In her lifetime, India’s third prime minister was often dubbed an autocrat. After her death, homeopathic admiration, that too of a grudging kind, substituted one form of animus with another. Her decision to impose Emergency on 25 June 1975 is often held to have sullied her copybook, forever. We think that is an unfair judgement, for the link between democracy as an ideal and its practice?in?developing countries is complicated. By empirical standards, however construed, her record, and that of India, is worthy of pride.
How should Indira Gandhi’s political and economic record be understood? The period from 1966 to 1977 was one of the more volatile periods of independent India’s history. The country was subject to inflation, balance of payments problems and industrial stagnation. Instead of realizing the need to get rid of socialist policies, she cemented them. The 1969 nationalization of banks, the continuing emphasis on the public sector and near killing of the export sector were the result of this orientation. As a result, India became a shortage economy: Smuggling and licensing ensured that political unrest became a constant feature of the landscape.
Her authoritarian traits, her dislike for dissent and the imposition of Emergency should be seen in this light. Her faltering attempts at liberalization on returning to power in 1980 showed that she was aware of her mistakes. Trade liberalization, re-examining the logic of subsidies and a relook at state intervention in the economy were the highlights of this period. Recent scholarship now dates economic reforms to this period.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Historian E.H. Carr once said that the function of a historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present. Viewed from today’s vantage, what Gandhi confronted in 1974 to 1977 is eerily similar to the India of today.
Today, as in 1974, there are powerful individuals who want to egg home-grown terrorists (and yes, Maoists are that breed) to strike against the Indian “state”. Jayaprakash Narayan tried a similar tactic with our Armed Forces. Then, as now, there is scant respect for constitutional governance. Intellectuals openly argue in favour of destabilizing the polity and the economy. The lessons of that age on what led to an authoritarian turn in the polity are ignored, even as the policies that created the problem in the first place are advocated relentlessly. The difference is that in that age our leaders could execute a course correction. Today, there are few leaders who possess the courage to do so.
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