What Is The True Legacy Of Indira Gandhi?

What Is The True Legacy Of Indira Gandhi?

A popular phrase I’ve often heard Hindi speakers use is ‘Jo Dikta Hain Wohi Bikta Hain’ meaning ‘That Which Is Seen Can Be Sold’ similar to the phrase ‘Seeing Is Believing.’ The selling product can be an apparatus or in some case a political legacy. That is my personal feeling with regards to the legacy of this nation’s first female (and till date only) Prime Minister Shrimati Indira Gandhi whose 98th Birth Anniversary fell on 19 November.

Social, as well as print/electronic media, were carrying articles either commemorating her or presenting a critical picture of her. Now I felt the reproach was done in a discreet manner as many of us follow the Latin dictum De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (Of the dead, nothing unless good). But for those departed souls who served in public office the more suitable phrase would be De mortuis nil nisi bene [dicendum] (Of the dead, nothing [spoken] unless well (truthfully).

So what is the true picture as far as the legacy of Indira Gandhi is concerned? Was she the strong democrat who kept India’s interests above everything or was she an uncaring autocrat who saw to it that her will be imposed on the public? Or did she view herself as the mirror image of the nation as in ‘India is Indira/Indira is India’?

As seen in most cases, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. That will be my case with Indira Gandhi as we shall see in the following. I will divide the following sections regarding the accuracy of the image bestowed upon her.

Benefactor of the poor

One of Indira Gandhi’s most notable as well as laudable features was her ability to connect with the poor, even if it was a calculated move. Her stirring campaign of Garibi Hatao desh bachao (Abolish Poverty rescue the country) during the 1971 elections as well as the suggested poverty reduction programs that came with it managed to gain extensive support from both and rural and urban poor for Indira Gandhi. Her campaigns made the poor feel that at last they have gained both political worth and political weight. But in reality, only 4% of the allocated funds ever reached the ‘poorest of the poor’.

One of the primary programs which preceded this ‘Garibi Hatao’ campaign was the nationalisation of banking in 1969. Now to be fair the bank nationalisation did multiply the number of bank branches in India and truncated the unhealthy linking between industrial houses and certain private banks. On the surface it made the poor feel that they are now included in the economic story of India and initially they were able to have bank accounts but the scenario took a different turn. The banks’ nationalisation led to the rise of an unhealthy association between certain bureaucrats, politicians, bankers and industrialists taking the poor voters back to square one. Another aspect of her benefitting the poor is debunked in this scholarly analysis. The relevant extracts are given below:

Perhaps the most damaging of Indira Gandhi’s economic legacies was the severe tightening of labour laws carried out in the “Emergency year” of 1976 through the insertion of the restrictive chapter V(B) in the Industrial Disputes Act. In effect, this made it almost impossible for an industrial enterprise with more than 300 employees to either retrench its workforce or even close down without government permission, which was rarely given. The law was tightened further by lowering the threshold level of employees to 100 in 1982. The provisions essentially turned labour from a variable factor of production into a fixed one! The massive discouragement to fresh employment ensured that India’s organised sector employment (including nine million government administrative employees) stagnated at less than 30 million out of a total labour force of around 500 million. In 2010 organised manufacturing accounted for less than 1.5 per cent of the nation’s workforce… 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. Labour laws and SSI reservation policy were important factors explaining the absence 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.

But as stated at the beginning- ‘That Which Is Seen Can Be Sold’. That is what happened in August 1977, less than six months after Indira Gandhi was voted out of power.In a village named Belchhi in Bihar, eleven landless Dalits were burned and killed due to land disputes. Most of India’s national politicians although condemned the carnage couldn’t reach out to the victims due to what is now termed ‘tyranny of distance’ but the former Prime Minister braved the waist-deep water and sludgy roads by sitting atop an elephant. Her daring move and assurances she gave the victim’s families cemented her role as the benefactor of the poor.  These actions ensured that she remain the choice of the rural as well as urban poor who were part of the voters that returned her to power in 1980.

Destroying Institutions

Her legacy is a sort of continuous ruin; she did more than anyone else to destroy institutions in India,” was the statement once made by scholar Arun Shourie when asked about Indira Gandhi. And one can look at her actions before and of course during the emergency that she imposed in 1975 to understand the reliability of Shourie’s statement.

On 12 June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad declared that Indira Gandhi won her Parliament seat by gross violation of the prevailing election laws and banned her from running for any office for six years. She attempted a defence by unsuccessfully appealing to the Supreme Court. But instead of respecting the law she decided to completely sabotage Indian democracy, by declaring Emergency, imprisoning all her political rivals and critics, besides suspending fundamental rights.

