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‘No Hindi,no English. How?’

Indira Gandhi’s elevation to premiership was surrounded by intrigue

Written by Inder Malhotra |
January 23, 2009 12:44:54 am

Since she looms very large in modern Indian history — some believe her to be the “best prime minister the country has had” — most Indians do not realise or remember how uncertain,tentative,and shaky was her debut in the ‘room at the top’ even though there was an element of inevitability about her choice as Lal Bahadur Shastri’s successor after his sudden death at Tashkent. During the succession race,she had displayed unsuspected political skill by remaining silent in the face of Morarji Desai’s strident claim to the top job. He strongly felt that he had been “cheated” of it,after Jawaharlal Nehru’s passing,by the caucus of powerful party bosses,headed by the then Congress president,K. Kamaraj,and collectively nicknamed “The Syndicate”.

It was the same Syndicate that had masterminded,well in advance,Shastri’s succession to the towering first Prime Minister of independent India. The Syndicate had also seen to it that Shastri stepped into Nehru’s oversized shoes through consensus,not as a result of a divisive contest within the Congress Parliamentary Party. No one had imagined that the Shastri era would be so short-lived; therefore no one had given any thought to the second succession. Within the Syndicate there was agreement only on keeping Morarji Desai out for the same reasons that had dictated this strategy the last time. Who should succeed Shastri was still an open question although Kamaraj did say that Indira Gandhi was the Congress’ “best bet”.

Indeed,the Bombay Congress boss,S K Patil,implored Kamaraj to take over the “onerous responsibility and concomitant honour”. The solid strong man from the South replied: “No Hindi,no English. How?” Eventually,the Syndicate decided in favour of Indira Gandhi. But it withheld the announcement for some time in the hope of building a consensus. This was mission impossible because Desai was adamant on the parliamentary party’s vote. On January 19,1966,in the first and,so far,only contest for the leadership of the CPP,Indira Gandhi won by a comfortable margin of 355 votes against 169 for Desai. Five days later she was sworn in as Prime Minister. The first news she got on that day was tragic: Homi Bhaba,the legendary nuclear scientist and the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission,had died in a plane crash at Mont Blanc in Switzerland.

However,there is a dramatic backdrop to Indira’s ascension that must be narrated to put the historic events in perspective. On the last day of 1965,Shastri — his position in the Congress and the country greatly strengthened by his courageous and statesmanlike leadership during the India-Pakistan War — eased out from his cabinet T. T. Krishnamachari whom he had inherited as Finance Minister from Nehru. After the showdown with the Prime Minister,TTK,as he was generally called,went straight to Indira’s residence. She was not surprised but was indignant. Later that evening,she told a number of people including me,“I will be the next to go. This is not a cabinet worth staying in”.

It was no secret in Delhi those days that,as Information and Broadcasting Minister,her relations with the Prime Minister were strained. Shastri showed her all surface courtesies but denied her any say in high policy. She had written more than once to her American friend and confidante,Dorothy Norman that she felt like giving up what she was doing and going to London to live there for some time at least. Both her sons were in England then,and this added to London’s attraction. Whether she had an inkling of it or not — I had a shrewd suspicion that she did — Shastri’s mind was working on the same lines. Before leaving for Tashkent on January 2,1966,he had confided to his aides that on coming back after the Soviet-sponsored talks with Field-Marshal Ayub Khan of Pakistan,he would offer Indira the post of High Commissioner to Britain. He expected her to accept it. But who could have thought that from the Central Asian city he would return home in a coffin.

Indira Gandhi may have had no difficulty in defeating Morarji Desai in the party poll. But being the head of the government was a different matter altogether. She was inexperienced,no doubt,but in Parliament she was strangely inarticulate. In her own words,she was “terrified” of parliamentary questions. She also faced a very tough situation. The country had had two wars,two successions and two terrible years of drought. Indira was at a loss about what to do. No wonder Ram Manohar Lohia’s disparaging nickname for her,goongi gudiya,caught on. The Desai faction gleefully declared that after the 1967 general election Morarjibhai would again challenge her leadership (which he duly did).. And then a bigger disaster for her took place.

By a delicious quirk of irony,the Syndicate that had twice kept Desai at bay suddenly joined hands with him in order to oust Indira. This happened because,despite all her difficulties,she had disabused the Syndicate of its fond notion that,as a malleable Prime Minister,she would only reign while it would rule. However,in the fourth general election in 1967,the Congress received a huge shock. It lost not only the southern state now called Tamil Nadu and West Bengal but also seven north Indian states giving rise to the joke that one could travel from “Calcutta to Amritsar without having to traverse a single inch of Congress-governed territory”. Worse,the Congress majority in the Lok Sabha dwindled sharply.

Paradoxically,all this worked to Indira’s advantage,especially because among the Congress MPs that had lost their seats were most of the Syndicate’s stalwarts. Consequently when Desai once again demanded a contest for leadership,the party’s survival instinct took over,Tough battered,the Syndicate rode again and enforced a compromise under which Desai became deputy prime minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet and returned to his old portfolio,Finance. But the truce was tenuous and phony. It broke down soon enough. The unending power struggle led to the Congress split and other climactic developments that transformed the goongi gudiya into the invincible goddess Durga. But that is a different and long story to be told some other time.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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