Each of the two sons of Feroze and Indira Gandhi died tragically in his prime, years ago, and it is unbecoming to see their family successors squabble today. Everyone may need to be constantly reminded that this handful of persons are in fact ordinary citizens in our democratic polity, deserving India’s attention principally in such a capacity.
What did, indeed, Feroze Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi “live and die for”? It was not any one identifiable thing or any set of common things, that seems certain.
Feroze Gandhi from all accounts stood for integrity in Indian politics and journalism; it is not impossible his premature death was related to his wife’s negligence because she had returned to her father’s side instead. Jawaharlal Nehru did not do well as a father to promote his daughter so blatantly as his assistant either before 1947
Nehru did not achieve political power until well into middle age; his catastrophic misjudgment of communist ideology and intentions, especially Chinese communist ideology and intentions, contributed to an Indian defeat at war, and led soon thereafter to his health collapsing and his death.
He and Indira somewhat nonchalantly made a visit to Ceylon even as the Chinese attack was commencing; a high point of my own childhood was saying namaste on October 13 1962 at Colombo airport when they arrived.
Feroze and Indira’s younger son evidently came to die in a self-inflicted aeronautical mishap of some sort. What did Sanjay Gandhi “live for”? The book Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s created twenty years ago in America
has a chapter titled “The State of Governance” by the political scientist James Manor which says:
“After 1973 or so, personal loyalty tended increasingly to become the main criterion for advancement in the Congress Party. People who appeared to be loyal often replaced skilled political managers who seemed too independent. Many of these new arrivals did not worry, as an earlier generation of Congress officials had done, that excessive private profiteering might earn the wrath of party leaders. In 1975, Sanjay Gandhi suddenly became the second most powerful figure in Indian politics. He saw that the parties of the left and right had strong organizations that could put large numbers of militants into the streets for demonstrations while Congress had no such capacity. In the belief that Congress should also have this kind of muscle, he began recruiting elements from urban centres including the criminal underworld. The problem of corruption was exacerbated by demands that State-level Congress leaders place large sums of money at the disposal not of the national party but of the persons who presided over it. Congress chief ministers realized that a fulsome response to these demands went a long way toward insulating them from interference from New Delhi, and a monumental system of fund-raising sprang up. When so many people were being drawn into semi-institutionalized malfeasance, which seemed to be condoned by higher authorities, it was inevitable many would skim off portions of the funds raised for personal benefit. Corruption soared. The problem was compounded by the tendency for people to be dismissed from public and party offices abruptly, leading many Congress politicians to fear that their time in power might be quite short.”
I do not have reason to disagree with this opinion contained in the book that I and WE James created at the University of Hawaii twenty years ago. If anything, Sanjay’s political model may have spread itself across other Indian political parties in one way or another.
What does strike me as odd in light of current political controversy is that several of Sanjay’s friends and colleagues are now part-and-parcel of the Sonia Congress – one must ask, were they such fair-weather friends that they never lent a hand or a shoulder to his young widow and her infant son especially against the cruelties Sanjay’s mother bestowed upon them? Did they offer help or guidance to Sanjay’s son, have they tried to guide him away from becoming the bigoted young politician he seems to wish to be today?
Indira’s major faults included playing favourites among her bahus and her grandchildren with as much gusto as any mother-in-law portrayed on the tackiest TV-serial today.
What were her good deeds? There was one, and it was an enormously large one, of paramount significance for the country and our subcontinent as a whole: her statesmanship before, during and to some extent after the war that created Bangladesh. My father has preserved a classic photograph over the years of Indira’s finest period as an international stateswoman, when she visited Paris and other foreign capitals including Washington in the autumn of 1971.
She tried to prevent the Yahya Khan/Tikka Khan genocide in Bangladesh when many Bangladeshis came to be sacrificed at the altar of the Nixon-Kissinger visits to Mao and Zhou. She made a major diplomatic effort in world capitals to avert war with West Pakistan over its atrocities in East Pakistan. But war could not be averted, and within a few weeks, in December 1971, Bangladesh was born.
“Indira Gandhi’s one and paramount good deed as India’s leader and indeed as a world leader of her time was to have fought a war that was so rare in international law for having been unambiguously just. And she fought it flawlessly. The cause had been thrust upon her by an evil enemy’s behaviour against his own people, an enemy supported by the world’s strongest military power with pretensions to global leadership. Victims of the enemy’s wickedness were scores of millions of utterly defenceless, penniless human beings. Indira Gandhi did everything right. She practised patient but firm diplomacy on the world’s stage to avert war if it was at all possible to do. She chose her military generals well and took their professional judgment seriously as to when to go to war and how to win it. Finally, in victory she was magnanimous to the enemy that had been defeated. Children’s history-books in India should remember her as the stateswoman who freed a fraternal nation from tyranny, at great expense to our own people. As a war-leader, Indira Gandhi displayed extraordinary bravery, courage and good sense.” (From my review article of Inder Malhotra’s Indira Gandhi, first published in The Statesman May 7 2006.)
