Indira Gandhi: An epitome of charisma, grace and determination

By G. L. Batra, ST Guest Columnist, Writer & formerly Addl. Secretary, Indian Parliament and Chairman, Public Service Commission of the Indian State of Haryana

Smt. Indira Gandhi was undoubtedly one of the tallest leaders of independent India. She had the superb qualities of a strong will, confidence and optimism. She was never passive in her attitude and believed in action. She was tough in her dealings, her propositions and her plans and was sometimes criticized as being dictatorial, and it can be safely said that many a time, her attitude in dealing with her colleagues and opponents was not courteous and democratic, unlike that of her father, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. However, she was fearless in her words and deeds, and was respected for this very trait.

Smt. Indira Gandhi was born in India’s premier political family as the only child of Pandit Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. Her childhood was spent in the backdrop of the freedom movement and was influenced by great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, her father, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and her grandfather, Pandit Motilal Nehru, and this imbibed in her a great love for the country and her fellow countrymen, and a burning desire to dedicate herself to build India as a strong, vibrant and united nation.

From her childhood itself, Smt. Gandhi participated in the freedom movement, organizing the ‘Vanar Sena’ movement, which mobilized children in the fight for independence. She joined the Indian National Congress in 1938. After independence and the partition of India, Smt. Gandhi visited the strife-stricken parts of Delhi where communal violence had resulted in death and destruction. Working in the Muslim-dominated areas of the city, she succeeded in bringing peace to the troubled localities and succor to the hapless victims of the violence.

After independence, Pandit Nehru became India’s first prime-minister, and Indira acted as hostess to her father in his political work, and during this period, she was exposed to the intricacies of India’s political, social and economic issues. She also worked actively in the social sector, and was active on the international scene, visiting many foreign countries.

Smt. Gandhi’s first hands-on experience in politics came with her election to the Presidency of the Congress party. Despite her initial reluctance to accept the position, within a short span of eleven months, Smt. Gandhi proved her leadership qualities and independence of thought and action, making many bold recommendations like the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Bombay on linguistic grounds, a decision which in time, proved most sagacious. Smt. Gandhi went on to serve as Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Premier Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet in 1964, and once again proved her action-oriented approach and strong decision-making skills.

After Mr. Shastri’s death in 1966, Smt. Gandhi was elected President of the Congress Parliamentary Party, and after five days, she became the first woman Prime Minister of India. Two years later when the country went to the polls again, she was elected to the post again by an overwhelming majority. During this term, Smt. Gandhi established her credentials as a decisive and strong-willed leader, making far-reaching decisions like the reorganization of Punjab into Punjab and Haryana, the nationalization of banks on the interest of the poor and the abolition of ‘privy purses’ being given to erstwhile rulers of the princely states.

Seeking a fresh mandate from the people for her policies and ideology, Smt. Gandhi took the nation to the polls again in 1971, and once again secured a thumping majority, becoming Prime Minister for a third time. Smt. Gandhi’s third term was an eventful one, and was marked by the India-Pakistan war triggered by the East-Pakistan problem,   which was forced on us by Pakistan. With her characteristic strength of character, indomitable will and broad vision, Smt. Gandhi led the nation in this difficult hour. She supported Mujibur Rehman of East Pakistan, who carried the will of his people, and acted fearlessly when the situation demanded. She proved her humaneness by allowing Bengali refugees from East-Pakistan who were being persecuted, to take shelter in India, even though this caused great stress on the national exchequer. Such was her leadership during the war, that after only thirteen days of engagement with the Indian Army in East Pakistan, the Pakistani forces led by Lt. Gen. Niazi, laid down their arms in surrender, and ceasefire was declared. East Pakistan was liberated in just 14 days due to Indian intervention, and an independent Bangladesh was created. During the war, Smt. Gandhi adroitly handled the situation on the international front too and effectively prevented America from intervening in the conflict, thus proving her skills of diplomacy and statesmanship. After the war, India’s position as the dominant power in the sub-continent was strengthened and the credit for this goes solely to Smt. Gandhi. India went on to sign a treaty of friendship with Bangladesh, and, Smt. Gandhi invited the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Z. A. Bhutto for talks. As a result of these talks, the famous Shimla Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan, wherein the two countries agreed to eschew the use of force against each other and to settle their disputes through bilateral talks.

Indira Gandhi played an important role in promoting scientific and technological research in the country in order that India could achieve the position of a world power. Under her premiership, the first Nuclear Tests at Pokharan were successfully carried out, to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, laying the foundations of India’s march towards becoming a nuclear power.

