If warehouses are full of grains today, much of the credit goes to Indira Gandhi
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An ominous moment can bother you for years, but what if there is a whole day plagued by unpleasant events, one after another. How can such a day be erased from memories? Surely the terror, the fear and the disgust of that day will keep attacking you. Every year, 31 October has a similar effect on me. On the same day in 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her bodyguards at her official residence and, after that, horrific events continued in Delhi and some other parts of the country. Once the cycle of violence and riots began, it took several days for the situation to return to normal. As a journalist, I was also witnessed those poisonous moments.
Today, when we remember Indira Gandhi, it seems as if she was one of the few makers of modern India. Those were the days of socialist utopias and dreams, as soon as she took over the government, she made hasty populist decisions, one after another. Whether it was the abolition of the privy purse of royals and maharajas or the nationalization of banks, there were many such decisions that were labelled as socioeconomic reforms. Please do not compare the decisions taken at that time with today. It was a Cold War-torn world that had emerged from World War II. The needs of that time were different. In a democracy, people sitting on the lowest rungs of society had high hopes for such decisions. This was the basis of Indira Gandhi’s long political success. She had an amazing ability to communicate and captivate the weaker sections. In 1971, her slogan was, “They say remove Indira, I say eradicate poverty". Poverty could not be eradicated, but the poor turned up at polling booths in large numbers and voted for her.
We should also remember, two years before she came to power, India fought a fierce war with Pakistan. Wars always prove to be heavy on the pockets of the common man. The India of that time seemed to be staggering slowly. There was not enough money in the treasury to feed the huge population and there was nothing to feed the large population except red wheat provided by the US. For that, then US President Lyndon B. Johnson used to threaten India in various ways. It is also said that once the US stopped a ship laden with wheat at a port for some reason. It was an embarrassing moment for New Delhi as the country’s warehouses had foodgrain of very limited duration. It seemed like we had no choice but to live on US mercy.
This was the time when Indira Gandhi, on the advice of experts, chalked out new experiments and improvements in the field of agriculture. The historic green revolution was the product of that. If India’s warehouses today are full of more grain than needed, much of the credit goes to Indira Gandhi.
She was also extremely sensitive to India’s borders. She strategically changed the map of this subcontinent by making Sikkim a part of India. That was an extremely bold move. There was a possibility of strong resistance from China and it was also feared that small neighbouring countries might be sceptical but she was firmly committed. Due to this ability, she had already divided Pakistan into two parts in 1971. That battle will always hold a high place in the military history of the world. This was the first time when more than 90,000 soldiers of a country were forced to surrender before the Indian army. Imagine, what would have happened if Pakistan had not been divided like this? In Kashmir as well as in Bengal and the Northeast, the flames of separation would have been high.
Her other exploit was amazing. Despite being the victim of personal insult by US President Richard Nixon, Indira Gandhi did not give up. By signing a long-term strategic agreement with the Soviet Union, she had given India new heights and security. The first nuclear test at Pokhran on 18 May 1974 is no less important. This had curbed the audacity of many neighbours. No other country in the Cold War era could achieve such a milestone.
Despite so many successes, her feet always stayed on the ground. She never hesitated to meet people, interact with them. When we were studying in primary classes, we would be taken to greet her, when she visit Allahabad. We found a lot of people there holding black flags and chanting slogans such as ‘Murdabad’ or ‘Go back’. When asked by journalists, her answer would be, the opposition has the right to protest, but was she really so generous?
Those were the days of political heavyweights in opposition. People such as Ram Manohar Lohia, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and George Fernandes were there to oppose her. All of them called her a dictator. She had also proved this by imposing an emergency. The 21 months of the Emergency from 25 June 1975 to 21 March 1977 is a dark blot on her success story. She is also known as the founder of dynastic politics. She first tried to promote her youngest son Sanjay and after he was killed in a plane crash, she dragged her eldest son Rajiv, who was not at all interested in politics. She herself was a product of dynasticism and if she perpetuated it, why is it surprising?
She had also failed to establish peace in Punjab, Kashmir and the Northeast. However, in a long political life of a politician, everything can not be fair. Indira Gandhi’s work reminds us of her even 37 years after her departure. We are people of weak memories but she engraved a deep signature on the milestone of time. She will be missed further.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.