“She had indeed fought that rarest of things in international law: the just war. Supported by the world’s strongest military, an evil enemy had made victims of his own people. Indira tried patiently on the international stage to avert war, but also chose her military generals well and took their professional judgment seriously as to when to fight if it was inevitable and how to win. Finally she was magnanimous (to a fault) towards the enemy ~ who was not some stranger to us but our own estranged brother and cousin. It seemed to be her and independent India’s finest hour. A fevered nation was thus ready to forgive and forget her catastrophic misdeeds until that time….” (From “Unhealthy Delhi” first published in The Statesman June 11 2007).
What did Indira die for? I have said it was “blowback” from domestic and/or international politics, similar to what happened to Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto in later years.
“Indira Gandhi died in “blowback” from the unrest she and her younger son and others in their party had opportunistically fomented among Sikh fundamentalists and sectarians since the late 1970s. Rajiv Gandhi died in “blowback” from an erroneous imperialistic foreign policy that he, as Prime Minister, had been induced to make by jingoistic Indian diplomats, a move that got India’s military needlessly involved in the then-nascent Sri Lankan civil war. Benazir Bhutto similarly may be seen to have died in “blowback” from her own political activity as prime minister and opposition leader since the late 1980s, including her own encouragement of Muslim fundamentalist forces. Certainly in all three cases, as in all assassinations, there were lapses of security too and imprudent political judgments made that contributed to the tragic outcomes.” From “An Indian Reply to President Zardari”.
And then there was Rajiv. He did not know me except in his last eight months. It has now emerged that Dr Manmohan Singh’s first bypass operation was in 1990-1991, coinciding precisely with the time I gave Rajiv the results of the perestroika-for-India project that I had led at the University of Hawaii since 1986, an encounter that sparked the 1991 economic reform as has been told elsewhere. Dr Singh was simply not in that loop, nor has he himself ever claimed to have been in it — regardless of what innumerable flatterers, sycophants and other straightforwardly mendacious characters in Delhi’s high power circles have been making out over the years since. Facts are rather stubborn things.
As a 35-year old newcomer to Delhi and a complete layman on security issues, I did what little I knew how to try to reduce the vulnerability that I felt Rajiv faced from unknown lists of assassins.
“That night KR dropped me at Tughlak Road where I used to stay with friends. In the car I told him, as he was a military man with heavy security cover for himself as a former Governor of J&K, that it seemed to me Rajiv’s security was being unprofessionally handled, that he was vulnerable to a professional assassin. KR asked me if I had seen anything specific by way of vulnerability. With John Kennedy and De Gaulle in mind, I said I feared Rajiv was open to a long-distance sniper, especially when he was on his campaign trips around the country. This was one of several attempts I made since October 1990 to convey my clear impression to whomever I thought might have an effect that Rajiv seemed to me extremely vulnerable. Rajiv had been on sadhbhavana journeys, back and forth into and out of Delhi. I had heard he was fed up with his security apparatus, and I was not surprised given it seemed at the time rather bureaucratized. It would not have been appropriate for me to tell him directly that he seemed to me to be vulnerable, since I was a newcomer and a complete amateur about security issues, and besides if he agreed he might seem to himself to be cowardly or have to get even closer to his security apparatus. Instead I pressed the subject relentlessly with whomever I could. I suggested specifically two things: (a) that the system in place at Rajiv’s residence and on his itineraries be tested, preferably by some internationally recognized specialists in counter-terrorism; (b) that Rajiv be encouraged to announce a shadow-cabinet. The first would increase the cost of terrorism, the second would reduce the potential political benefit expected by terrorists out to kill him. On the former, it was pleaded that security was a matter being run by the V. P. Singh and then Chandrashekhar Governments at the time. On the latter, it was said that appointing a shadow cabinet might give the appointees the wrong idea, and lead to a challenge to Rajiv’s leadership. This seemed to me wrong, as there was nothing to fear from healthy internal contests for power so long as they were conducted in a structured democratic framework. I pressed to know how public Rajiv’s itinerary was when he travelled. I was told it was known to everyone and that was the only way it could be since Rajiv wanted to be close to the people waiting to see him and had been criticized for being too aloof. This seemed to me totally wrong and I suggested that if Rajiv wanted to be seen as meeting the crowds waiting for him then that should be done by planning to make random stops on the road that his entourage would take. This would at least add some confusion to the planning of potential terrorists out to kill him. When I pressed relentlessly, it was said I should probably speak