Indira Gandhi: A victim of her own cleverness – Virendra Parekh

Virendra Parekh“Mrs. Gandhi has been presented by her admirers as a world-class statesman, a staunch nationalist and an iron woman. She was nothing of the sort. The Simla Pact with Pakistan (1972) should put paid to such claims. Indira Gandhi was an average politician whose core competence lay in cheap manipulation and petty politicking.” – Virendra Parekh

Indira Gandhi & Sanjay GandhiThirty years after her brutal assassination on 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi remains a polarizing figure. While she elicits effusive praise from sections of Hindu nationalists, she is also condemned by some leading lights of the secularatti for her authoritarian tendencies.

How do you evaluate a public figure who has admirers and detractors on both sides of the political fault line? By the same criteria as you would apply to any other: their motivation and the actual impact and effect of their ideas and actions on the country. On either count, Mrs. Gandhi scores poorly.

During her reign, India exploded its first nuclear device and achieved a decisive military victory over Pakistan, leading to the dismemberment of our troublesome neighbor. However, her own contribution to either of these achievements was small, while her handling of their fallout left much to be desired.

On the other hand, Indira Gandhi’s outlook on politics, her economic policies and their consequences continue to exercise a powerful negative influence on our polity and economy. She shared Jawaharlal Nehru’s preference for dynastic rule, distaste for Hinduism, distrust of private enterprise and a deep faith in the gullibility of ordinary people. During her reign dynastic politics became deeply entrenched, economic growth and entrepreneurship were stifled under the dead weight of socialism, Hindu became a dirty word while corruption ceased to be so, Marxist activists were allowed to falsify Indian history on a massive scale and Bangladeshi infiltrators found backers at the highest levels in the government.

Indira Gandhi sheared our politics of whatever had remained of the pre-independence idealism. Politics always involved pursuit of power; Mrs. Gandhi ensured that it became nothing more than that. Power for self, family and party (in that order) was the supreme objective. End justified the means. For her, nothing was good or bad, right or wrong; necessity made it so. Corruption had always been with us, but Indira Gandhi gave it acceptability if not respectability. Indira believed, not wholly without reason, that perception mattered more than reality in politics; she remained focused on image rather than performance. Hired mob was her stock response to most of the serious challenges so as to show that ‘masses’ were on her side—be it Congress split in 1969 or Allahabad High Court judgment unseating her as the Member of Parliament. Truth was what suited her at the moment. In 1977, she dismissed emergency excesses as lies propagated by malicious enemies who had ganged up to stab her in the back. In 1980, she accused the Janata Party government of carrying out forcible sterilizations!

Indira Gandhi was charismatic and courageous. When desired, she could be daring, dashing and decisive to the point of ruthlessness. People applauded her when she trounced her adversaries in petty political one-upmanship. She won large political mandates from a people who thought she would win similar victories for them over the problems afflicting the country. However, all her good qualities and strengths were meant for herself, not the country. Everything she said and did was calculated to benefit her and her party. Contrast it with Sardar Patel or Netaji Bose and the point will become crystal clear.

Indira Gandhi & Zulfikar Ali BhuttoThe highest watermark in her career was India’s victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangaladesh. Here, the field operations were handled by service chiefs and were successful to the extent they were given a free hand. Indira Gandhi was given the easiest test in statesmanship at Shimla and she failed miserably. Displaying amazing naivety, she surrendered large tracts of Pakistani territory captured by the Indian army in the western sector and released 90,000 prisoners of war in return for empty promises of good behavior and friendship from a fickle man like Z. A. Bhutto, a sworn self-declared enemy of India. Forget what a Chanakya or Vedavyas would say about it; forget what Sardar Patel would have extracted from Pakistan in such a situation. Just consider what Bhutto himself would have settled for if he were in Indira’s position.

Mrs. Gandhi has been presented by her admirers as a world-class statesman, a staunch nationalist and an iron woman. She was nothing of the sort. The Simla Pact with Pakistan (1972) should put paid to such claims. Indira Gandhi was an average politician whose core competence lay in cheap manipulation and petty politicking.

As a political leader, Mrs. Gandhi viewed every issue, every development or trend through the prism of personal power or partisan politics. Maharashtra chief minister Abdul Rehman Antulay convinced her that Arun Shourie’s sensational exposure of his cement scandal was only nominally directed against him. The real target, he conveyed to her, was she. From that point onwards, Antulay’s defence was taken up by Indira’s loyalists until he had to be dropped when the court framed charges against him.

Since, in her reckoning, she was the central issue, anyone who raised any issue himself became a problem to be dealt with. For her, the issue was not corruption in public life, but the agitation launched by Jayaprakash Narayan against it. The issue was not the sense of alienation harboured by a large section of the Sikhs, but the agitation launched by Akalis. Sustained and large-scale infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims was not the problem, it was the agitation launched by Assamese students that needed her attention. Since the messenger was the problem and not the message, she focused on managing the messenger. How to tarnish and isolate Jay Prakash Narayan, how to sideline the Akalis, how to wear down the Assamese students so as to take wind out of their agitations became her preoccupation. That approach ruled out any solution to any problem.

