Indira Gandhi was born 100 years ago on Sunday. It was a year that shook the world as the Bolshevik revolution took place, almost at the same time. In India too, the year was momentous as the country got ready to wage a full-fledged struggle against British imperialism under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.
Indira Gandhi, whose grandfather and father were leading the struggle for freedom under the Indian National Congress, was born in a family of freedom fighters. Her education began through the letters written to her by her father Jawaharlal Nehru from prisons, providing her glimpses of Indian history and the evolution of Indian society. She was further educated by two of the greatest teachers of the contemporary period—Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. She spent some time in Shanti Niketan. Born and brought up in an atmosphere of nationalist fervour, she was naturally attracted to the freedom struggle in her early years and went on to organize the “Banar Sena". She deftly used it to contact those who were engaged in the freedom struggle, supplying information during the Non-Cooperation Movement.
She became Congress president in 1959, and long before that, she was chosen as a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC). She took active interest in this great national organization but did not acquire any office, devoting herself to looking after her father who was steering a new India and laying the foundation of a strong, secular, democratic society. After his death, she was requested by the Congress leadership to join the cabinet of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded Nehru as prime minister. And after Shastri’s death, she showed her mettle by accepting the challenge to contest the election for the leadership of the party, defeating the veteran leader Morarji Desai by a thumping majority.
When she became prime minister in 1966, she was a member of the Rajya Sabha and served as such for a year, but decided to contest the popular elections within a year. During the general elections in 1967, she won from Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareilly constituency. Even while being elected leader of the Congress in Parliament and chosen as prime minister, she realized that the party was in deep crisis, manifesting in defeat in that year’s general elections in several states like Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Within a few months of the elections, the party also lost governments in two important states, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, owing to the defection of a large number of Congress legislators.
She recognized that people had lost confidence in the Congress—and the defeat of a large number of important leaders in their own constituencies, including the then Congress president Kamraj Nadar, pointed to the need for shock treatment to cure the party’s ailment. In election after election, people believed in the Congress’s promises, which were not kept. To regain the people’s confidence, therefore, the party must keep its promises to them. She provided this by emphasizing that the Congress must stick to its ideology.
In the All India Congress Committee session at Bangalore, she made known to the members of the CWC and the parliamentary board the “10 Points" programme which she chose to galvanise the organization on an ideological basis. She recommended major reforms in its economic policies. Unfortunately, the note was not appreciated by the majority of the members of the CWC, but that did not deter her from taking drastic action. She nationalized 14 scheduled commercial banks on 13 July 1969 through an ordinance.
The background of this decision was the refusal of Congress leadership in the CWC to accommodate her 10 Points. First, she attempted to persuade Morarji Desai to accept her proposal of bank nationalisation, but he refused to do so. Then, she asked him to relinquish the finance ministry and accept any other portfolio, but he threatened to resign if the finance portfolio was taken away from him. She readily accepted the resignation and took on the responsibility of the ministry for a year.
The more orthodox section of the Congress leadership in both the CWC and Central Parliamentary Board had the majority, and they rejected her progressive ideas of major economic reforms. She reminded the Congress leadership time and again that from the days of the Avadi Congress in 1955, the party had been committed to create a socialist society and promised major economic reforms. But these promises had never been fulfilled despite the fact that people supported the party in 1957 after Avadi and in 1962 with the hope that the Congress would keep its word. To rebuild the party’s credibility, action, and not words, were required. She saw socialism as a commitment to the nation—and bank nationalisation was just the first step.
The decision resulted in rich dividends for the country. Its impact has been evident even in the last decade when the Indian banking system stood resilient, even as some of the major European and US banks suffered catastrophic meltdowns after the financial crisis in 2008. Incidentally, public sector banks dominate the banking industry in India. Her belief that prudent management of public sector banks was the key to banking strategy and business in India stood vindicated.
Indira Gandhi was convinced that associations and institutions which subsumed large social objectives should be under public control. To achieve this objective, apart from bank nationalization she brought about legislation nationalizing general insurance, coal mines etc, and major amendments in Acts like the Industrial Development & Regulation Act that could facilitate government takeover of sick industries if the government deemed it necessary in the larger public interest.