to “Madame”, i.e. to Mrs. Rajiv Gandhi. That seemed to me highly inappropriate, as I could not be said to be known to her and I should not want to unduly concern her in the event it was I who was completely wrong in my assessment of the danger. The response that it was not in Congress’s hands, that it was the responsibility of the V. P. Singh and later the Chandrashekhar Governments, seemed to me completely irrelevant since Congress in its own interests had a grave responsibility to protect Rajiv Gandhi irrespective of what the Government’s security people were doing or not doing. Rajiv was at the apex of the power structure of the party, and a key symbol of secularism and progress for the entire country. Losing him would be quite irreparable to the party and the country. It shocked me that the assumption was not being made that there were almost certainly professional killers actively out to kill Rajiv Gandhi — this loving family man and hapless pilot of India’s ship of state who did not seem to have wished to make enemies among India’s terrorists but whom the fates had conspired to make a target. The most bizarre and frustrating response I got from several respondents was that I should not mention the matter at all as otherwise the threat would become enlarged and the prospect made more likely! This I later realized was a primitive superstitious response of the same sort as wearing amulets and believing in Ptolemaic astrological charts that assume the Sun goes around the Earth — centuries after Kepler and Copernicus. Perhaps the entry of scientific causality and rationality is where we must begin in the reform of India’s governance and economy. What was especially repugnant after Rajiv’s assassination was to hear it said by his enemies that it marked an end to “dynastic” politics in India. This struck me as being devoid of all sense because the unanswerable reason for protecting Rajiv Gandhi was that we in India, if we are to have any pretensions at all to being a civilized and open democratic society, cannot tolerate terrorism and assassination as means of political change. Either we are constitutional democrats willing to fight for the privileges of a liberal social order, or ours is truly a primitive and savage anarchy concealed beneath a veneer of fake Westernization….. the news suddenly said Rajiv Gandhi had been killed. All India wept. What killed him was not merely a singular act of criminal terrorism, but the system of humbug, incompetence and sycophancy that surrounds politics in India and elsewhere. I was numbed by rage and sorrow, and did not return to Delhi. Eleven years later, on 25 May 2002, press reports said “P. V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh lost their place in Congress history as architects of economic reforms as the Congress High command sponsored an amendment to a resolution that had laid credit at the duo’s door. The motion was moved by…. Digvijay Singh asserting that the reforms were a brainchild of the late Rajiv Gandhi and that the Rao-Singh combine had simply nudged the process forward.” Rajiv’s years in Government, like those of Indira Gandhi, were in fact marked by profligacy and the resource cost of poor macroeconomic policy since bank-nationalisation may be as high as Rs. 125 trillion measured in 1994 rupees. Certainly though it was Rajiv Gandhi as Leader of the Opposition in his last months who was the principal architect of the economic reform that came to begin after his passing.“
(I have had to say that I do not think the policies pursued by Dr Singh thus far have been consistent with the direction I believe Rajiv, in a second term as PM, would have wished to take. See, for example, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Fallacious Finance”, “Against Quackery”, “Mistaken Macroeconomics”, and other articles listed and linked at “Memo to Dr Kaushik Basu”.)
The treatment of Indira or Rajiv or Sanjay or their family successors as royalty of any kind whatsoever in India was, is, and remains absurd, reflecting stunted growth of Indian democracy. I remember well the obsequiousness I witnessed on the part of old men in the presence of Rajiv Gandhi.
Tribal and mansabdari political cultures still dominate Northern and Western regions of the Indian subcontinent (descending from the Sikhs, Muslims, Rajputs, Mahrattas etc).
Nehru in his younger days was an exemplary democrat, and he had an outstanding democratically-minded young friend in Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.
But Nehru and Abdullah as Westernized political liberals were exceptions in the autocratic/monarchical political cultures of north India (and Pakistan) which continue today and stunt the growth of any democratic mindset.
What we may urgently need is some French Liberté, égalité, fraternité ! to create a simple ordinary citoyen universally in the country and the subcontinent as a whole! May we please import a Marquis de Lafayette?
Bengal and parts of Dravidian India have long lost fondness for monarchy and autocracy – Western political liberalism began to reach Kolkata almost two centuries ago after all (see e.g. Tapan Raychaudhuri’s fine study Europe Reconsidered). Both Nepal and Pakistan have been undergoing radical transformation towards democracy in recent months, as Bengali Pakistanis had done 40 years earlier under Sheikh Mujib. I said last year and say again that there may be a dangerous intellectual vacuum around the throne of Delhi.
Subroto Roy, Kolkata