Wed, 16 Nov 2016
A Life of Struggle and Success
Shrimati Indira Gandhi was a great Prime Minister who led the country from 1966- 77 and again from 1980 till her tragic
assassination on 31 October 1984.
Her father, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, steered independent India to unity, integration, national consolidation, secularism and unprecedented social and economic progress for the 17 years, from 1947 to 1964, that he was in office.
Although Indiraji had won her political spurs when she served as Congress President during her father’s life-time, Panditji was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri. Later, Indiraji joined his cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting and proved her mettle on two separate occasions in 1965 – once in virtually single-handedly handling the Tamil Nadu agitation against the imposition of Hindi and then boldly visiting the border areas of Punjab in the middle of the war with Pakistan.
Shastriji suddenly died at Tashkent in January 1966 after only 18 months as PM. The Congress overwhelmingly voted Indiraji as their new leader. Over the next eighteen years, Indiraji emerged as the tallest Indian leader of her time and a renowned world leader. Inevitably, there were also controversies. Her centenary is the right time to take stock of her stewardship of the nation for nearly two decades and to assess her years at the helm in a balanced and objective manner. She faced many challenges - political, economic, social and in the field of international relations.
Within a year of her becoming Prime Minister, the assembly elections of 1967 resulted in unprincipled and unstable coalitions being formed in many states and a sharp reduction in the number of Congress seats in Parliament. The Congress on its own could no longer get constitutional legislation passed in the Rajya Sabha. Thus, the virtual Congress dominance over the nation’s polity was ended and she was faced with the twin challenge of maintaining, one, the unity of the nation against fissiparous internal forces, and, two, dissidence within the top leadership of the party.
She met both challenges in her trade-mark manner by going straight to the real source of her strength and popularity: the ordinary worker in the party and the ordinary people in the country at large. She responded to the anti-Indira maneuverings of the ‘Syndicate’ by first proving her majority in the Congress Parliamentary and Legislature parties when she called for a “conscience vote” to elect her nominee, V.V. Giri, as President of India over the Syndicate’s preference for the official Congress candidate. Then, although the party split into the Congress (Organization) led by Syndicate and the Congress (Ruling) led by Indiraji, and indeed the Syndicate had the gall to expel her from the party, Indiraji led her truncated party to an overwhelming plus two-thirds majority in the elections she called a year before they were due to be held and despite the Congress (O) joining hands with disreputable right-wing and communal forces to fight her. She thus established beyond question that in democratic India, the people wanted her and not aging, discredited alternatives. For her, the people were supreme. And for the people, she was supreme. That was the measure of her democratic credentials.
A few weeks after her massive electoral victory in March 1971, the Bangladesh crisis burst upon the sub-continent. How she dealt with this is set out in a later section of this brief. But the serious economic difficulties that flowed from looking after 10 million refugees and then the War of Liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971, followed by a withering country-wide drought in 1972 had a very serious political fall-out. Inflation rose relentlessly, reinforced by the Oil Shock of 1973 that quadrupled oil prices, nearly 95 per cent of which had to be imported. Economic turbulence caused political turbulence. The Nav Nirman agitation in Gujarat and the railway strike of 1974 virtually paralyzed the transport of essential supplies, but the most serious upheaval was brought on by the JP movement.
While freedom of expression and the right to organize political demonstrations is inherent to democracy and guaranteed by the Constitution, the JP movement, although confined to the Hindispeaking areas of North India and with little impact elsewhere, took on a different colour when Jayaprakashji, finding in the last quarter of 1974 that his movement was running out of steam, took to calling on the police, and then the army, to not obey the orders of a duly elected and constituted government. This attempted subversion of the constitutional order reached a climax when, after the Allahabad High Court on 12 June 1975 had disqualified Indiraji for alleged violation of prescribed electoral practices but before Indiraji’s appeal was heard in the Supreme Court, JP insisted in a speech in Delhi on 25 June 1975 that the military, police and government servants must not take orders from “a disqualified head of a discredited government”.
