Indira Gandhi played a major role in shaping our country’s destiny during a critical period in history
Indiraji Wed, 16 Nov 2016

Indira Gandhi played a major role in shaping our country’s destiny during a critical period in history

I am extremely happy and honoured to be invited to deliver the ‘Indira Gandhi Centennial Lecture’. Indiraji was a remarkable personality of the 20th century. Serving as Prime Minister for around 16 years, Indiraji was a key architect of modern India. She played a major role in shaping our country’s destiny during a critical period in history. She was unflinching in her concern for  the poor and the disadvantaged and she championed their cause with rare intensity. She was a crusader for global peace, a just economic order and disarmament. I had the privilege of working closely with her for many years and have no hesitation in describing  her as my foremost mentor in politics and Government.

There is much that has been spoken and written about Smt. Gandhi over the years. Rather than repeat all that has been said, I shall  today focus on describing how her entire life was a saga of courage and conviction. I hope to highlight her leadership qualities, fighting spirit, tenacity and refusal to lose faith even when confronted with the worst odds.

In a letter addressed to Indiraji, 86 years ago on October 26, 1930, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wrote from the Central Prison, Naini: “If we are to be India’s soldiers we have to respect India’s honour, and that honour is a sacred trust….. It is no easy matter to decide what is right and what is not. One little test I shall ask you to apply whenever you are in doubt….. Never do anything in secret or anything that you would wish to hide. For the desire to hide anything means that you are afraid, and fear is bad thing and unworthy of you. Be brave, and all the rest follows…. You know that in our great Freedom Movement, under Bapuji’s leadership, there is no room for secrecy or hiding. We have nothing to hide. We are not afraid of what we do or what we say. We work in the sun and in the light. Even so in our private lives let us make friends with the sun and work in the light and do nothing secretly…. and if you do so, my dear you will grow up a child of the light, unafraid, serene and unruffled, whatever may happen”.[1]

At the tender age of 13, Indiraji took this advice to heart and made it a permanent part of her persona. Courage, fearlessness in action and boldness in decision making was the unique hallmark of her character. She remained throughout her life, as her father had wanted, a person of the light : brave, unafraid, serene and unruffled.

It is perhaps not well known that the first test of Indiraji’s leadership qualities took place during the orgy of communal
violence and brutality that accompanied Partition. Indiraji risked her life to save a person from a mob. Talking about the
incident, Indiraji later said:“…there is nothing that frightens a bully more than anybody not being afraid. No weapon is needed and nothing is needed except the fact of genuinely not being afraid. I saw a man being pursued by about two hundred armed people. An old man between sixty or seventy. And when I jumped out of the running car and put this man behind me, the crowd said : “What do you think you are doing, who are you?”. And I said: “It doesn’t matter what my name is, but I want to know what are you doing. I know what I am doing. I am saving this man. What are you doing?” They said: “You can’t save him. We are going to kill him and if you stand there we will kill  you too.” I said: “Well, if you want to kill me, you certainly may do so. But I don’t think  you have the courage. Not one of you, two hundred people, has the courage to lift his hand here. And it was true. They did not have the courage.”[2]

As word of this incident spread, Bapuji summoned Indiraji and asked her to work in the Muslim mohallas of Delhi. Initially, Indiraji hesitated as she was unwell and had no one to accompany her. But, the moment Bapuji said “If I had one person who could go with you I would not ask you to do this,” [3]the valour in Indiraji came to the fore. She not only went alone but also did an outstanding job of bringing communities together while providing succour to the needy. Speaking later about communal violence, Indiraji said ‘it is something within us, some lack within us that makes us give in to violence on very little provocation.

This is not a sign of strength or courage, but of very great weakness and cowardice. What can be more cowardly than a group of people wanting to kill or hurt an individual?’[4] Indiraji despised the cowardice of perpetrators of communal violence and fought against it  relentlessly. During her life, she rose above all divisions of religion, caste, community and creed. As a result, she was loved universally by all sections of people and across the length and breadth of our country. I recall how when the decision to undertake  ‘Operation Bluestar’ was taken, she was cautioned that it would bring her the hatred of extremist elements and the anger of a large  section of the Sikh community. I remember vividly her sombre but determined words, “I know of the consequences.” Indiraji was clear  that she and the Government had no other option. She was fully aware that her own life was at risk. However, she took a decision to

go ahead keeping in mind thebest interests of the nation, especially the need to maintain the unity and integrity of our country. Friends, ladies and gentlemen, It was at the Nagpur Session of the Indian National Congress in 1959 that Indiraji was first called  upon to assume the leadership of the Congress Party. She was then only 42 years old. During the 11 months of her Presidentship, she  quickly proved her mettle, demonstrating independence of thought and an ability to take hard decisions even in the face of disagreement with her elders and other top leaders of the Party.

