She created her own path
M Rajivlochan

Indira Gandhi
by Inder Malhotra.
National Book Trust, New Delhi. Pages 198. Rs. 65.

Indira GandhiHit the Left from the left and the Right from the right—and, just to keep everyone off-balance, once in a while, inverse the hits. This simple strategy enabled Indira Gandhi to become one of the most successful politicians of modern India. She further consolidated her position by having faith in the Indian people and genuinely being concerned about the well-being of the common person. When in trouble, she had little hesitation in going directly to the public, much like Mahatma Gandhi had done since the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920 when he first went over all the senior nationalist leaders by involving the public directly in the anti-colonial movement. The public never let her down. Neither did it hesitate in throwing her out of power when she adopted anti-people policies.

It also helped that Indira Gandhi’s policies actually helped contain the incidence of poverty. The average food intake went up. Consumption of electric power increased. Indians began to live longer. A larger number of them moved above the poverty level and became literate. India’s rapacious capitalists and their political side-kicks were brought to heel by nationalising large chunks of the economy. The even more rapacious princely classes, whose sole claim to fame was their tremendous capacity to repress their subjects, had their ill-gotten privy purses stopped.

The senior leadership of all political parties, including the Congress, was dead against her policies. Yet the public appreciated her actions. When banks were nationalised it was greeted by tumultuous dancing crowds on the streets. Similar enthusiasm greeted the various measures at land reform that she undertook. Though not as drastic and as fulsome as land reforms instituted by the Left Front government in Bengal, she still was able to persuade various state governments to enforce substantial land reforms.

The ability to buck the political mainstream, create her own path and the fact that Indira Gandhi could survive despite the machinations of her Machiavellian seniors and sundry well-wishers and simultaneously earn the good will of the people has attracted much comment from her biographers. Inder Malhotra is no different. In his second biography of Indira Gandhi he provides a quick, much simplified and curiously deficient overview of her years in power. He is neither scholarly nor interesting enough in his narrative.

Indira Gandhi’s successes are viewed as a function of her up-bringing. As if learnt adult experience has no place in guiding a person’s instincts. The cold-blooded way in which she dealt with her opponents is explained with reference to a supposedly lonely childhood and her desire to get even with her aunts. While insisting that Indira Gandhi was paranoid about power, Malhotra just about stops short of saying that she should have handed over power to her opponents on a platter even when their entire political vision was completely bankrupt on constructive action and stopped with fantasies of removing her from prime-ministership.

More curious is Malhotra’s use of the rubric ‘Downward Slide’ to describe Indira Gandhi’s successful handling of the economic downturn in the early 1970s. The freezing of wages, compulsory deposits by the salaried classes, restrictions on the movement of food grains, putting in place a complicated public distribution system were not enough to uplift the economy fast enough as it was heavily dependent on rainfall.

"To make matters worse the eminent Jayaprakash Narain decided to side with agitating students and workers to demand an immediate solution to various problems facing the nation. Malhotra has little to say about such misuse of moral authority. "All the time jockeying for power and influence" is a key indictment against all and sundry that Malhotra repeats many times over in this small book. Yet, he seems to have little understanding of why Indira Gandhi succeeded in this endeavour while others failed. She used her successes in politics to boost the fortunes of the nation while others simply lined their own nests. The best that he can do is make the following judgement about Indira Gandhi: "She would have killed or swallowed poison herself than compromise with her country’s honour or independence". At least I cannot imagine Indira Gandhi as either a murderer or a suicide maniac.