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On Her Birth Centenary, We Need to Pay Tribute to the Early Indira Gandhi

The Emergency may be the most controversial part of her legacy but Mrs Gandhi’s greatest contribution to India was the way she handled the economic, political and foreign policy challenges the country faced after 1966.

Indira Gandhi and V.V. Giri receiving General Ne Win from Burma, New Delhi, 1974. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

Indira Gandhi is the most controversial prime minister that India has had. A third of a century after her tragic and untimely death, an older generation of Indians remembers her mainly for India’s victory in the 1971 war, and the Emergency. Scholars have also accused her of undermining democracy by splitting the Congress in 1969, repeatedly sacking chief ministers to concentrate power in her own hands, and splitting the party a second time for the same purpose in January 1978. But the poor of India remember her for her programme of ‘Garibi Hatao’ and still call her ‘Amma’. On the foreign policy side, all of us, without exception, remember with pride the way in which she stood up to Nixon and Kissinger during the run-up to the Bangladesh war. . .

The end of the Nehruvian honeymoon

So vivid is the image we have of the later Indira that very few remember the young and unsure, woman who came to power after the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966. Even fewer, therefore, appreciate the difficult circumstances in which she did what she did and her immense contribution to stabilising the nascent India she inherited. For in January 1966, the country was in the grip of a multi-faceted crisis, and did not even know it.

The production of food grain had hit a plateau in 1961. The resulting food shortage had combined with two wars in 1962 and 1965, and the worst drought of India’s history in 1965, to generate the kind of inflation the country had never known and therefore had never dealt with. Inflation and a closed economy had landed us in a foreign exchange crisis – the first of many. Devaluing the rupee was the only way forward, and the World Bank had been urging India to do this since 1961. But the Nehru and Shastri governments had procrastinated till India had run out of time.

As if this was not enough, two wars in four years had emptied India’s coffers. And two successive droughts had brought the poor to the verge of starvation, to be saved only by PL 480 wheat from the United States.

The challenges she faced within the party were no less severe. In 1966, most people believed that Indira Gandhi had been chosen as prime minister because of her father’s charisma and because the “syndicate” believed that she would be more malleable than her seasoned opponent, Morarji Desai. But the party’s organisational leaders were also disenchanted with Nehruvian socialism. Huge sums of money had been sunk into heavy industries in the public sector that had yet to yield even a notional surplus on investment, let alone profits and dividends that could be ploughed back into growth and employment. The increasing uncertainty about finding jobs had created a rising wave of discontent among students. In mid-1966, this had turned violent.

These challenges could not be met without taking hard decisions, but the country was not aware of the need for them because it did not know that it was in a crisis. The glow of independence had not faded. The 1950s had been a honeymoon period in which almost nothing went wrong: food production grew rapidly because cultivation was extended to most of the remaining arable land in the country. Industrialisation was not hindered by foreign exchange shortages because of the sterling balances inherited from the war. Nehru had carved a niche for India on the world stage. People, therefore, trusted the government implicitly and could not imagine that the difficulties they had faced were anything more than temporary.

The first devaluation and after

Indira Gandhi’s first important decision therefore shattered this cocoon of security. In June 1966, she devalued the rupee by 57.5%. The move shocked the country and aroused bitter criticism in parliament from both Left and Right. Had it succeeded in rebalancing the economy speedily, her future economic policies might have been very different. But first, a $900 million aid package that the World Bank had promised to meet the increased cost of imports till exports picked up was held up in the US Congress. Second, India was hit by its second consecutive, and equally severe, drought in 1966. As a result, by the time the promised aid began to trickle in, prices had risen by a full 32% and neutralised the price advantage that devaluation had been intended to give to India’s exports.

Indira Gandhi taking her oath of office from President S. Radhakrishnan, 1966. Credit: YouTube

The devaluation did eventually boost India’s exports. From barely one per cent a year between 1952-53 and 1965-66, export growth jumped to 14% a year between 1968-69 and 1982-83. The Green Revolution, which had been piloted through a recalcitrant Congress by food minister C. Subramaniam, also took off in 1967. So good was the response of the economy in the years that followed that despite another drought in 1972 and a four-fold rise in oil prices the next year, India began to record balance of payments surpluses in January 1976, and continued to do so till the second oil price hike in 1979-80.

But it took two years for this recovery to begin. By then, the Congress had lost four major state assemblies and come within 10 seats of losing its majority in parliament in the 1967 general elections. This, and a pronounced leaning towards the left-wing of the party under the influence of ideologues like P.N Haksar and Mohaan Kumaramangalam, was the true reason behind the Congress split of 1969.

