Thirty-three years after her death and as the nation on Sunday celebrates her centenary, Indira Gandhi continues to be one of the leading politicians who dominated public life in this country. Many surveys have rated her as the greatest mass leader of the 20th century and the ever-flowing queues at her memorial on 1 Safdarjung Road-1 Akbar Road, is testimony to the adulation that she continues to receive. Her critics were petrified of her combative style, while concurrently acknowledging her contribution in the making of free India. The proclamation of Emergency in June 1975, as well as the storming of the Golden Temple complex in June 1984 to flush out and neutralise militants, were two major errors of judgement on her part; yet her multiple achievements, including the 1971 India-Pakistan war, which led to the liberation of Bangladesh, were the high points of her political innings.
Former Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then president of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, had likened her to Goddess Durga for her feat in vanquishing the Pakistani army, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) both praised and lauded her leadership. The late Raj Narain, a firebrand socialist leader, who in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections had defeated her from Rae Bareli, shared an unusual rapport with her. In all his letters, he would curiously address her as, “Shri Indira Gandhi”. On her part, Indira Gandhi too, reciprocated by penning pat and no-nonsense replies.
An interesting anecdote illustrates the paradoxical political relationship the two enjoyed: after he defeated her, Raj Narain, while addressing a mammoth victory rally, openly declared that the electorate should not have any expectations from him. His reasoning was: “When you could not be loyal to Indira, who did so much for you, how can you be ever faithful to someone like me?” This, but obviously, sent waves of shock in his party. Raj Narain later raised the dual-membership question regarding the affiliation of the Jana Sangh members, who had merged into the Janata Party, but continued to have allegiance with the RSS. This became a major contributory factor in the fall of the Morarji Desai-led government. Real politics was at play, and history recounts how Raj Narain had a string of meetings with the late Sanjay Gandhi (who was considered Indira’s heir apparent) at industrialist Kapil Mohan’s Pusa Road house, thereby plotting the end of the Janata Party regime.
Although I had seen Indira Gandhi several times at close quarters and later had the opportunity of covering multiple meetings and public functions addressed by her, my first formal interaction took place with her in the mid-1970s. The late Professor V.P. Dutt, Delhi University’s acting Vice Chancellor, took a group of students, with varied political backgrounds, to visit her at 1 Akbar Road for an open-house with key members of her government handling education policy. Flanking Indira Gandhi, seated in the middle, were the then Congress president, Devkant Barooah, her principal secretary, P.N. Dhar and education minister, Prof Nurul Hasan.
The exchange lasted for more than three hours, where she amiably invited suggestions for improving the education system. There were many who had reservations before commencement of the programme, but once it ended, Indira Gandhi floored everyone with her saucy witticisms and sparkling charisma. She poured tea for the participants while simultaneously offering a plateful of biscuits; the Prime Minister playing the perfect hostess. As we came out, there was not a single dissenting voice.
The late Mohammad Shamim, a doyen amongst journalists, who at that juncture was with the Times of India and also my mentor on political semantics, was exceptionally close to the former Prime Minister. With him, I had the repeated opportunity of meeting both Indira and Sanjay. An incident that is deeply etched in my mind took place in December 1977 at the AICC office, located on 5 Rajendra Prasad Marg. I was then a student of Delhi University’s Law Faculty, and on Shamim Saab’s suggestion reached the AICC lawns to witness a historic meeting of the CWC, where party leaders, led by then president K. Brahmananda Reddy and Y.B. Chavan, were expected to expel Indira Gandhi from the primary membership.
There was intense slogan shouting against the former Prime Minister to stir up an atmosphere of hostility and Congress activists gathered near the porch to vocally voice their opposition against her, the sole exception being F.M. Khan, a Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka. The ranting reached its crescendo as Indira Gandhi’s car approached the portico. She angrily alighted from the vehicle, throwing a harshly disdainful look at the dissenters. Her frosty gaze not only froze the protestors but silenced them to the point where they greeted her with folded hands as she stormed inside for the meeting. Just for the record, the event paved the way for the second Congress split, which took place barely a few days later in January 1978, as she formed the Congress (Indira) at the Vithalbhai Patel House and hoisted the party flag along with Kamlapati Tripathi and many others.
Indira Gandhi shall always remain an integral part of India’s modern history. Attempts are made to compare her with one leader or the other. However, she was both unique and matchless. As Pranab Mukherjee has observed, she continues to be the most acceptable PM India ever had. Between us.