Faced with this dire threat to democracy and the Constitution, after taking expert legal advice, Indiraji declared a state of Emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution in the early hours of 26 June. The Supreme Court confirmed that her declaration of the Emergency was within the Constitution and later held her election to the Lok Sabha in 1971 as valid. She herself explained that she was compelled to take this extreme step to ensure “the very survival of the nation”, indeed, it’s very “fabric”, and to uphold its stability and security, its freedom and unity. She pointed to the Opposition’s unwillingness to “abide by constitutional and legal obligations” and its efforts to “undermine the loyalty of the police and military” by “inciting our armed forces to mutiny and our police to rebel”. Less than six months after the declaration of Emergency, JP was released and, by the following year, several other leaders were also released. In January 1977, when she had the situation entirely under control, Indiraji unilaterally and of her own volition announced elections. Ever the democrat and ever willing to leave the last word to the people, she fostered free and fair elections even though it was clear that the prospects were severely tilted against her personally and the Congress. In the event, the Congress was crushed and she herself lost her seat. Without a moment’s hesitation, she gracefully accepted the verdict and resigned.
Not satisfied, the incoming Janata government hounded and persecuted her, even jailed her and conspired to invalidate the result of a byelection that brought her back to Parliament. Unfazed, she continued working for the people. Her visit to the village of Belchi in Bihar within a few months of her defeat, fording a river in flood on elephant-back, to provide succour to the Dalits who had been subjected to the most unspeakable atrocities, has become part of the Indira legend. She knew that the people who in 1977 had deserted her would soon tire of the alternative and return to her. They did. In the elections called at the end of December 1979 on account of the successive fall of the Morarji Desai and Charan Singh governments, she emerged triumphant - overwhelmingly so. Once again, the people had spoken. And once again, the people had declared her their true guardian. By January 1980, she was once again Prime Minister of India by democratic consent. But it was not smooth sailing. The previous two non-Congress governments had left a vicious legacy of violence in Assam and Punjab. In Assam, the Janata Dal government of J.N. Hazarika collapsed and the state was put under President’s Rule in December 1979, on the eve of the general election. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi talked to the student
leaders leading the agitation. Of their eightpoint demand, she accepted five and remitted three for further consideration as they involved tricky constitutional and legal questions. The agitation continued and when it was found that President’s Rule could not be further extended, elections to the state assembly were called. Only about a third of the electorate exercised their franchise as the student agitators did not allow the normal electoral process to go forward. The Congress formed the government but the election is chiefly remembered for the ghastly massacre of Muslim innocents in the village of Nellie. Notwithstanding, further negotiations laid the ground for Rajiv Gandhi to bring the Assam Accord of 1985 to a conclusion. Engaging with dissidents and striving to reach consensual conclusions was ever Indiraji’s hallmark of governance.
In Punjab, the Akali Dal government formed after the state assembly elections of June 1977, gravely aggravated the political climate, thus enabling armed militancy, savage assassination and vicious violence to overcome the democratic process. All efforts to negotiate a settlement having failed, sectarian and communal terrorism took centre-stage. The Golden Temple was sacrilegiously occupied by Bhindranwale and his gang and turned into a fortress. Murder became the coinage of political discourse. Having tried every democratic way of finding a negotiated settlement, Indiraji was faced with the outrages being committed by Bhindranwale’s men not only outside the Golden Temple but even within its sacred precincts. Left with no recourse but to oust Bhindranwale and his men from their sanctuary in the holiest of holy places of worship of the Sikh community, Indiarji authorized ‘Operation Bluestar’ on being assured by the highest military authorities that they would quickly clear the premises of the terrorists hiding there. Tragically, what was conceived as a quick surgical operation became a prolonged and bloody siege. The Harmandir Sahib was assiduously protected but the Akal Takht was badly damaged. Many, perhaps most Sikhs were appalled. In this atmosphere, those in charge of her security advised her to remove Sikh guards from her security detail. She refused, saying she was the Prime Minister of a secular country and would not agree to discriminating against any community. But two of her guards betrayed her trust and brutally gunned her down in her own home on 31 October 1984. She died as she had lived – true to her principles. Economic Indiraji came to the Prime Ministership in the midst of two successive droughts. To overcome these, she nurtured the Green Revolution to promote national self-sufficiency in food grains. It remains her most important and most enduring economic achievement. Between 1967- 68 and 1970-71, food grains production zoomed by 35 per cent; food availability rose proportionately from 73.5 million tonnes to 89.5 million tonnes and continued rising steadily till it reached 128.8 million tonnes in the last year of her premiership; food imports fell by two-thirds from 10.3 million tonnes to 3.1 million tonnes in just four years from 1966 to 1970, while by her last year of office food stocks crossed 30 million tonnes. Thanks to Indiraji’s Green Revolution, the nation became self-sufficient in cereals. The world no longer looked on India as a nation with a begging bowl.
