian, she was a loving mother and doting grandmother to Rahul, Priyanka, and Varun. She missed Varun, son of Sanjay and Maneka when the latter left the Indira home after a spat some time after Sanjay’s death in June 1980. Those were the days when she enjoyed cordial relations with her younger daughter-in-law Maneka. This writer remembers well a March afternoon in 1979 when he found Indira Gandhi in the company of Sanjay and Maneka at Archna Cinema in New Delhi, enjoying a Peter Seller’s comedy — The Return of The Pink Panther.
Seated several rows behind me, Indira Gandhi obviously enjoyed the film. At the intermission and at the end of the show, she exchanged pleasantries with total strangers. There was not even a hint of security.
After the show, as the family waited outside the cinema, a humble Ambassador pulled up before them and carried them home with no fuss whatsoever. The death of Sanjay broke her heart but she bore the cross silently and with dignity.
As an active politician and as the Prime Minister of the country, the joy of private life often eluded her. Ironically, her brief period of peace and private life came when she was out of power from March 1977 to January 1980.
One is curious to know what Ms Sonia Gandhi was doing those days. By all accounts, she was leading a private life with husband Rajiv and children Rahul and Priyanka. She hated politics and, according to her own admission, “fought like a tigress” to stop Rajiv from entering it.
But, then, you cannot escape politics if you are a Nehru-Gandhi. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This has proved very true for the Italy-born Sonia.  One is curious to know what Ms Sonia Gandhi was doing those days. By all accounts, she was leading a private life with husband Rajiv and children Rahul and Priyanka. She hated politics and, according to her own admission, “fought like a tigress” to stop Rajiv from entering it.
But, then, you cannot escape politics if you are a Nehru-Gandhi. When in Rome, do as Romans do. This has proved very true for the Italy-born Sonia.
Top