In late 1970s, Indira Gandhi spawned Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to embarrass Akalis. Soon, he became too big for his boots. As Sikh terrorists went on rampage, as they routinely killed dozens of people in Punjab almost every day for years, many people advised Mrs. Gandhi to deal strongly with Bhindranwale before it was too late. But her priorities were different. First, the Akalsis must not be able to claim any credit. Secondly, as in the case of Bangladesh war, she wanted to solve the problem at a time and in a manner that would yield rich political dividends in the next Lok Sabha elections. So she delayed action until a few months before the elections. Indira Gandhi & Jarnail Singh BhindranwaleOperation Blue Star in June 1984 succeeded in cleansing the Golden Temple of unholy elements, but only at much higher loss of life than if the action had been taken earlier, serious damage to the holy shrine and even more serious damage to the Sikh psyche. Her life was consumed by fires lit by that action. She became a victim of her own cleverness.

Mrs. Gandhi’s economic policies were an extension of her political style. Her understanding of economic matters was perfunctory. She gave up on growth quite early and concluded that nothing much could be done to enlarge the national pie. Disillusionment with socialist policies was some decades away and Indira Gandhi found that socialist rhetoric of distributive justice (vaguely promising masses something in return for nothing) was more popular than freedom, enterprise, hard work and growth. “We spoke of socialism because it went down well with people,” she told a journalist. In a country ridden with low growth, abysmal poverty and high joblessness, she created a culture of subsidies, entitlements and reservations which continues to distract us even today.

In the name of equitable distribution of wealth and prevention of concentration of economic power, she nationalized banks, general insurance and coal mines, enacted laws that suffocated growth and enterprise and placed the whole economy at the disposal of politicians and bureaucrats for plunder. The licence-permit raj initiated by Nehru in mid-1950s was perfected by Indira Gandhi into a great establishment that was weak, corrupt and inefficient but all-pervasive and oppressive nevertheless.

Three of her economic policies hobble us to this day. Bank nationalisation undoubtedly accelerated the spread of bank branches in India, but also led to the rise of a bureaucratic/departmental culture and anti-consumer unions in banks. It curtailed the unhealthy nexus between industrial houses and some erstwhile private banks, only to replace it with a new and unhealthy kind of nexus between politicians, bankers and industrialists. Political interference with the functioning of banks manifested in loan melas and politically directed lending sapped professionalism, vitality and even viability of banks. The current prominence of public sector banks in India today cannot be justified on the grounds of economic efficiency and financial prudence. Yet it persists. The new vested interests, coupled with residual political ideology, have successfully stymied all efforts since the late 1990s to reduce government ownership below 51 per cent.

The policy of small-scale industry (SSI) reservations shut out medium and large Indian firms from precisely those labour-intensive, manufactured products (garments, shoes, toys, sporting goods, small electrical appliances, etc) in which the East Asian tiger economies achieved their manufacturing-exports-led growth in the decades after 1970. It seriously stunted the rise of an internationally competitive, labour-using manufacturing sector in India.

Warning sign in New DelhiFinally, Indira Gandhi tightened labour laws to make it almost impossible for an industrial enterprise with more than 100 employees to either retrench its workforce or even close down without government permission, which was rarely given. This was a massive discouragement to fresh employment in the organized sector. In 2010 organised manufacturing accounted for less than 1.5 per cent of the nation’s workforce! In essence, such restrictive laws bought job security for a tiny fraction of the working class at the cost of condemning over 90 per cent of workers to casual/informal employment, with low earnings and negligible job security.

By negating India’s comparative advantage in labour-intensive manufacturing, these laws helped ensure that India’s manufacturing sector stagnated at around 15-16 per cent of GDP, compared to over 30 per cent in China. But for labour laws and SSI reservation policy the problem of unemployment would not have been so acute. They prevented the rise of a large and growing class of factory workers in India, in strong contrast to East Asian nations where this category formed the core of a rising middle class. Today, labour-intensive manufacturing is migrating to Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh — but not India, where the employment crisis continues to build.

Mohandas Gandhi became Mahatma by enabling people to rise above their petty selfishness and make sacrifices for a higher goal. Indira Gandhi appealed to baser instinct of people by promising redistribution of wealth. The former created a galaxy of great leaders with varied talents. Indira Gandhi drove out every leader of any substance from the Congress, reducing a great nationalist movement to a family fiefdom. That is hardly the mark of a great leader.

» Virendra Parekh is the Executive Editor of Corporate India and lives in Mumbai.

Indira Gandhi meeting President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office on 28 March 1966