The Nehruvian model of securing self-reliance in the industrial sector was also carried forward with spectacular success. Where at Independence, India was importing nearly 100 per cent of its fixed capital goods requirements, between Panditji and his daughter, and principally through the vibrant public sector, by 1974, capital goods imports as a share of total capital investment had been virtually reversed – with India importing no more than 9 per cent from abroad. Self-sufficiency in food grains was allied to self-reliance in industry. With political independence thus married to economic sovereignty, India stood on her own two feet, ready to take on the world. Her early years in power also saw major developments that made the people of India the real owners of the nation’s wealth:
the establishment of the Monopolies Commission; the passage of the Patents Act; and the abolition of privy purses.
Feudalism in both the field and the factory were vanquished. The nation’s resources were placed at the doorstep of the people. Bank nationalization broke the cozy nexus that had developed between a handful of big industrialists and the banks that they largely themselves owned. The nation’s savings became available to the nation to dispose of in keeping with national priorities. Bank branches and financial services started spreading to the nooks and corners of rural India. The monetization of the rural economy that followed gave the marginal and small farmer access to crop loans and agricultural credit on a scale they had never had before; the village money-lender, notorious for his exploitative ways, was reined in; handloom and handicraft workers were drawn into the vortex of the mainstream economy; and micro, small and medium industry flourished as they had not done since de-industrialization was forced on the country by colonialism from the 18th century onwards to promote British exports to India, particularly mill-made textiles. Moreover, the government now had both the means and the mechanism to use banking outlets to initiate social welfare measures to provide income support and selfemployment opportunities to the poor and the underprivileged. The poor became the focus of “growth with social justice”. It was truly Indiraji who laid the foundations of state-driven antipoverty programmes that addressed the basic economic needs of the poor. Her Twenty-Point programme became the foundation of India’s modern welfare state.
The Monopolies Commission curtailed the power of big industry to exploit their dominant position in the market to the detriment of the consumer and potential business rivals; the Patents Act gave entrepreneurs the protection they required to bring technological invention and innovation to bear on the industrial progress. The later processes of liberalization and globalization would not have been possible without ending the stranglehold of the few and opening the road to a new middle class several hundred million strong that had the skills and the resources to bring the private sector into its own. Simultaneously, the best of the public sector units, such as ONGC, Coal India and SAIL, to name but three of several dozen, were encouraged to become the Navaratnas of Indian industry.
The abolition of princely privileges and privy purses was not strictly an economic measure, but it signaled that the old social order must give way to new forces being unleashed by affordable higher education, the widespread provision of valuable technical skills, and the ready availability of banking services to kickstart industry at all levels from the micro to heavy industry. Several higher education and skill development initiatives launched in Panditji’s time came to full fruition under Indiraji’s leadership, such as AIIMS and the IITs, and to these Indiraji added management studies, design institutes, mass communication courses and a host of new, diverse and exciting avenues of progress. All these might be seen as evidence of a changed social order symbolized by such measures as the abolition of special privileges for representatives of obsolete feudal structures and throwing open entrepreneurship to those many, many millions not born into established business families.