While socialism and secularism are implicit in the text of the Constitution, particularly in the Directive Principles of State Policy, she made it explicit through the 42nd Amendment by inserting the two words ‘Socialist & Secular’. Many people considered it unnecessary as the entire text of the Constitution is oriented towards socialism and secularism, but she thought it necessary to make it explicit. Insertion of the words ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ in the preamble of the Constitution to define the state, which was earlier just sovereign, democratic republic, emanated out of her belief that insertion of these two words in the preamble would define the characteristics of Indian State adequately.
In 1978, after victory in the Chikamagalur by-election, which brought her back to Lok Sabha after her defeat in 1977, Indira Gandhi visited the UK in November that year. At the annual banquet speech of the British-Indian Association, then-British Deputy Prime Minister Michael Foot, observed, The Indira Gandhi story has not come to an end after the defeat in general elections of 1977 as many people believe she is doomed forever. I can tell them, many more glorious chapters are going to be added in her new innings." Not only did she return with a bang within two years by scoring a resounding victory in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, she also subsequently won all the states, except Tamil Nadu, where elections took place.
In this new innings beginning in 1980, by hosting the 7th Non-Aligned Summit, she clearly conveyed to the world that the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was a guarantee to secure the liberty of people and to ensure peace and harmony in the world. Her ceaseless efforts for the cause of humanity became visible wherever the people suffered. Be it the people of Algeria or those of South Africa, Angola and Namibia, she stood for them and always opposed the tormentors. This sensitivity was at display as early as 1946, when she as a young woman found an agitated crowd of a hundred or so people attempting to kill an old man. She stopped her car and ran to protect the man by standing before him. The angry crowd shouted at her menacingly and asked her, “Who are you and what are you doing?" She calmly asked them, “Who are you and what are you doing?" They shouted back, “We want to kill this man and if you don’t leave him to our hand, you will have the same fate." Without raising her voice, she calmly told them, "You can’t. You are cowards. You have no sense of purpose and don’t know what are you doing. I know what I am doing." The crowd melted away in the face of her courage and fortitude, leaving the man unharmed. After hearing this story, Gandhi asked her to work in the Muslim mohallas of Delhi, which she did alone, with a tremendous impact in creating an atmosphere where people of all faiths could live in peace and harmony.
This courage and conviction remained with her until her life was snatched away by assassins’ bullets. Before taking the drastic step of Operation Blue Star, she knew that the Sikhs would never forgive her for this happening in the Golden Temple, their most holy place. She told her advisors that she was aware of this feeling amongst the community. She said that she had deep respect for all religions and was inspired by the sacrifices and dedicated works of all the great gurus. But for her, it was not a question of religion, but the fact that in the name of religion, misguided elements were causing great harm to national unity and integrity. She said that as prime minister, she could not remain a silent spectator. The events of the day were well known to them, she told her advisors, and asked them what else the government could do. There was no answer. In the aftermath of Blue Star, many advisors suggested she remove Sikh personnel from her security arrangements. She refused to agree to this and said it would convey a totally wrong message.
Indira Gandhi’s contribution to world peace and disarmament were visible in her steely protests against the flawed NPT (non-proliferation treaty). Though she was in agreement with the treaty’s basic objective, she could not agree to two categories of states: one privileged class that possessed nuclear weapons and unrestricted access to nuclear materials for whatever purpose they deemed fit, and a vast number of other countries who would be denied access to the peaceful use of nuclear materials to generate electricity and remove poverty in their countries. She did not agree to this discrimination and refused to sign the NPT, which is the policy of the nation to date. The first nuclear explosion at Pokhran in 1974 brought sanctions against India. Trade restrictions and stoppage of economic assistance did not deter her. The second test conducted by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister in 1998 vindicated her stand.
Indira Gandhi is no longer amongst us. Thirty-four years ago, assassins’ bullets silenced the voice which always inspired Indians to be proud of everything Indian. In her death, she left a message to the people of this country and to the whole world: a commitment to the people can never be killed by any power, however strong it may be.
Pranab Mukherjee is a former president of India.