The passing away of Panditji resulted in the election of Shastriji as Prime Minister. Indiraji was invited by Shastriji to join his Cabinet as Information and Broadcasting Minister, a position in which she distinguished herself as a good administrator for around 19 months. With Shastriji’s death in 1966, the country was faced with the question of who should lead the nation. Shri K. Kamaraj Nadar,  then President of the Indian National Congress suggested the name of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister. Indiraji was ready to accept the offer and prepared for a contest, if needed. A group of leaders did not agree with this proposal as they doubted the quality of leadership and firmness of Indiraji.

Ultimately, a contest for the leadership of the Congress Parliamentary Party became inevitable. Morarji Desai, then a senior and  established leader, decided to contest against her. Indiraji boldly took up the challenge and she was elected leader of the Congress  Parliamentary Party [5]securing 355 votes out of 526 with a majority of 186 over her rival.

The general elections of 1967 was the first time, the Congress Party went to polls without Nehruji at the helm of affairs. It
was also a time when the economy was in distress. These elections were held in the immediate aftermath of the devaluation of the  Indian rupee in 1966 and at a time when the food crisis was at its worst (the fruits of the Green Revolution would start accruing  only after 1969). General dissatisfaction in the country manifested itself and the Congress lost 78 seats in the Lok Sabha. But,

Indiraji as Prime Minister still managed to ensure that the Party came to power winning 283 out of 520 seats.[6] The 1967
Presidential election was held amidst dramatic developments.

K. Subba Rao who had just retired as Chief Justice of India decided to contest the Presidential election. A Full bench headed by him had delivered the majority judgement on February 27, 1967 in the Golaknath case, wherein it was interpreted that under the  Constitution, the Parliament had no powers to amend the Fundamental Rights. This judgement had far reaching impact and became an object of controversy. Surprisingly, Subba Rao’s candidature received the support of right wing conservative parties such as Swatantra Party, Jan Sangh, etc. as well as others. Finally, Subba Rao lost to Dr. Zakir Husain by a margin of 1,07,273 votes. Dr. Zakir Husain got 4,71,244 votes compared to 3,63,971 for Subba Rao.[7] Dr. Zakir Husain’s demise in 1969 led to an early

Presidential election and a new turn to Indian politics. The Presidential election became a bone of contention between Indira Gandhi,  then three years into the Prime Minister’s office, and senior party leaders including K. Kamaraj, S.K. Patil, Atulya Ghosh, S. Nijalingappa and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, known as the leaders of the Syndicate. Indiraji proposed the name of Babu Jagjivan Ram for the  post of President in the Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB). The Syndicate leaders in turn put up Neelam Sanjiva Reddy as their candidate. Four out of six members of the CPB voted in favour of Sanjiva Reddy and he was declared the official candidate of the Party in the Presidential elections.

Indiraji as leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) filed the nomination papers of Sanjiva Reddy.

Meanwhile, Vice President and former labour leader V.V. Giri who expected to be nominated by the Congress Party as the Presidential candidate (all two previous Vice Presidents Dr. Zakir Husain and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan had been elevated to the Office of President)  felt aggrieved at being overlooked. He resigned and declared that he would contest in the Presidential elections as an independent.

In view of her growing differences with the Syndicate, Indiraji decided to lend support to V.V. Giri and appealed to the electoral  college to exercise a ‘conscience vote’. V.V. Giri was elected President winning 4,01,515 votes as compared to 3,13,548 for Neelam  Sanjiva Reddy[8]. Indira thus established that she was anything but a ‘Goongi Gudiya’, to the utter chagrin of all her opponents.


The Syndicate leaders were conservative in their economic views. Indiraji however argued that unless propeople programmes were undertaken and implemented vigorously, the gulf between the Congress Party and the common masses would not be bridged.

There were also differences between her and Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai on bank nationalisation and other economic policies.

Finally, Morarji Desai was divested of the Finance portfolio and he, then resigned. Indiraji took the Finance portfolio into her

hands and went ahead with the announcement of the nationalization of 14 banks on July 19, 1969. Other measures to abolish privy purses and prevent the concentration of economic power in hands of a few were also subsequently announced.