She was thus able with all credibility to respond to the Grand Alliance that tried to take her on in the 1971 polls with the slogan, “Indira hatao, desh bachao”. Immortally, she replied: “Woh kehte hain Indira hatao; Hum kahte hain garibi hatao!” In two lines, she defined her political and economic philosophy. She not only overwhelmed the Grand Alliance, she became and remained the messiah of the masses. While several military operations over the decade from the liberation of Goa in 1961 to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, through the two wars of 1962 with China and with Pakistan in 1965, took a heavy toll of economic growth, by the mid-Seventies, Indiraji succeeded in putting the economy back on a high-growth trajectory.
The Emergency may have been a period of political concern but economic performance reached new heights during that period, enabling rethinking of the economic imperatives for a fast-growing economy. The process of liberalization started with her Second Coming in 1980 and enabled the economic reforms that were to come a decade later. She both promoted the “socialist pattern of society” and laid firm foundations for the regenerated economy to adjust to significant policy changes in the Nineties. As acknowledged by Dr. Manmohan Singh, the roots of reforms are to be found in the adaptations of policy that Indiraji made during the four short years, 1980 to 1984, that remained to her after the people voted her back to power.
Indira Gandhi never believed in growth as an end in itself. She steadfastly maintained that the goal must be “growth with social justice”. So, the distributive aspects of economic policy were prioritized and her period saw the evolution of a raft of anti-poverty programmes that firmly fixed the attention of the nation on the protection and promotion of the interests of the poorest and most deprived. But she also recognized that the poor and the deprived did not constitute a homogenous mass. Differential policies were required to address the distinctive issues of the minorities, the scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes and women. National integration required social cohesion and, therefore, each segment of the population had to be assured by word and deed that each of them warranted special consideration within the overall framework of “growth with social justice”. After the trauma of Partition, the minorities had been reassured during Panditji’s era that they were honoured citizens of the country and would not be subjected to discrimination of any kind. Their rights under the Constitution, particularly with respect to their Personal Law and their right to establish and run their own minority educational institutions, would be fully respected. Most importantly, no quarter would be given to majoritarian, communal demands. These forces would be politically fought and worsted. Sadly, the war with Pakistan in 1965, on the eve of Indiraji becoming Prime Minister in January 1966, gave these communal forces a fresh lease of life as they conflated the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Urdu, Pakistan and Islam to portray our Muslim minority as antinational and pro-Pakistan. This began with communal confrontations in both Benaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University.
For Hindu communal forces, AMU became, as the historian Rakesh Batabyal put it, the “Enemy Metaphor”. Under the cover of a philosophy called “Integral Humanism”, these forces described AMU as the “plague spot of India” and demanded that the University be “nationalized and Indianized”. Adding fuel to this “ideological war game targeting Indian Muslims”, the RSS leader, M.S. Golwalkar, declared at a rally in Delhi, “The Indian Muslims are trying to organize themselves around the slogans of Urdu. Any status or recognition of Urdu … would result in another partition of the country”. The Central Committee of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh adopted a resolution saying, “There should be no political bargaining with Indian Muslims”.
Indiraji met this challenge with the support and strength of her education ministers, who included such luminaries as Prof Nurul Hasan. After much legal wrangling, a bill was introduced during the latter part of her rule that confirmed the “minority status” of AMU.
If AMU was the symbol of the “template” to turn the Muslim into “the other”, a series of communal riots were instigated and organized by these forces to blemish Indiraji’s premiership. Already in 1964, while Shastriji was PM, riots broke out in Jamshedpur, Rourkela and Calcutta (as it was then known). Then, after Indiraji became PM, riots resurfaced most viciously in Ranchi in 1967, followed by Ahmedabad, Bhiwandi and Jalgaon in 1969. The Madon Commission that enquired into these outbreaks of communal violence pertinently observed, “Communal tensions do not spring up overnight. It is built up over a period of time, suckled on communal propaganda, nursed on communal incidents, and fed on rumours, until men’s hearts are filled with hatred and their thoughts turn to violence.” Indira Gandhi’s response to these communal forces was categorical.
