Remembering Indira Gandhi in her birth centenary year is necessary for more than sentimental or partisan reasons. She gave self-confidence to a nation in times of self-doubt caused by the humiliating defeat of 1962, the growing severity of the food crisis and failures of state-guided development. She also gave a complacent polity a taste of the authoritarianism that could easily eclipse democracy. She personified dignity in the face of political defeat and adversity and exhibited grit as well as an acute sense of the political in her re-entry into the portals of power. In her lifetime, she graduated into folklore; in her death, she became a martyr.
Anyone with a cursory interest in Indian politics remembers Indira Gandhi for her unforgivable miscalculation in bringing about the “Emergency regime”. Equally, she is remembered for the game-changing promise to remove poverty — a promise she hardly was able to keep. But beyond the sin of the Emergency and the cynicism of the “garibi hatao” slogan, Indira Gandhi deserves to be remembered for redefining democratic politics in the country. In doing so, she did not hesitate to reshape the Nehru model beyond recognition. She spoke shrilly — both literally and in polemics. She was not averse to dramatisation and shock treatments to the nation and to her opponents as on the issue of privy purses or even more starkly in the announcement of the Emergency on June 25, 1975. Shrouded in the theatre and disguised in the drama, however, there were three core elements that need serious attention.
One was her clear departure from the pluralist model that had evolved under Nehru. In the sphere of economic policy, her strategy was simple — she took the basic principles from the Nehruvian consensus and stretched them to the extreme, whether it be nationalisation, expansion of the public sector, control of the private sector, expropriation from agriculture, or bureaucratic control of the economy. In polemical terms, it is no wonder that she exaggerated the “socialist pattern of society” to convert it into a war cry for socialism. But in essence, what informed her economic policy choices was her larger faith in restricting plurality — she disliked plurality of policy approaches, of economic power centres, of decision-makers. She chose centralisation unhesitatingly.
It is this negative approach to plurality that perhaps defines her overall politics and distinguishes her from Nehru. Most of the flashpoints during her two-decade-long political career at the helm can be understood in terms of this approach to plurality.
The choice she made in Kerala as the party president — not to tolerate a communist government — also speaks of the same anti-pluralist streak. The fallout of this discomfort with a pluralist model of politics was that she carved the electorate in non-plural, populist terms, as one large mass to be appealed to — “the people”.
Once the voters were thus imagined, the rest of her politics could fall in place — the personality cult, construction of a larger-than-life image, the rhetoric of being prepared to die for the people, the conspiracy theories, the search for programmes and agenda that would appeal to the general public, the need to dramatise, converting politics into a continuous theatre.
The theme of the nation recurred in her populist rhetoric. With due respect to her nationalist fervour, however, the recourse to nationalism served to construct an undifferentiated public and a range of spectres — from actual war to war on poverty, to war on the “internal enemy” — could be justified in the name of the nation. The suspension of routine democracy, too, could be legitimate for saving the nation. Indira Gandhi’s politics — most of which happened within the democratic framework, barring the Emergency — undermined institutions. With the PM concentrating more and more powers, the cabinet was an early casualty.
Impatience with criticism and unwillingness to negotiate led to the decimation of the legislature. Confrontation with the judiciary reached mythical proportions, leaving the judiciary bruised. The federal structure remained only as a formality. The bureaucracy was converted into a private apparatus employed for dramatic effect or for vengeance. Not that institutions were very strong, but the two decades of the Indira-era stunted them further. Today, we continue to pay the price for that.
Three, the institution that bore the greatest brunt of all this was the Congress party. Most of the elements of the “Congress system” that Rajni Kothari discussed, began to crumble during the time when the party appeared to be invincible in the early Seventies. Indira Gandhi’s populist style rendered the local party organisation practically useless. In 1971-72, she undertook a whirlwind tour of the country and appealed to voters to vote Congress not as their, the voters’, agent, but as her instrument to govern. Her face-off with the older leadership of the party had already made her suspicious of the entrenched leaders with their longstanding networks.
So, even after the split in the Congress party, functionaries of the Congress (I) were appointed chiefly on the criterion of loyalty. Critics said she made sure that anyone with an independent base of his/her own, would be sidelined in favour of someone without much of a base. Later, once the initial attraction of Rajiv faded, this feature came to haunt him and the party.
The strength of the Congress vis-à-vis other parties lay in its strong networks. But these were rendered ineffective since the Seventies and in the absence of the tall leader with sustained populist appeal, the party became a non-entity. In the Nineties, the party declined further in a changed political context but with the same logic. A side-effect of this development can be seen in the case of the many state parties that emerged in opposition to the Congress or from its own factions. Most of these failed to evolve durable social networks and instead chose to rely on the appeal of the leader. This is seen in the case of the non-Congress parties like the Janata factions led by Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav respectively in Bihar and UP or the Congress-born parties like the Trinmool Congress in West Bengal or much later, the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh.
The contagion of the personality cult and parties without organisations has contaminated not just the Congress but the political arena generally. It is convenient to remember Indira Gandhi only for the Emergency, but we must remember also that she came to believe in her “mission”, in her indispensability and therefore, became intolerant of criticism and challenge. If this has any resemblance with the current moment, it should make us worry.