Eventually, the defeat of Sanjiva Reddy and growing differences on economic issues had its effect on the Party. The discord between the Organisation wing and Parliamentary wing of the Party soon became irreconcilable with two parallel sessions of the AICC taking place in Bombay in 1969. The official split was precipitated when Congress President, S. Nijalingappa, expelled Indiraji and some of her senior colleagues in Government from the party on November 12, 1969. Indiraji stood her ground and rejected Nijalingapppa’s  action relying on her support amongst the people. She said ‘it is presumptuous on the part of this handful of men to take disciplinary action against the democratically elected leader of the people’.[9] One of her supporters even wrote a satirical letter  to Nijalingappa asking him to pack his bags and return to Mysore.

It is my view that historians need to study this period more closely. The office of the President is a Constitutional non-executive  position. I have often wondered why Sanjiva Reddy wanted to be the President at the age of 54. Two questions are moot in this regard.

Why did a person from the judiciary, a former Chief Justice of India himself jump into the Presidential elections of 1967 in an unprecedented and unexpected manner? Similarly, why did Sanjiva Reddy, a relatively young man, only four years older than Indiraji,

who had been Chief Minister twice, President of the Congress Party and Minister in the Union Government decide to opt for
the Presidential office, with hardly any executive powers? Was Sanjiva Reddy’s nomination an effort to curtail the powers of the  Prime Minister? Did Indiraji’s rivals want to use the Constitutional Office of the President to provoke a confrontation between the President and the Prime Minister? Perhaps Indiraji opposed Sanjiva Reddy’s candidature because she saw through this game. She saw  that an attempt was being made to dilute the authority of the Prime Minister and to enhance the role of the President. Indiraji felt strongly that in a parliamentary democracy like that of India the role of Prime Minister should be paramount. It is perhaps in line with this thinking that she introduced an amendment to Article 74 as part of the 42ndAmendment to the Constitution in 1976. This Amendment made it clear that the President is bound to act in accordance with the advice of the Council of Ministers in exercise of his functions. Indiraji did not want to provide any elbow room to the President for discretionary action.

Disturbing developments in Pakistan, especially in its eastern part in 1971 created a situation where Indiraji demonstrated her  leadership skills as well as ability to take tough decisions in the interest of the people and nation. In the elections of 1970,

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won 160 out of 300 seats in the Pakistan National Assembly as compared to 81 for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party. The Awami League also won 288 seats out of 300 in East Pakistan Legislative Assembly.[10] Based  on these results, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should have been invited to form the Government as Prime Minister of Pakistan. His party should also have been allowed to choose someone to be the Prime Minister of East Pakistan. Instead of transferring power, President Yahya Khan visited Dacca on March 3, 1971 for discussions with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Endless meetings were held without

any agreement. Finally, President Yahya Khan returned to West Pakistan on March 25 and the same night, a brutal crackdown was  launched on the civilian population of Bangladesh.

Assault, murder, arson, loot and rape swept across Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman himself was arrested from his house and taken to  prison in West Pakistan. A huge exodus of around one crore refugees entered India through our border states. Major political leaders of East Pakistan crossed over to India and set up a Government in exile at Mujibnagar, near the border in West Bengal. This massive inflow of refugees into India was the biggest foreign policy challenge Indiraji had ever confronted.

She quickly travelled all over the world to make the international community aware of developments in East Pakistan and sought a political solution to the problem. The situation soon spiralled into the India-Pakistan War of 1971. Pakistan was decisively defeated  in the War on December 16, 1971 and a new nation - Bangladesh took birth.

Indiraji was unwavering and resolute in her support for the liberation struggle in East Pakistan. She took tremendous risk given the  fact that Pakistan was being supported by the United States and China. In an act of sabre rattling, the US sent its seventh fleet

into the Bay of Bengal. Indiraji neither buckled under pressure from the US nor fell victim to the posturing of China. She
showed that she was a leader with nerves of steel, fully equipped to lead India through any challenge. Indiraji combined bold and quick decision making with careful planning, adequate preparations and single-minded focus to liberate Bangladesh. She scripted thereby a unique chapter in the world and India’s history.

Friends, ladies and gentlemen, The 1971 general elections saw the Congress led by Indiraji winning by a landslide, with two-thirds majority and more in the Lok Sabha. The Party not only swept the ‘Hindi belt’ of Northern India but also won spectacularly in those states like Karnataka, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh where Congress (O) stalwarts like S. Nijalingappa, Morarji Desai and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy personally led the electoral battle.

A spate of popular agitations and the JP Movement led to the imposition of the Emergency from June 25, 1975 to March 21, 1977.