All this talk of “Indianization,” she said, “was sinister”. She added, “Every child who is born of Mother India is a good Indian”. “We see”, she went on, “behind those words naked fascism.” She stressed, “The first necessity is to give security of life to our people regardless of what religion they practice. “The task,” she concluded, “is to try and remove this poison from people’s minds, to try and create an atmosphere in every neighbourhood where a citizen can live in peace.” At the outbreak of any communal riot, she would rush to the spot to give comfort and succour to the victims. Hers was the healing touch that endeared her to the minorities. Her speeches arguing for secularism and against communalism would fill a volume. Under the “ideological umbrella” of the Congress, she brought together left intellectuals, anticommunal activists, and erstwhile socialist youth to form a common front against communal and fascist forces. In so doing, she created a national consensus that India must remain secular for, as her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, was to say later, “secularism is the bonding adhesive of our nationhood”.
Alas, by the time she returned as Prime Minister after nearly three years of the Janata and Charan Singh governments, symbolized by the brutal killings in Jamshedpur in August 1979, the atmosphere was so poisoned that the tragedy of the firing at the Moradabad Eidgah in 1980 was followed by the communal fire that spread through a large part of Uttar Pradesh and licked into the corners of Delhi, and continued into Bihar sharif and Meerut. To this were added the communalization of the trouble in Assam that led to the massacre of innocents in the villages of Nellie and Gohpura, and the communalism associated with assassination and serious violence in Punjab. Through all this turbulence, she stood as a rock on her pledged platform of secularism. Ultimately, on 31 October 1984, she fell martyr to her principles.
The welfare of the scheduled castes was another of her principal preoccupations. A firm believer in affirmative action, or positive discrimination, in favour of the depressed classes, Indiraji based herself on the sixth point of the “Objectives” resolution that Panditji had introduced at the start of the consideration of Dr. Ambedkar’s draft constitution, namely: “adequate safeguard shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes”.
Over the period of nearly two decades preceding Indiraji’s assumption of office in 1966, there had been a significant rise in Dalit self-consciousness. She welcomed this. The Green Revolution fostered by her promoted the economic empowerment of agricultural workers, the bulk of whom were SC. A series of government programmes, aimed at the economic and social empowerment of the SC, was reinforced by growing grassroots political empowerment. A senior sociologist of high repute, Prof. Yogendra Singh, has summed up her contribution to Dalit empowerment as follows: “(The) Congress party’s investment in SCs’ economic and social liberation from their traditional state of marginalization, its policies of positive discrimination and special efforts for their educational and economic development had brought a measure of social, economic and political empowerment and upward mobility discernible in their communities. It threw up a new structure of leadership and elite formation in their midst. It contributed also to the spread of identity politics adding new energy to the long enduring Dalit movement in the country.” (A Centenary History of the Congress, Vol. 6, p.237)
For the Scheduled Tribes, Indiraji had very special consideration. She constituted the tribal communities of the North-East into several separate states or Union territories (that eventually emerged as full-fledged states) endowing them with powers of self-rule and special Central financing and Plan support that significantly contributed to quelling insurgency in these areas. They were also given a special Constitutional status by being placed in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to distinguish tribal-majority states from tribal- majority areas of composite states that were recognized and protected under the Fifth Schedule.