On 26 September, 1975 the 39th amendment to the constitution was made which placed the election of the Prime Minster beyond the judicial scrutiny. This was done to safeguard Indira Gandhi’s seat. Further the 42nd Amendment to the constitution aimed to reduce the power of the Supreme Court and High Courts to rule upon the constitutional validity of laws.

Besides laying down the Fundamental Duties of Indian citizens to the nation, it also amended the Preamble and the description of India was changed from “sovereign democratic republic” to a “sovereign, socialist secular democratic republic”. Among other changes, this amendment limited the common man’s access to the Supreme Court.

However it is widely believed her distrust towards democratic institutions began quite early in her career; we can even paraphrase Pandit Nehru stating that Mrs. Gandhi had all the makings of a dictator in her — vast popularity, a strong will, ability, hardness, an intolerance for others. She showed this trait during the Kerala crisis of 1959.

In 1957, the Communist Party of India won the assembly elections of Kerala by a slim majority, forming the first communist state government in the country as well as one of the world’s first democratically elected communist government with EMS Namboodiripad as the Chief Minister. Now while Jawaharlal Nehru saw the Indian communists as opponents, he was willing to give the new democratically-elected state government a chance since they promised to function within the constitutional bounds.

But the same cannot be said about his daughter who as the then President of the Congress party, was determined to dislodge the elected government. She saw her chance when an education bill was introduced by EMS soon after assuming his post which encroached into private educational institutes.

The local Congress party members provoked the upset parties into organising state-wide agitations terming them as the “Liberation Struggle”. Kerala was plagued by strikes and protests with the protesters employing mob violence.

It is now public knowledge that the agitators of the Congress party were goaded by Indira Gandhi who pressurized her father who finally relented.  The EMS Government became the first democratically elected state government with a clear majority to be dismissed using Emergency Powers in July 1959. While PM Nehru was defamed, few disagreed that it was the doing of his dictatorial daughter. It is peculiar then that how the Congress Syndicate leadership led by the esteemed statesman Kamraj thought she will be a docile PM when they chose her as the candidate. As history tells us, on gaining popularity and power, Mrs Gandhi disempowered the Syndicate. She showed herself more as an astute chess master than as a ‘Dumb Doll’, especially when it came to dealing with state leaders. This aspect is best summarised by Paul R. Brass in The Politics of India Since Independence:

Unlike her father Jawaharlal Nehru, who preferred to deal with strong chief ministers in control of their legislative parties and state party organizations, Mrs. Gandhi set out to remove every Congress chief minister who had an independent base and to replace each of them with ministers personally loyal to her…Even so, stability could not be maintained in the states..

It is this bulldozing of the Congress party by Indira Gandhi which brought in the ‘high-command’ structure which is prevalent even today.


Noted Congress spokesman Vithal N. Gadgil one time quoted Indira Gandhi saying ‘My father was a statesman. I’m a politician’. Truer words were not spoken because among the most notable feature Indira Gandhi had during her lifetime was the art of doing politics; at different times she attempted to take different political groups as her allies. Reputed journalist Inder Malhotra, once stated Indira Gandhi understood the importance of power and how to manipulate it better than most politicians. A noted example was how she co-opted the communists.

During Pandit Nehru’s ‘Socialist’ rule the Indian Communists were still treating the INC as opponents, but Mrs Gandhi came out with a fool-proof plan: give them control over academic institutions while keeping the option of probable political alliance open.

Hence a history professor of Marxist leanings, Nurul Hasan became the education minister under her rule. It was this Nurul Hasan who successfully pushed for the creation of the ICHR in 1972. The ICHR was meant ‘to give a national direction to an objective and scientific writing of history and to have rational presentation and interpretation of history’.

This objective was indistinguishable from that of the Soviet Union which was also known to ‘direct’ research, with the belief that all academic work should follow the Marxist model. Similarly, most of those who ran the ICHR were Marxists or pro-Marxists and it was these scholars who further strengthened the Marxist roots of Indian secularism.

At times the CPI was sneeringly called Communist Party of Indira. During the 1970’s the comrades avidly gave backing to Indira’s state socialism and through their control of academia provided intellectual justification for Indira’s actions. As expected the CPI even justified the imposition of Emergency. Noted leftist historian Bipan Chandra in his notable work In the Name of Democracy: J P Movement and the Emergency portrayed Indira Gandhi as a secular, economic nationalist whose inclusive passive revolution to change the nation was weakened by imprecise leaders like Jay Prakash Narayan.  Since Narayan was assisted by the RSS in his struggle against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian politics, the 1975 Emergency-empowered dictatorship was showed as inevitability where forces of turmoil had to be restricted by a secular order.

Interestingly Mrs Gandhi even made subtle alliances with political groups of the right. One of her vocal supporter from the right was Balasaheb Thackeray who in 1975 wrote an article in Marmik welcoming the emergency. This was because at the time Shiv Sena itself was fostered by the Maharashtrian Congressmen.