Smt. Gandhi’s heart and mind was always with the people, and at public rallies, she used to many a time break the security cordon in order to mingle with the people.

In 1974, the nation suffered a political and economic upheaval, and opposition to Sm. Gandhi increased all over the country. Shri Jayaprakash Narayan gave the call for ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ – ‘Total revolution’ against her policies and cemented support from various opposition parties. The Allahabad High Court declared her election to the Lok Sabha in 1971 as invalid, and the Supreme Court in appeal, held that while she could continue as Prime Minister, she would not have the right to vote in Parliament. The Opposition Parties demanded Smt. Gandhi’s resignation as the Prime Minister, and decided to launch a nationwide campaign of satyagraha, gherao and dharna to press their demand. All this must have created insecurity in the mind of the Prime Minister, and on 26th June 1975, a black day in the history of free India, the President of India proclaimed a National Emergency , under article 352 (1) of the Constitution on her aid and advice on account of an alleged threat to security of the country due to internal disturbances. The imposition of Emergency was widely criticized as being attempt to throttle democracy and retain power against the will of the people. Smt. Gandhi’s defence might have been that some people opposing her policies were out to break the democratic norms and fabric of the country.

After the emergency, in the general elections held in 1977, the Congress Party was routed, and Smt. Gandhi herself suffered a humiliating defeat in Rai Bareilly at the hands of Raj Narain of the Janata Party. The Janata Party, a coalition of several political parties, under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan, formed the government at the centre. Jayaprakash Narayan himself did not participate in the government, but played the role of elder-statesman much like Gandhiji did after independence. After her defeat, Smt. Gandhi suffered imprisonment and humiliation at the hands of her political opponents, but did not allow this to deter her, and she kept marching forward. She was called ‘gungi gudiya’ – ‘dumb doll’ by Ram Manohar Lohiya in Parliament, and became the target of political revenge at the hands of those she had targeted during the Emergency. However, she took all this in her stride, and when the Janata Party government could not complete its full term, Smt. Gandhi was returned to power with a two-thirds majority in the next general election. Due to her determined and courageous fight during this period, she was likened to Goddess Durga and Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi by her acolytes.

Smt. Gandhi thus became Prime Minister for the fourth time in 1980, and promised the people a ‘government that works’. Several economic programmes under the sixth Five-Year Plan were announced by her government for the alleviation of poverty and the all-round development of the nation.

In 1984, a major crisis erupted when heavily-armed Sikh extremists, under the leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, took over the Harmander Sahib (Golden Temple) complex at Amritsar, and fortified it. The Harmander Sahib is one of the holiest Sikh shrines in the world. The government imposed curfew in Amritsar, and several hundreds of pilgrims were stranded inside the temple complex. At the centre, Smt. Gandhi was forced to send in the army to defuse the situation. In the fighting that followed the initiation of ‘Operation Blue Star’, as the operation was called, the Sikh extremists including Bhindranwale were killed, but several hundred soldiers as well as innocent civilians lost their lives, and the holy shrine suffered great damage, causing hurt and outrage in the Sikh community. Smt. Gandhi believed in action, and when you acts, you may sometimes commit mistakes, and sometimes even rightful action done with right intentions rebound adversely. Operation Blue Star was one such unfortunate incident for which Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party paid a heavy price, inspite of continued remorse shown by them. On 31st October 1984, Smt. Gandhi was shot at repeatedly by two of her own security guards, who were Sikh, and this resulted in her death. The tragedy is that the very people whom she trusted, and who were charged with protecting her life became her killers. Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination led to widespread Anti-Sikh riots in India in which thousands of innocent Sikhs lost their lives and property. The riots, propagated by goons and criminals, shook the nation and outraged the conscience of India.

Just one day before her death, Smt. Gandhi had said at a public rally in Bhubaneshwar, “Even if I die for the service of the nation, I shall be proud it. Every drop of blood, I am sure, will contribute to the growth of this nation and make it strong and dynamic”. Her words proved prophetic, and she did indeed lay down her life in the service of the nation.

Smt. Gandhi was undoubtedly one of the most popular leaders of the world, and probably the most popular women leaders of all time. She had great charisma and grace, and a strong will with which she could impress her ideas, views and decisions, which she thought to be in the interest of the nation, on others. Even her most bitter opponents respected her and never questioned her love for the country and countrymen.