Some years ago, I spent several months studying the official correspondence of P.N. Haksar, who was principal secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1967 to 1973. In his letters and reports, Haksar came across as a man of patriotism and erudition. He deeply loved his country and fervently wished for its progress and prosperity. He was widely read in history and the humanities, and had a serious interest in science and technology as well. At the same time, Haksar was not afflicted at all by self-doubt. Reading his papers, I was impressed, indeed astonished, at how he was so sure of himself while prescribing policies and making appointments in spheres well beyond his domain of expertise.
Haksar’s boss — whose birth centenary falls this Sunday — shared both his patriotism and his certitude. Indira Gandhi lived and died for India, and she thought she knew better than any other Indian what was good and best for India. Hence her lack of interest in Parliament, and her barely concealed contempt for the Opposition (this was manifest well before she jailed her opponents during the Emergency). Hence, also, her destruction of the culture of inner-party democracy within the Congress, so that her party, and her cabinet, became entirely subordinated to her will, and whim.
The health of a democracy depends on a properly functioning Parliament and a vigorous and effective Opposition. And it depends, as critically, on autonomous and independent public institutions. In the 1950s, ruling party politicians did not determine the allocation of top jobs within the bureaucracy, as well as within regulatory institutions. This changed with the advent of Indira Gandhi, who, actively aided by P.N. Haksar, came up with the idea of the “committed civil servant”, and going further, of the “committed judiciary”. Once, senior public servants in the Government of India were chosen and promoted on the basis of proven competence or track record. Now, whether the prime minister liked or approved of an official also became an important factor in appointments to senior positions.
Like Indira Gandhi, Haksar was a Kashmiri Pandit by birth. So were some other key advisors of the prime minister. However, ethnic origin was not really central to career prospects; what mattered more was depth of commitment to the Leader and her ideology. Whether he was Tamil or Bengali, Hindu or Muslim, a “committed” official had to believe in Mrs Gandhi’s brand of state socialism, and tacitly endorse her bypassing of parliamentary procedure. And he had to be utterly loyal to her, even when asked to do things contrary to constitutional practice or the norms and traditions of his office.
I do not mean to suggest that we had a fantastically capable civil service before Indira Gandhi became prime minister. In Nehru’s and Shastri’s day, there were officials who were able, focussed and hardworking, as well as officials who were lazy, incompetent and corrupt. But whether good, bad, or indifferent, top officials and judges were appointed and functioned independently of the prime minister. The autonomy of the institution was kept intact, as it must be in a constitutional democracy. It was this that changed with the advent of Indira Gandhi. Now, politics and personality intruded into, and impeded the functioning of, the executive and the judiciary.
Once corroded, the autonomy of public institutions could not be restored. After Indira Gandhi’s death, however, the corrosion took different forms. For one thing, it became more decentralised. Later prime ministers were not as powerful as Mrs Gandhi, so individual ministers took to interfering with, and determining, senior appointments. For another, caste and ethnicity began to play a greater role. Personal loyalty to the minister mattered, of course, but it also helped if you shared his caste, religion, language or state.
Were this a longer essay, I would provide a more wide-ranging assessment of Indira Gandhi’s career. I would write of her positive contributions, as in the winning of the Bangladesh war, the carrying forward of Shastri’s and C. Subramaniam’s programmes of food security, the establishment of the Indian Space Research Organisation, the promotion of our great craft traditions, and the sponsorship of the successful Festivals of India, soft power at its best. I would also then write of her other negative contributions, as in the further consolidation of the licence-permit-quota raj, and the conversion of the great party of the freedom struggle into a family firm.
A short column must have a sharper focus, and the one I have chosen is, I think, extremely pertinent to the present. Unlike Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi was not born into privilege. He comes from a very different ideological tradition. Yet his political style is markedly similar. Like Indira Gandhi, he dislikes and suspects an independent media; and rarely gives interviews or entertains difficult questions in public. Like her, he does not place a high value on parliamentary debate, and he can be contemptuous of the Opposition (consider his recent characterisation of the Congress as “termites” to be exterminated). Like her, he absolutely dominates his cabinet and party. Like her, when it comes to appointing senior officials, he values personal as well as ideological loyalty — hence the fact, surely not a coincidence, that so many top jobs in the Government of India have recently gone to Gujarat cadre officers.
The government of Narendra Modi has been in power for less than four years; yet, in the control, manipulation and subversion of theoretically independent public institutions, it has already gone as far as Indira Gandhi’s government did. Having tamed the bureaucracy, having undermined the autonomy of the Reserve Bank of India and the Election Commission, it has now set its eyes on the judiciary and, more disturbingly still, on the armed forces. For all their talk of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, in their desire to capture public institutions, the BJP is inspired by the deeds — and misdeeds — of a long-serving Congress Prime Minister. In this respect, at least, Narendra Modi is Indira Gandhi’s real political heir.