Indira Gandhi's legacy provides crucial lessons to help reshape the present, secure the future

As India remembers its first woman prime minister on her 103rd birth anniversary on 19 November, it is important to take a fresh look at Indira Gandhi's political legacy — an account that both inspires confidence and pride, and breeds controversy and fear. For long, Indira has been viewed as being either a realist or an aggressor, decisive or authoritarian, pragmatic or opportunistic and politically astute or insecure.

The all-pervasive binary of invoking her imagery as 1971's courageous war leader, the veritable image of goddess Durga or the 1975's projection of her as the authoritarian hegemon squandering democracy only suits the agenda of political appropriation or vilification. But if we have to really do justice to the legacy of this colossal figure of Indian politics who has left an indelible mark on probably every facet of the nation's politico-socio-economic discourse, we need to go beyond frenzied veneration or mindless slander.

Indian contemporary political firmament is besieged in a volatile situation with a majoritarian and dominant national ruling party led by a charismatic leader. In addition to this is a beleaguered opposition consisting of a heavily atrophied national Opposition party, Indian National Congress, struggling to rejuvenate itself without a cogent roadmap and a motley assortment of regional parties struggling to fight BJP in their respective regional turfs. It is against this backdrop that reading Indira's legacy would be interesting but nevertheless equally intriguing.

Legacy of inspiration

In all fairness, two of the highest points of Indira's career — the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war and her spectacular comeback by ending the interregnum in the aftermath of the Emergency — must be pointed out right at the outset. First, the 1971 war demonstrated the prime minister's personal courage and diplomatic finesse in combating the genocide in East Pakistan and supporting the clamour for freedom of the East Pakistanis in the face of tremendous hostility. This carries not only a message of heroic courage in international diplomacy but also of empathy and humanity.

The present political dispensation, which is presiding over a much more powerful India than in Indira's times, must do well to safeguard India's diplomatic and strategic interests from the ever-growing Chinese threat, Pakistan's belligerence and ambivalent American politics by drawing from Indira's political grit. Apart from bold international positioning, today's India must reclaim its image as a paragon of humanitarian virtue that Indira had once shown the world by extending a helping hand to the persecuted East Pakistanis.

In 2020, a nation that proudly calls itself a responsible and rising world power cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the persecuted minority of Myanmar in the garb of security concerns. We must take a leaf out of Indira's book to learn a lesson on humanitarian responsibility and position India as a powerful yet responsible and peace-making nation.

Second, Indira's unflinching will power and her resilience should be a perennial source of inspiration for any descendant political force in the country. Most pertinently, her own party, the Congress, must borrow Indira's fighting spirit when she stormed back to political prominence after her electoral debacle following the Emergency. Her inspiring legacy should help her party today to shed their despondency that seems to loom large as it has been reduced to a shadow of the Grand Old Party it once was.

Locating the fault lines

A sincere commemoration is self-defeating if it is saturated with veneration and devoid of any attempt to read the blunders and misdoings of the personality. Two major pathologies of Indira's legacy that have deeply scarred the Indian body politic must be studied with utmost attention. This is necessary not to malign her legacy, but to comprehend the circumstances in which corrosive politics breeds.

First, Indira's intractable misstep of stripping the Congress party of its multi-layered structure, where influential regional leaders had a substantial say in its functioning, only destroyed the effective organisational apparatus of the party. This rather deepened the roots of dynastic politics in India. Today's dilapidated Congress stands as the casualty of Indira's obsession with centralisation of power that has eventually, but surely, greatly eroded the once resilient machinery of the party. If the incumbent Congress leadership has to embark on a path of political revival, undoing Indira's legacy of unbridled power accumulation has to be the first call.

In a relatively early introspection, the BJP must also take a cue from the Congress' plight to understand what damage centralisation of power by an all-pervasive leader can do to the fate of a political party bereft of inner-party democracy.

Second, history bears testimony to the fact that the institutions of governance have been perpetually on the receiving end of Indira's wrath. The institutions that are the vital instruments of democratic functioning, administrative efficiency and upholder of the rule of law were assaulted during Indira's regime in pursuance of her limitless power and immunity. The perpetual subversion of such institutions has left an everlasting blot on sluggishly functioning institutions that we are left to deal with. Both ruling as well as Opposition parties must realise the need for vibrant institutions not only for a well-functioning democracy but also for essential pursuits of nation building and amelioration of its people.

Beginning of admiration for unabashed aggression as hallmarks of political leadership can be attributed to Mrs. Gandhi’s era that holds vogue even today. The repeated furore over interference in the functioning of CBI and Election Commission as well as the politically-motivated pandemonium against judicial verdicts and curtailment of the freedom of press and speech is a vindication of that culture. The nation will have to acknowledge that accommodative and inclusive overtures and not aggressive leadership are the leitmotifs of an effective democracy. Indira's legacy corroborates the fact that belligerency in democracy, even if it appears to be ostensibly heroic, will only lead to bigger conflagration and further catapult into full-blown crisis.

Reading her legacy right

History is replete with biases and politics is pregnant with contradictions. Thus, the pursuit of innocuous history and pristine politics is not only factually erroneous but also intellectually untenable. So, assessing legendary historical figures must be attempted at with an open mind and accommodative temper. It is an imperative to shed our conventional analytical and theoretical lenses and preconceived biases to get to the heart of historical stalwarts. We need to acknowledge their achievements, feel their insecurities, comprehend the context in which they thrived, and most importantly learn from their flaws.

Indira is neither just an invincible political maverick nor just a paranoid authoritarian hegemon. Neither is she only a statesman of international stature, nor solely an aggressive conqueror. She is a bit of all these attributes and lot more. In hindsight, we need to be ingenious enough to read Indira in totality, in her fullness, with all her imperfections and shortcomings. Only then can we make judicious use of her legacy, by drawing inspiration from her achievements, learning from her unscrupulousness and create a present that is free of the errors of history.

The author is a researcher at Observer Research Foundation and is presently pursuing his doctoral research on 'Populism in Indian Democracy' at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University



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