Sufficient literature is available on the Emergency and I do not want to enter into a debate on the subject. My views are already recorded in Volume I of my memoirs - “The Dramatic Decade The Indira Gandhi Years”.[11]

The elections of March 1977 following the Emergency period resulted in a disastrous defeat for the Congress and Smt. Gandhi. The Congress won only 154 seats compared to Janata Party’s 295 seats. Smt. Gandhi herself lost her seat of Rae Bareli by 55202 votes.[12]

For the first time in 30 years, the Congress had to sit in opposition.

Indira Gandhi accepted full responsibility after the defeat in the elections and said “I have led the Party for 11 years. Now
the responsibility for the failure is on me. The collective judgement of the people must be respected. I accept their verdict
unreservedly and in a spirit of humility. Elections are part of a democratic process to which we are deeply committed. I have
always said and I do believe that winning or losing of an election is less important than strengthening of our country and
ensuring a better life for our people”.[13]

The atmosphere following the elections was extremely hostile for Indiraji. The Janata Party as well as a section of Congressmen conducted a relentless slander campaign against her. The media was also completely against her. Anti- Indira rallies were held across the country with demonstrators shouting ‘Hang her!’. The Shah Commission was constituted and the then Home Minister declared that Indira Gandhi’s ‘crimes’ deserved a trial of the nature of Nuremberg. Frivolous cases were instituted against her and in one instance, she was even made co-accused in a case of stealing eggs and chicken in Manipur. I recall once in 1978, while campaigning in Assam, Indiraji was thirsty and wanted a cup of tea. She asked me to arrange for the same. We were on the highway and the waysidedhabas were dusty and dirty.

There was a Tea garden nearby whose owner used to be a supporter of the Congress. I suggested to her that we can go to his bungalow  in the Tea garden and ask him for a cup of tea. However, the Tea Estate owner was so scared to be seen with Indiraji that he refused to even open the door or offer a glass of water to drink.

Indiraji, however, remained steadfast through all these trials and tribulations. She kept telling us ‘we shall fight it out’.

It took only a couple of months for Indiraji to abandon her self-imposed hibernation. She started touring the country extensively and met personalities like Vinoba Bhave and JP. Indiraji worked round the clock with days starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 3 a.m. the next morning. Often, her meetings were disturbed by demonstrations, disturbances and heckling. I recall once at Silchar, Assam, I was hit by a stone. Indiraji, however, remained cheerful and her indomitable spirit inspired and helped the morale of all around her. She kept telling the media and others who sought her views: ‘wait and see, things can change’.

Indiraji’s biggest strength was her connect with the common people, especially the grass-roots Congress worker. People found in her  the promise of undaunted struggle and iron will. Her visit to Belchi following the massacre of eleven dalits in Bihar’s Nalanda  district is well known. Belchi was inaccessible by road but that did not stop her. She said ‘We shall go walking and we shall go  there even if it takes us all night.’ The road ended in a muddy track. Indiraji’s jeep got stuck in the mud and a tractor was brought  to pull it out. She jumped out of the jeep and waded through the mud, her saree raised above ankle. It was getting tougher every minute, but she did not give up.

An elephant was found and she quickly clambered on, proceeding to complete the three and a half hours journey to Belchi in a manner no national leader had ever travelled. She was determined to reach Belchi and did so purely because of her grit and commitment to the welfare of dalits. Consequently, Indiraji was hailed as a saviour of the under-privileged and exploited.

The Congress Party split for a second time in 1978 and Indiraji lost the official name of the Party, its flag, all its bank accounts, the Party headquarters as well as election symbol to the Reddy Congress. The Congress Party was so short of resources that we had to sell photographs of Indiraji to make money. We charged Rs. 2 for every autograph and Rs. 5 for every autographed photograph.

The second split of 1978 in the Congress needs to be properly understood. Indiraji did not have major differences with Congress leaders like YB Chavan and Brahmanand Reddy. She cooperated with them. However, the Congress Working Committee became a forum for Indira baiting. The then leaders of the Congress Party felt that the people had punished the Party for the Emergency.

The people would not pardon the Party if it didn’t cooperate with the ruling Janata Party. Indiraji, however, believed that the
electoral defeat does not change the role of the Opposition. It is the Opposition’s duty to oppose, expose and if possible,
depose.

Demonstrating her fighting spirit, Indiraji adopted an attitude of challenge and confrontation. She argued that it was immaterial whether the Congress Party won or lost an election, what was important was continued and uninterrupted service to the people.

A year after the elections of 1977, attacks on Indiraji still continued and even reached the Parliament. A question of breach of privilege against her and some other persons was moved on the floor of the Lok Sabha by two Janata Party members, Madhu Limaye and Kanwar Lal Gupta on November 16, 1978. [14] Indiraji was accused of obstruction, intimidation, harassment and institution of a false case against certain officials who were collecting information in connection with Maruti Udyog Limited. A motion was adopted by the House on November 18 referring the matter to the Privileges Committee.