Mrs Gandhi was often accused of playing the card of ‘token Hindutva’ by the leftists and it was assumed she attempted to co-opt the right. They point towards the statement she as PM made in the Parliament in 1973 following the death of MS Golwalkar the second Sarsanghchalak of the RSS-

We have lost in Guru Golwalkar a famous personality, who was not a Member of the Parliament. He held a respected position in the nation by the force of his personality and the intensity of his convictions.

Another notable gesture her government made was in 1970 when it issued postage stamps in honour of Swami Shraddhanand and V D Savarkar, both icons of Hindutva who were not given due honour by her father our first PM(another notable issue was her commissioning a Films Division documentary on Savarkar).

Even after the emergency where she jailed the bulk of RSS and Jana Sangh leadership it seems she was still looking to co-opt some of their disgruntled members. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, senior Jana Sangh leader Balraj Madhok claimed that Indira Gandhi had offered him the post of a central Minister in 1980 after returning to power.

Foreign Policy

Without a doubt in the field of foreign policy Indira Gandhi was more incisive than her father. This was best seen during the Indo-Pak conflict in 1971.

The 1971 conflict was sparked by the Bangladesh Liberation war, a conflict between the administrators of the then West Pakistan and the East Pakistanis.Many attempts were made to neutralize East Pakistani soldiers and police. After several days of strikes and protests by the East Pakistani activists and supporters of Awami League, the Pakistani military cracked down on Dhaka on the night of 25 March 1971. Mujib was arrested on the night of 26 March 1971 around 1:30 am (as per Radio Pakistan’s news on 29 March 1971) and taken to West Pakistan. The arrest was preceded by Operation Searchlight, a military operation which killed several intellectuals and activists in Dhaka.

The brutality of the Pakistani army caused approximately ten million people to take refuge in the neighboring Indian states as the administrations of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura established refugee camps along the border. But the wave of disadvantaged East Pakistani refugees placed an unbearable strain on India’s already overtaxed economy.

Seeing the plight of the refugees as well as the zeal of the Awami League leaders, on 27 March 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi expressed full support for the independence struggle of the people of East Pakistan. Mrs Gandhi also stated that it was more effective to end the genocide of Bengalis by taking armed action against Pakistan than to simply give refuge to those who made it across to refugee camps. Exiled East Pakistan army officers got in touch with members of the Indian Armed Forces and Intelligence Agencies with plans to prepare these camps for recruitment and training of Mukti Bahini who were the guerilla fighters opposing the Pakistan Army.

However India’s official military campaign in 1971 was delayed against the wishes of the Prime Minister. This famous incident is described by the then Chief of Indian Army Sam Manekshaw:

In 1971, when West Pakistan cracked down in East Pakistan, hundreds and thousands of refugees started pouring into India, into West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. The Prime Minister held a Cabinet meeting in her office. The External Affairs Minister Sardar Swaran Singh, the Agriculture Minister, Mr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, the Defence Minister, Babu Jagjivan Ram and the Finance Minister, Yashwant Rao Chavan were present. I was then summoned.

A very angry, grim-faced Prime Minister read out the telegrams from the Chief Ministers of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. She then turned around to me and said, “What are you doing about it?”And I said, “Nothing, it’s got nothing to do with me. You didn’t consult me when you allowed the BSF, the CRP and RAW to encourage the Pakistanis to revolt. Now that you are in trouble, you come to me. I have a long nose. I know what’s happening.” I then asked her what she wanted me to do. She said, “I want you to enter Pakistan.”And I responded, “That means war!” She said, “I do not mind if it is war.” …. I turned around to the Prime Minister and said that the rains were about to start in East Pakistan and when it rains there, it pours and when it pours, the whole countryside is flooded. The snows are melting, the rivers would become like oceans. If you stand on one bank, you can’t see the other. All my movement would be confined to roads. The Air Force, because of climatic conditions would not be able to support me. Now Prime Minister, give me your orders. The grim Prime Minister with her teeth clenched said, “The Cabinet will meet again at four o’clock”.

The members of the Cabinet started walking out. I being the junior most was the last to go and as I was leaving, she said, “Chief, will you stay back?” I turned around and said, “Prime Minister, before you open your mouth, may I send you my resignation on grounds of health, mental or physical?” She said, “Everything you told me is true”.“Yes! It is my job to tell you the truth” I responded, “and it is my job to fight, it is my job to fight to win and I have to tell you the truth.” She smiled at me and said, “All right Sam, you know what I want?” I said, “Yes, I know what you want!”

