A little before noon on 31st October, 1984, I entered the staff room after a lecture to find my colleagues silent and looking dazed. The news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination had just reached the college. Idefinite closure of college was immediately announced. Being an assassination, no one was sure of the turn events might take.
I returned home, noticing that the shops in the busy shopping area had their shutters down, except a vegetable shop which kept one panel open to clear the shop of vegetables at five star rates, to the milling crowd of women who were anxiously buying whatever they could. What if caesar is dead? life has to go on - - .
It is twenty two years now. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. Recalling that stunned feeling at the news of the assassination,(the stunned effect stretched out for a couple of days!!), I now wonder why I reacted thus to a person of whom I was highly critical for various ideological reasons.
I think like many others, I too felt a sense of security with the country in the hands of a Nehru progeny. Things have changed now ( or have they? ). Bear with me while I take a backward glance to sort out my position on Indira Gandhi’s role in the making of India.
As the daughter of Nehru, Indira Gandhi was always on the periphery national consciousness. But when Kamaraj put her in the PM’s seat, she moved from the margins to the centre of discussions. A lot of anger and resentment always accompanied the mention of her name. Though I was too young at that time to understand the ramifications of the Syndicate and the Bangalore meeting etc, I was, however, old enough to sense that a lot of this anger had to do with her being a woman as also with the dynastic nature of her rise to the highest post in the country.
Older and wiser(?!) now, I think Indira Gandhi was what the country needed at that juncture of India’s development. While the Nehruvian era with its mixed economy and license raj helped stabilize a recuperating nation, Indira Gandhi tried to break the country free from the shackles of a constitution not fully suited for a country whose economic imbalance was dangerously precarious. Riding high on her popularity , she boldly struck down the privy purse & privileges which, we must admit, was an obscene burden on a nation whose BPl number was enormous. I think I am quite right in believing that if this bill had not been passed then overriding the supreme court decision, India would still be saddled with this huge liability.
The Indo-Pak war and the liberation of Bangla Desh, and the Pokharan blast sent the message to the world that India was not to be messed around with. Indira Gandhi’s bold leadership caused India to become a superpower in the subcontinent.
The emergency was definitely something the country could have done without. Ms Gandhi had shown strong indications of the autocratic streak in her earlier when she appointed Ray as the CJI superseding three senior judges. But the opposition was no match for her at that time to bring in built-in defences against misuse of power.
Needless to say a lot of gray areas remain with regards to her - like 60 lakh State Bank of India scandal and the mysterious death of the culprit Rustom Sorab Nagarwala, her role in the emergency atrocities, her giving her son a free hand to deal with the country as though it were his grandfather’s property.
But I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt. It is possible that like many Indians, she too believed the myth that India is Indira and vice versa . She too believed that she was indispensable. She too believed that only she could provide a secular, national, democratic leadrship that could take the country forward in its ordeal of recovering from centuries of colonial exploitation and deep rooted social injustice. Emergency may not have been an effort to merely hang on to power for its own sake. She might have foolishly believed, or been made to believe by sycophants, that the country would dissolve into anarchy if she steps down.
I am surprised to find myself taking such a lenient view of Ms Gandhi. But time , I guess, changes perspectives.