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Understanding the ‘mixed legacy’ of Indira Gandhi

Special Correspondent NEW DELHI | Updated on February 10, 2019

historian Srinath Raghavan, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and journalist Shekhar Gupta in conversation with Mini Kapoor, Ideas Editor, The Hindu, at The Huddle 2019, in Bengaluru on February 09, 2019.   -  THE HINDU

Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has always been wrapped in contradictions and the session “A Mixed Legacy: The many facets of Indira Gandhi” turned out to be an attempt to sort out the various skeins that made the fabric of that legacy.

Moderated by The Hindu's Ideas Editor Mini Kapoor, historian Srinath Raghavan, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and journalist Shekhar Gupta faced lively questions from the audience that included The Hindu Group's chairperson N Ram and acclaimed historian Ramchandra Guha.

While the Emergency and the run-up to it was discussed in detail, including the punitive rates of inflation (at 33%), it was the mystery of why Mrs Gandhi called snap polls in 1977, ending the Emergency that provided valuable historical insight.

Raghavan discussed three theories with regard to the polls of 1977. “One that the Intelligence Bureau had told Mrs Gandhi that she would win by a landslide, two that she knew she wouldn't win but that calling the polls was better done sooner rather than later and lastly that she saw herself as a radical democrat especially after managing to attract the depressed sections in an unprecendent manner into supporting the Congress," he said.

Jairam Ramesh had an interesting theory of his own on why it happened. He said it was the time that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, late Prime Minister of Pakistan, had declared polls in his own country and that the international press, with whom both were familiar, were painting Bhutto as a democrat and her as an authoritarian ruler. “A psychological explanation can be that she was more Nehru’s daughter than Sanjay (Gandhi’s) mother,” he said.

“Pact of Good Hope”

Founder editor of The Print, Shekhar Gupta wanted an answer to another mystery of why Mrs Gandhi signed the Shimla Agreement with the kinds of terms and conditions. Ragahvan said that territorial ambitions with regard to West Pakistan was never the brief at that time, “it was to make Kashmir a bilateral rather than an international issue.”.

Jairam Ramesh quoted C Rajagopalachari as describing that agreement as the “Pact of Good Hope”. “There is much talk as to why the LoC wasn’t converted into an international border but we forget that there is a resolution of the Indian Parliament that PoK is an integral part of the India,” he said.

Enduring legacy

Kapoor rounded off the discussion asking each panellist what they thought was the enduring legacy or facet of Indira Gandhi, this attracted the intervention of audience member and acclaimed historian Ramchandra Guha and the Chairman of the The Hindu group N Ram, as well.

While Raghvan said that the Green Revolution was the most important contribution of Mrs Gandhi, “without which we would have had Indian troops in Afghanistan today, such was our dependence on food aid and imports”, Jairam Ramesh said Mrs Gandhi putting ecology at the centre of her governance imperatives was important. Shekhar Gupta said that Mrs Gandhi’s contribution to handling internal security, citing her actions in Nagaland, sending the airforce to Mizoram and handling the Suba movement in Punjab were often overlooked.

Guha, in an interjection, said that the most positive contribution of Mrs Gandhi was in her respect for science and scholarship, while the most negative was to validate and promote dynasty politics. “If tomorrow the head of the science programme in India dies in a crash, will Rahul Gandhi be able to call up another man to take his place , like Indira Gandhi did by calling up Satish Dhawan? No,” he said.

N Ram raised the point that it wasn’t really necessary to reduce the contributions of a strong leader to one facet. The last word was given to Jairam Ramesh, who said that “strong leaders post magnificent achievements if they are surrounded by people who can speak truth to power. When she (Mrs Gandhi) had those people around her did great things, and when you don't have such people you take Tughlaq decisions like demonetisation,” he said, adding that Mrs Gandhi's contradictions were that knew scientist Satish Dhawan and also R K Dhawan (her late aide and acolyte).

Published on February 10, 2019

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