In the meantime the Indian government continued to provide basic support to the refugees as well as the valiant Mukti Bahini. But then on 3 December 1971 the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched a pre-emptive strike on Indian Air Force bases in an attempt to replicate the Israeli Air Force’s successful Operation Focus during the 1967 Six-Day War.

manekshawIn response to the attack, both India and Pakistan formally acknowledged the ‘existence of a state of war’ between the two countries. Three Indian corps was involved in the liberation of East Pakistan and were assisted by nearly three brigades of Mukti Bahini fighting alongside them, and many more fighting irregularly. The Allied forces of this war called the Mitra Bahini speedily bypassed the heavily defended strongholds of Pakistani forces rendering the latter incapable to defend Dhaka.Finally on 16 December, Lt. Gen A. A. K. Niazi, Commanding Officer of the Pakistani forces located in East Pakistan signed the Instrument of Surrender.

The then Army Chief Manekshaw d almost all political leaders including Atal Bihari Vajpayee commended Indira Gandhi’s bold and unwavering stand on Bangladesh even though both the United States and China made overt threats against India attacking Pakistan.  She showed her nerves of steel when the US and China again raised noises against India’s nuclear tests saying boldly every nation has the right to protect itself.

Many have blamed Indira Gandhi for taking India too close to the sphere of USSR, but the sad fact is by her time, the Cold War borders were clearly drawn and it was obvious that US sided with Pakistan. But she was successful in gaining the goodwill of other western nations like France, Spain and Britain who supported her stand in 1971 (although both Britain-France criticised India’ nuclear tests.)

Another place where she proved better than her father was international gathering of intelligence. This was the reason she made way for the creation of RAW India’s external intelligence agency. When RAW was founded in September 1968 with Rameshwar Nath Kao as its chief, he was advised by Indira Gandhi to develop links with Israel’s Mossad. This was suggested as a countermeasure to military links between that of Pakistan and China. Instead of publicly developing relations with the Jewish State the efficient spymaster, Kao established a clandestine relationship with Mossad.

The important role RAW played in its attempt to track Pakistan’s nuclear program was disrupted by a foolish act of Morarji Desai as explained here.

Cause of Violence

These factoids are already known to most readers, however I’ll just list them out for general information:

1. To challenge the popular Akali Dal Party, which defeated the Congress in 1977 to take control of Sikh-populated Punjab, Indira Gandhi fostered the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, an advocate of Sikh separatism who unleashed a wave of terror in Punjab and its neighbouring states. When it became impossible to foil Bhindrawale’s atrocities, Mrs Gandhi ordered the army to attack the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine where Bhindranwale was hiding with his armed followers. This atrocious but unavoidable Operation Blue Star caused the loss of many innocent lives, and to avenge it, two of the Sikh security guards of Mrs Gandhi gunned her down. This started a chain of violent events which plunged Punjab into a wave of violent insurgency.

2.  After the accession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian Union in 1947, it was granted certain special privileges which led to a major power tussle between the Centre and state. Finally, in 1974, Indira Gandhi signed an accord with Sheikh Abdullah who had been exiled from power since 1953. But Indira Gandhi kept Sheikh Abdullah under her control without conceding to his rather radical demands. It is often stated that she rigged elections in J&K in her favour.

3. She was also accused of rigging the voter lists in Assam in 1983 and did not heed the request of many bureaucrats to call off the elections amidst reports of violence.  ‘One has to let such events take their own course before stepping in..’ was her reply to Financial Times when asked about the consequent Nellie massacres.

4.In an interview, former LTTE leader Kumaran Pathmanathan (“KP”), confessed that India started training the Tamil Tigers in the early 1980s. In his own words –

During that time it was Mrs Gandhi’s idea that she may be able to escalate LTTE’s armed struggle to a certain level and use that as negotiating leverage to settle the (Tamil) issue in a peaceful way. Unfortunately, she was gone (assassinated in 1984).

The Lankan crisis was to claim her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi’s life.

5.     Her violent response to the nascent left-wing student protests in West Bengal gave more momentum to people joining the Naxalite movement.


I have willingly left out her encouragement of Sanjay Gandhi as it deserves a separate entry but all in all despite such obvious negativities Indira Gandhi is often praised abroad. The foreign press points out that it was under Indira’s rule that India became-

  1. The third largest reservoir of skilled scientific and technical manpower,
  2. The fifth military power
  3. The sixth member of the nuclear club
  4. Seventh in the race for space
  5. Tenth industrial power.

Also it cannot be denied that she gave a sense of confidence to many Indian women and was like Margaret Thatcher identified as the Iron Lady. In the international stage she refused to bargain India’s sovereignty, and national interests. And at least symbolically she showed empathy for the poor. So was she an able administrator with small discrepancies or was she a destructive dictator? Truth lies somewhere in between, but more in favour of the latter.