Who split the Congress?

Critics have accused Indira Gandhi of being an autocratic prime minister who weakened Indian democracy split, citing her splitting of the Congress in 1969 and her declaration of the Emergency in 1975 as proof. The truth is rather more complex. Space does not permit a study of the Emergency, but there is ample evidence that the 1969 split was forced upon her by the party organisation in an attempt to wrest control over economic policy

The spark that set it off was the selection of a successor to President Zakir Husain after his untimely death in 1969. The syndicate chose N. Sanjiva Reddy over the incumbent vice-president and briefly acting president, V.V Giri, and did it rather obviously without consulting Mrs. Gandhi. She had every good reason to oppose this. First, V.V Giri was already the acting president. Second, choosing Reddy broke an immensely important unwritten convention drawn from Westminster’s democracy, that like the British constitutional monarch, the Indian head of state had to be an eminent, non-political, person. V.V Giri fulfilled this requirement because, as vice-president, he had not only been far removed from current politics but was a highly respected veteran trade union leader. Sanjiva Reddy was, on the other hand, very much a practicing politician.

Morarji Desai, the Union finance minister, in conversation with John Foster Dulles, U.S. secretary of state at the time, when he met the latter in the State Department, Washington. (September, 1958). Credit: Photo Division, GOI

Despite this, Indira Gandhi first sought to avoid a showdown with the syndicate. She filed Reddy’s nomination but when Giri decided to compete as an independent, announced that she preferred an open vote. Had the syndicate agreed, there would have been no split in the party when Giri won. But by then, its members had the bit between their teeth so when Congress president S. Nijalingappa found that two-thirds of the Congress parliamentary party had declined Indira Gandhi’s implicit invitation to revolt against the organisation, he took the unprecedented step of expelling the sitting prime minister from the Congress party, nor renamed Congress (O) while Indira Gandhi’s party was called Congress (R). In the March 1971 general election, she won handily, securing 350 seats to the 51 seats won by the ‘National Democratic Front’ led by the Congress (O), Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the Swatantra and socialist parties.

Over the years, many personal motives have been ascribed to Mrs. Gandhi for defying the collective will of the party organisation and refusing to resign. But history will back her because she was defending not only the primacy of the prime minister over the party but the party in parliament over the party organization. As the eminent French political scientist, Maurice Duverger, pointed out in his classic 1957 work Party Politics, these are the two fundamental principles that distinguish democratic from ideological political parties.

The birth of Bangladesh

Indira Gandhi’s determination to be a prime minister in substance and not only in form was vindicated within only days of the 1971 election, when the Bangladesh crisis erupted. Only a leader with a clear vision of India and immense national pride would have been able to resist the subtle blandishments of western leaders who wanted India to absorb the 10 million refugees from East Pakistan and let sleeping dogs lie. The members of the syndicate were all seasoned politicians, but they were, in the end, provincial leaders without this vision. It is, therefore, doubtful whether they would have remained unmoved. Indira Gandhi, by contrast, had inherited a clear-cut idea of India from her father, and developed it through her own education and experience. So she had no difficulty in giving the West a clear-cut warning of her intentions and developing a multi-pronged strategy to safeguard India’s security.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, Prime Minister of Bangladesh at Palam airport prior to latter’s departure on April 11, 1974. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

Contrary to a near-universal belief, Indira Gandhi did not have her heart set upon breaking up Pakistan from the very beginning. Confronted by a seemingly endless flow of refugees into West Bengal, Mrs. Gandhi first did her best to persuade General Yahya Khan to allow the Awami League of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman to form the government in Pakistan. When she failed, she sent emissaries to all major countries, and herself went to several European capitals and to Washington, to make they put pressure on Pakistan to release Sheikh Mujib. But to insure against failure she made the army train the Mukti Bahini, and draw up contingency plans to invade East Pakistan if it became necessary. This was her second use of both stick and carrot to achieve her goal, the first having been the election of V.V Giri as president. In both cases, force was her weapon of last resort.

The Bangladesh war, and the Congress’s sweeping victory in the state elections a year later, marked the high point of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership. The Emergency is considered the lowest. But as I have argued earlier in these columns, it was the product of her understandable, and probably justified, belief that stepping down from the prime ministership then would have left the country in even greater turmoil than it already was in. She also redeemed herself in the peoples’ eyes by resisting every exhortation to extend the Emergency and holding a fresh general election in 1977 despite the near-certain knowledge that she would lose.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based journalist and writer.

A Marathi version of this article is also being published in Lokmat