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The cult of deja vu: Why Indira Gandhi’s legacy is relevant today

A host of recent books on Indira Gandhi emphasize the necessity of analysing her legacy in order to gauge the current political situation

Indira Gandhi addressing a gathering in New Delhi during the Emergency. Photo: Hindustan Times
Indira Gandhi addressing a gathering in New Delhi during the Emergency. Photo: Hindustan Times

In India’s Indira: A Centennial Tribute, which the Congress party has just published to mark Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary, Congress president and Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi has called for fighting “the forces of fear, oppression and tyranny that threaten to stain the soil of the nation for which she (Indira) gave her blood".

Given the fact that it was Indira Gandhi who imposed Emergency in India, 42 years to the day on 25 June, the irony in Sonia Gandhi’s statement is difficult to ignore.

However, it is also a fact that Indira’s legacy is still a deeply polarizing one. On the one hand, there are successes, like victory in the 1971 Bangladesh war and the Green Revolution in agriculture. At the same time, it is also true that Indira encouraged the undermining of several institutions to fulfil her political ambitions.

How should one look at the Indira legacy more than three decades after her death? There are two ways of answering the question. One is to go back to major and minor events in her life and reiterate questions about why she did what she did. The other is to look at how India’s institutions, which are heavily influenced by political leadership, have evolved over time, and examine whether Indira’s influence over them was positive or negative.

Two books published this year resort to each of these methods.

Journalist Sagarika Ghose’s forthcoming book, titled Indira (Juggernaut), takes the former route. Describing Indira as an insecure daughter, betrayed wife, national heroine and tough dictator, the book would probably find favour with House Of Cards fans who like to see politics as an individual-centric saga shifting between the kind of adjectives Ghose has attributed to Indira. This is appropriate to an extent, given the fact that Indira’s politics, unlike her father’s, was driven more by charisma and individualism than ideology.

Ghose offers interesting insights, but there are also deficiencies. She dwells at length on Indira from a feminist perspective. A similar evaluation from a social justice perspective would have been equally relevant, given Ghose’s own opinion that the Congress’ inability to deal with the rise of OBC (Other Backward Classes) politics was one of the major reasons for its decline.

Ghose emphasizes that notwithstanding her authoritarianism, Indira was the darling of the masses. She does not, however, make an effort to understand how Indira is seen by those who were outside her personal and political fold. This is a serious handicap. After all, the majority of the current political leadership is the product of the anti-Emergency movement. Speaking to these leaders could also have thrown light on whether opposition parties today are even equipped for the “Indira hatao" kind of united front against the ruling party.

This month, Prashant Bhushan’s 1978 book, The Case That Shook India (Penguin Random House), has also been reprinted with a new preface. The book is the sole primary source for those who want to know the details of the case that challenged Indira Gandhi’s 1971 election victory. There are two reasons for this. It is difficult to locate the Allahabad high court judgement which scrapped Indira’s election, as detailed in a June 2015 Mint article, “In Search Of The Judgement That Led To The Emergency". And the Supreme Court trial which overturned the decision and upheld her election was held during the Emergency, when the media was highly censored.

Jayaprakash Narayan at Ramlila Ground in the city just before Emergency was declared.

Reading the arguments and counter-arguments and how the case progressed is not just a matter of historical interest today.

After an adverse verdict in the high court, Indira used her majority in Parliament to retrospectively amend the law to facilitate a favourable Supreme Court judgement. The case was also the first instance of Parliament questioning judicial review in a matter. It must be noted that a couple of years earlier, Indira had superseded three senior judges of the Supreme Court while appointing the chief justice because they had delivered an unfavourable verdict in the famous Kesavananda Bharati case, which barred Parliament from amending the basic structure of the Constitution.

Many of these issues are back in focus today: There is increasing tension between the executive and the higher judiciary; and the government of the day is also being criticized for using its parliamentary majority to undermine institutional values.

Bhushan clearly blames Indira for the many vices that have crept into our democratic set-up. In 1978, he had ended his book on a triumphant note as people had humbled the dictator and her party. Today he is much less optimistic. Most of the institutional vices which peaked during Indira’s time still plague Indian democracy, he writes in the preface.

In 1978, Prashant Bhushan ended his book on a triumphant note—people had humbled the dictator and her party. Today he is much less optimistic-

There are two key takeaways from the Indira legacy as understood from these two books. One, authoritarianism is not the preserve of any given ideology. When the Emergency was imposed, the official organ of socialist Soviet Union justified it as an act against right-wing conspiracies. The Communist Party of India, too, supported the move. The right wing gained popular legitimacy in Indian polity during the anti-Emergency struggle.

Two, charisma does not last forever. While arguing against a stay on the judgement cancelling Indira Gandhi’s election in the Supreme Court, Shanti Bhushan, the opposing lawyer and Bhushan’s father, said something which is relevant for the Congress today: “If Mrs Gandhi has to go, I am sure the Congress party can find some capable person to step into her shoes. If they cannot find anyone capable enough, then I must say that such a bankrupt party has no right to rule the country."

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