An uncertain beginning

Indira Gandhi had a challenging start to her first tenure as prime minister

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: April 1, 2013 10:15 pm

Indira Gandhi had a challenging start to her first tenure as prime minister

INDIRA GANDHI’S swift and spectacular rise to power was accompanied by enormous public goodwill. To the masses she was,of course,Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter. The intelligentsia looked upon her as the bright-eyed,youthful leader representing the new generation. After all,at 48,she was 10 years younger than either her father or her predecessor when they first became prime minister. As information and broadcasting minister in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet,she had followed liberal policies about the government-owned media,and this had earned her widespread admiration among writers,academics,scientists and other professionals.

However,she could not have come to power at a more difficult time. In less than three years since 1962,the country had gone through two wars,one of them humiliating and the other resulting in marginal victory. In less than half that period,it had to face two successions. All this had caused strain enough. But far more shattering turned out to be the two continuous years of savage drought that decimated crops in large parts of the country and cast a shadow of famine,especially on Bihar. India had no food and no foreign exchange to buy it in the world market.

It was perhaps an omen of the shape of things to come that her swearing-in coincided with the death in a plane crash at Mont Blanc in Europe of the legendary Homi Bhaba,the great Indian nuclear scientist who,with Nehru’s full backing,founded this country’s nuclear programme. Also a friend of the Nehru family,he enjoyed the rare privilege of addressing the PM as “bhai”.

Indira Gandhi was fully aware of the enormity of the food problem and the resentments and protests it was causing. But she had another hazardous task on hand that had to be completed first: to secure the endorsement of the Tashkent Agreement,first by the All India Congress Committee and then by Parliament.

It was for this reason that the AICC met at Jaipur barely a month after she was sworn in. Congress leaders had made no secret of their opinion that had Shastri been alive,he would have found it hard to get his agreement with President Ayub Khan of Pakistan,under the auspices of the Soviet premier,Alexei Kosygin,approved by his party. For the sentiment against the return of Haji Pir to Pakistan was strong. However,the former PM’s death in the Central Asian city had lent some sanctity to the Tashkent Accord. The AICC endorsed it rather grudgingly,but not before enough critical voices against the compromises made at Tashkent had been heard. So much so that the then Jammu and Kashmir chief minister,Ghulam Mohammed Sadiq,winding up the debate on Tashkent,remarked: “Bhutto in Pakistan is not alone in trying to wreck the Tashkent Agreement. There are some Bhuttos here,too.”

This done,the delegates settled down to discussing the food crisis,the burning issue before them,as before the country. It soon became clear that in this respect,the new PM was at sea. There was acute anger at the mismanagement of food policy in the entire gathering,but members from Kerala,the worst affected state,were more furious than the rest. The people there ate only rice,which was not available for love or money. Appealing to them to change their food habits “temporarily”,Indira told them that she had vowed to neither eat nor serve rice until food scarcity was overcome. But this token gesture cut no ice.

Angry speeches from the floor continued. Since Independence,the country was divided into food zones,of surplus states on one hand and deficit ones on the other. The idea was that the transference of grain from the surplus to deficit areas could be controlled by government,otherwise rapacious traders were almost certain to ignore the starving people in deficit states and send the grain to wealthy areas,where it would fetch the highest prices. During the Nehru era,no one had dared ask for a change in this arrangement. But in Shastri’s time,chief ministers of rich and surplus states wanted the policy to be altered. He had tried to bring about a compromise between the surplus and deficit states but had failed.

At Jaipur,Indira Gandhi discovered that the Congress right and left had united behind the demand for the abolition of food zones. Despite repeated appeals for restraint from the rostrum,the demand was forcefully pressed to vote. It was clear from the show of hands that the motion had been carried. But T. Manean,a Congress general secretary of no competence,panicked and announced it had been “defeated”,whereupon all hell broke loose. Hundred of delegates rose to protest. Some marched to the dais where the leadership was seated. Prominent among them was Tarkeshwari Sinha,a lieutenant of Morarji Desai. She wagged her finger and warned the PM and Congress president Kamaraj of “dire consequences”. Pandemonium prevailed.

In the midst of tremendous tumult and noise a visibly shaken Indira Gandhi was virtually pushed to the microphone. In a short and halting intervention,she promised to review the “entire food policy” and repeated her appeal to the movers of the amendment to withdraw it. Saying this,she stalked away from the rostrum in a huff.

Kamaraj,who was already squabbling with her over her government’s decision to invite the multinational company Bechtel to set up a number of fertiliser plants in this country,then took over on Indira Gandhi’s behalf,and took it upon himself to announce that,after the PM’s assurance of a thorough review of the food policy,the amendment had been “withdrawn”. Once again there was tremendous tumult and noise.

Never before had the top Congress leadership cut such a sorry figure at an AICC meeting. But worse was yet to follow in Parliament when Indira Gandhi returned to Delhi after her bitter experience at Jaipur. How and why this happened,and how far it went,is a long and sad story that needs to be narrated separately and in appropriate detail.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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