For the ST population generally, in her first year in office, 1966, Indiraji set up a Study Group under the chairmanship of a respected Nagaland leader, Dr. P. Shilu Ao, who identified the “uniform pattern of development” being imposed on all communities and all parts of the country as the chief reason for the nonimplementation of development schemes in tribal areas. Accordingly, special, tribal-oriented development strategies were elaborated under the Fifth (1974-79) and Sixth (1980-85) Plans that were formulated under her chairpersonship of the Planning Commission. A new mechanism, the Tribal Sub-Plan, obliged all development ministries to set apart a share of their budgets corresponding to the share of tribal populations in the nation’s population to ensure that there was no neglect of tribal needs. The Integrated Tribal Development programme was also launched in the Fifth Plan and for more “primitive tribes” (as they were then called) a Modified Area Development Approach (MADA) was adopted. All this ensured “an integrated, differential approach to assist communities and devise development plans on the basis of their actual social, cultural and economic situation”. Significant legislation was also introduced and passed, including the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Order (Amendment) Act, 1976, which added many communities to the list of beneficiaries and appropriately distinguished them into suitable categories for the channeling of development funds and welfare measures. Positive development outcomes included a marked increase in agricultural production and marketing of tribal produce, and institutional measures such as Tribal Development Corporations (TDCs), TRIFED (Tribal Cooperative Marketing Federation of India), and LAMPS (Large Agricultural Multipurpose Societies).
There was, however, the downside that included large-scale illegal alienation of tribal land and tribal displacement in the name of “development”, illustrated by the deeply distressing finding by the Planning Commission that 67 percent of the displaced at the 18 dam sites then under construction were tribals. The roots of the Naxal problem, later described by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh as India’s most serious internal security threat, might be traced to such land alienation and massive displacement of tribal populations.In a speech at Miranda House, Delhi University in 1973, Indiraji described women as “the biggest oppressed minority in the world”. In India, she said, “there has been little change in the drudgery to which the large majority of women in the villages and of the weaker sections are subject.” She added, “Countless women have been compelled to live a life of ill-health, little energy and poor fulfillment by frequent child bearing but too little time for child rearing”. She added, “they are so handicapped from birth by customs and social attitudes that they have no chance of developing their innate strength.” For the empowerment and development of women, a National Women’s Committee set up in 1966-67 under Smt. Nandini Satpathy and a Central Women’s Advisory Committee in 1970, followed by a Committee on the Status of Women (1971-74), led later to a committee under the chairpersonship of Dr. Phulrenu Guha, with Dr. Vina Mazumdar as secretary, that in 1974 produced the path-breaking report, Towards Equality. Based on that report and the outcome of the 1975 International Year for Women, Indiraji encouraged the establishment and proliferation of a number of civil society women’s groups that carries forward the propagation of women’s liberation, focusing first on the campaign against dowry that eventually resulted in the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1984 and a slew of legislation in the interests of women including amendments to the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code that gave teeth to the anti-dowry provisions of earlier legislation and bought the dastardly crime of rape more firmly within the ambit of actionable law.
Other legislation legalized abortion (1971) and provided for equal pay for women (1975). Under Indiraji’s patronage, women’s studies became a distinct area of research and teaching, with an exclusive women’s university, SNDT, being set up in 1974 and the Centre for Women’s Studies with Dr. Vina Mazumdar as its first Director. Meanwhile, Dr. Madhuriben Shah became the first lady chairperson of the University Grants Commission. In 1984, the party under Indiraji got the All-India Mahila Congress and the government its first separate Ministry for Women and Social Welfare. Family courts also took their place in the judicial system that year. Girls’ education, women’s health, family welfare and environmental issues related to women’s needs started gaining priority in government programming. However, it must be admitted that much yet remains to be done to carry forward Indiraji’s legacy in women’s rights, women’s empowerment, and women’s development and welfare.
The high point of her achievements in foreign policy was undoubtedly her winning within a short fortnight the War of Liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971. She was rightly hailed as “Durga Mata”.
Resisting pressures to act precipitately after the Pakistani crackdown on Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League in East Pakistan on 25 March 1971, Indiraji carefully and patiently laid the ground for eventual military action by gearing up military plans while nurturing and training the Mukti Bahini, the army and navy of Bangladeshi freedom fighters, and providing sanctuary in India to the Bangladesh political leadership. A flood of refugees, eventually amounting to an unprecedented 10 million, was given temporary shelter on the assurance that they would be repatriated to their homeland when conditions permit. Indiraji then undertook a tour of several European countries including Austria, Belgium, Germany, the UK and France, and then went on to the United States to assiduously educate world leaders and global public opinion about the atrocities being perpetrated in East Pakistan by the Pakistan army and its ruthless fundamentalist supporters.
