The most intriguing question of modern Indian history of the last 75 years is why did Indira Gandhi call an election in March 1977? She did not have to. The Opposition was in jail. While some underground activity was going on, Indira Gandhi was in complete control of the government, the Army and the judiciary. Her son and chosen successor Sanjay was telling her to not bother about an election. The president was in her pocket. She was constitutionally within her power to rule for as long as she liked.
But she called an election. Her secret services told her she would win. They were wrong. Of the many stories about her decision was one which said she could not stand the international criticism which was appearing in New Statesman. Foreign leaders such as Labour Party leader Michael Foot sentimentally backed her, but there was unease abroad. Indira Gandhi wanted to ensure that she could prove to the British that she was democratically popular. That the people should not care about the politicians in jail as they were just troublemakers. She was Mother India.
What moved her is a fundamental fact about Indian politics, whichever party is in power. The fact is that India and its politicians exist in a goldfish bowl where they are acutely aware of the Western gaze. The press of Asian countries or Latin American countries does not matter. In a way nor does German or Italian press. It is foreign English-language press and, to some extent, BBC Radio and TV. Politicians are sensitive souls. Whatever nonchalance they pretend to, a disapproval from a foreign Western source hurts.
Historically, Indians have never looked Eastwards. They do not think they are Asians. Sir William Jones discovered in the late Eighteenth century (while he was the judge for East India Company’s Law Courts) that Sanskrit had affinity with Greek and Latin and called them an Indo-European family of languages. It worked like magic and ever since Indians have thought of themselves as European. Indian leaders went Westwards to study — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Sardar Patel, B R Ambedkar, or even to preach as Vivekananda did. Rabindranath Tagore is the sole leader who went as readily to Japan and China as to the West.
A recent example of this sensitivity to Western opinion came when the British Labour Party passed a resolution on Kashmir. It was critical of the Modi government. It could hardly be surprising, but the reaction in India was furious. How dare the Labour Party criticise the Indian government? But then the Kashmir issue has been discussed in most years at the party’s annual conference. The Labour Party has many members of the South Asian diaspora as its members. When I was active at the conference, I recall there were always resolutions sent by local parties to the conference. They were sent by parties with members who had migrated from Mirpur (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir), Pakistan, India taking diametrically opposite stands. These resolutions would be composited into one common resolution which would be debated by the conference. Nothing much happened to these resolutions, whether passed or not.
All these years no one has paid any attention to Labour Party resolutions. The reaction reflects much more Indian sensitivity than any practical consequence of the resolution. Why are people so sensitive?
This article first appeared in the October 20 print edition under the title ‘Indira, Kashmir, and the foreign sting’
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