Last Sunday, as India remembered Indira Gandhi on her birth centenary, there was high drama being played on TV screens from Harare, where Robert Mugabe was fighting a battle not to resign after 37 years of elected dictatorship. The people of Zimbabwe are well educated and well aware of how much they owe to Mugabe. He had started as a hero, who fought for his country’s independence and won. But then over time he went from bad to worse. The economy collapsed due to too much government interference and corruption. Even so, while wishing him to go, people of Zimbabwe did not want to force him to leave.
Unlike in many other coups, the Army did not kill him and take over power. Everyone behaved impeccably, in proper constitutional fashion. He did finally resign when the parliament threatened to impeach him. It was a peaceful transfer of power.
Indira Gandhi was also a hero who became a villain when, for the one and only time in the history of independent India, she established a constitutional dictatorship. The old colonial apparatus of repression had been left intact by the Congress Raj. So she could legally declare an Internal Emergency (as there was already an External Emergency in force). She did it for the sake of avoiding a small inconvenience — prohibition from voting in Lok Sabha while the Supreme Court heard her appeal in an election case against her.
For that small inconvenience, she jailed the Opposition politicians arbitrarily, suppressed free press and put fundamental rights in jeopardy. She let her son Sanjay, though unelected, act in the most arbitrary manner to carry out a widespread attack on Muslim men by forced sterilisation. (She pretended not to know what he was doing.) She dishonoured the Constitution by changing the Preamble in a Parliament that had lasted beyond its legitimate date, adding the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ which the Founders, including her father and B R Ambedkar among others, did not think merited inclusion.
By some chance, perhaps due to bad advice from sycophants or sheer arrogance, she called an election and lost. India was lucky she did not perpetuate herself in power. Her opponents failed to hold her to account. Once she returned to power in 1980, all was forgotten. History was rewritten and she is celebrated as someone who, rather than being India’s only Fascist Dictator, upheld Jawaharlal Nehru’s Idea of India as a tolerant, liberal democracy.
She did however do one constructive thing. Thanks to the Emergency, the Jan Sangh politicians had to suffer imprisonment. Until then, they had to bear the taunts that their party had not fought during the colonial days or gone to prison as Congress leaders had. Indira Gandhi now gave them that badge of honour. They too had gone to jail fighting for freedom from an oppressive ruler.
The rest is history. The Jan Sangh became the BJP. It rose steadily from the 1980s onwards. The seeds sown in the Emergency sprouted and by 1989 the Congress lost its hegemonic status. India could now experiment with other centres of power. Through the muddle and strife of the next 25 years, the BJP came through as the alternative answer to the Congress. Give Indira credit for the success of the BJP.