On the military-diplomatic front, the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation on 9 August 1971 provided reinsurance against any US or US-China collaboration designed to save Pakistan from its own follies. Indiraji went on a tour of several different European countries and the United States of America to personally explain to world leaders the tragedy befalling East Pakistan. And only when the world had been duly sensitized and the military fully prepared did Indiraji respond to Pakistani aggression against India on 3 December 1971 by delivering the knockout blow. Not even the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise steaming towards the Bay of Bengal deterred her. She proved her credentials as a liberator by withdrawing all Indian troops from Bangladesh in just three months after liberation and signaled her readiness for enduring peace with what remained of Pakistan by inviting the Pakistani leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, to a bilateral, faceto- face conference in Simla (Shimla, as it is now called). The Simla Agreement took the differences between India and Pakistan off the international agenda and made the “final settlement” a matter of negotiation between the two countries. Nearly half a century later, it remains her most enduring achievement in international relations.
It was the experience of facing the implied nuclear threat of the US sailing into the Bay of Bengal to deter India that finally persuaded Indira Gandhi of the need to demonstrate to the world our nuclear capability, our arrival on the world stage as a threshold nuclear power. On 18 May 1974, a nuclear device was imploded at Pokhran. The international community was put on notice that nuclear disarmament could not be secured through discriminatory, unequal treaties like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that India had refused to adhere to. Unless the recognized nuclear powers capped, reduced and eventually eliminated their nuclear arsenals, threshold nuclear powers like India and some others would inevitably be obliged to cross the nuclear threshold.
Thus, even as she demonstrated India’s nuclear potential, she became the recognized world champion of total and general disarmament beginning with universal nuclear disarmament. Assuming the chairpersonship of the Nonaligned Movement in 1983, she described NAM as the world’s “largest peace movement” and joined the Six-Nation Initiative designed to bring home to the nuclear powers the indispensability of disarmament to save the world from nuclear holocaust.
At the start of her premiership in 1966-67, she experienced the full force of US pressure to moderate her plea for ending the war in Vietnam, ensuring justice for Palestine, and protecting Cuban sovereignty. In the midst of India’s worst food crisis, and on the orders of the US President, the US so reined in PL-480 shipments of wheat that it resulted in the humiliation of our surviving on a “ship-to-mouth” basis. This firmly convinced Indiraji that India’s sovereignty and independence were at stake, along with the freedom of other Nonaligned countries who would not toe the line of the socalled Great Powers. The thrust of her foreign policy thus became the safeguarding of our independent external policy to reinforce the internal independence that we had secured after so much struggle and sacrifice.
It was under Indiraji’s stewardship that the first signs of a thaw in the relationship between India and China began to appear. She proceeded cautiously. It was only five years after Chinese Chairman Mao signaled through a few words with the Indian charge d’affaires (acting Ambassador) in Beijing that China was open to a review of her relationship with India that full diplomatic relations were restored and conversations began, that are still in process, aimed at settling the border and promoting full normalization.
While Indiraji consolidated the “time-tested” relationship with the Soviet Union, that relationship came under considerable strain when Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in December 1979. Indiraji returned to power a few days later. She refused to join the meretricious worldwide condemnation of the USSR orchestrated by the western powers but made it abundantly clear to the Soviet leadership that they must terminate their violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Asked by an anxious Brezhnev how the Soviet Union should exit Afghanistan, she cuttingly told him that they should leave the same way they came in! V.P. Dutt, the leading foreign policy analyst of the Indira era, summed up Indiraji’s handling of foreign policy as demonstrating “a lot of maturity and with the minimum of losses for India… It is not as if mistakes were not made, but they did not outweigh the deft manner in which India’s interests were preserved and the foreign policy challenges met with very considerable aplomb.” (A Centenary History of the Congress, Vol.6, p.162).