[15] The Janata Party had a majority within the Committee. The Committee recommended that she deserved punishment. On December 19, the House adopted a Motion resolving that she be expelled from the House as well as imprisoned till the House was prorogued.[16]

After adopting the Motion, the House was adjourned at 5.05 p.m. on 19 December. Indiraji waited in the House for nearly
three hours while formalities were being completed. There were many of us with her including Rajivji and Soniaji. We were heartbroken, but, Indiraji consoled us quoting a line from an English poet that read: ‘Say goodbye, not with tears but
with smiles.’

Indiraji was a confident and far-sighted leader, insightful regarding people as  well as electoral politics a combination which made her a rare politician. Her short period in the political wilderness revealed her true strength. For one used to a comfortable life, she wasn’t fazed at having to sleep under the open sky during the Azamgarh byeelection campaign or when, during her electioneering in Andhra Pradesh, her circuit house reservation was found to be cancelled. Under her inspiring leadership, it took Congress workers just about a year to regain courage, conviction and confidence in the future. The Janata Government soon ran out of steam to face the opposition provided by a strong and determined Congress under the leadership of Indira Gandhi.

Even as media reports and editorials repeatedly wrote her off and predicted she could never come back, she proved them completely wrong and emerged as champion of the downtrodden, oppressed, kisans and working classes.

Friends, Indira Gandhi, India’s first woman Prime Minister, was voted out by an unforgiving populace after the Emergency. But the people of India brought her back to power in 1980, within a short span of three years. Once the people of India saw Indiraji’s commitment to the poor and the disadvantaged, they were filled with admiration and love for her. Her ability to take the rough with the smooth and not waver, resulted in them embracing her whole heartedly. Her return to power was the result of hard work, persistent raising of issues that concern the public and effective communication of her vision of development and progress to the people at large.

The Indira of 1980 was a fighter returning to power, overcoming all the taunts and insults to her. It was not the family name
or Nehru’s legacy that brought her to power but her determination to focus on the problems of the people and her ability to mobilise them behind her.

Most of those in the Congress who had opposed her were defeated in the 1980 elections. They returned one by one to join her ranks. Brahmananda Reddy, in whose name the Reddy Congress was created, himself ended up quitting his party and joining the Congress (I). Friends, ladies and gentlemen, Let me end this lecture quoting few lines from Indiraji’s address to Parliament on December 13, 1978, after she was expelled from the House. She said; “I am a small person but I have stood for certain values and objectives. Every insult hurled at me will rebound. Every punishment inflicted on me will be a source of strength to me.

My voice will not be hushed for it is not a lone voice. It speaks not for myself a frail woman, and unimportant person. .................. but for the deep and significant changes in society which alone can be the basis of true democracy and a fuller
freedom which alone can ensure justice and help to create a better man. The atmosphere in this House has been reminiscent of the scene in Alice in Wonderland, when all the cards rise up in the air and shout, “Off with her head”! My head is yours. My box has been packed these several months; we had only to put in the winter things.”[17]

History records that Indiraji was India’s second longest serving Prime Minister having served continuously for 11 years and two months from 1966 to 1977 and then again for four years and eight months from 1980 to 1984. It was in Indiraji’s time that India became the third largest reservoir of skilled scientific and technical manpower, the fifth military power, the sixth member of the nuclear club, the seventh in the race for space and the tenth industrial power. But the true legacy, she leaves behind is her passion for India and its people, her deep-rooted commitment to our core values and her desire to see India rise above poverty and deprivation as well as occupy a seat on the high table of the international comity.

A survey conducted by India Today Group in August this year, 34 years after her death, revealed that most people in India still consider her India’s best Prime Minister ever, leaving even her father Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru behind. [18] She will always remain in the heart of the people of India and continue to be the ideal vis-a-vis whom all future Prime Ministers will be compared.

The lessons that we must learn from the life and legacy of Indiraji is that every defeat can be turned into a stepping stone
for success. Even the impossible can become possible. What is important is not victory or defeat but the effort that we
make to achieve our goals in the service of our nation. We must be relentless in our striving for the welfare of our people.
I conclude with a quote from Indiraji’s last speech :”I do not care whether I live or not. I have lived a long life and if I am
proud of anything it is that I spend the whole of my life in service. I am proud only of this and nothing else. And as long as
there is breath in me so long will I continue to serve and when my life goes I can say that every drop of blood that is in me will give life to India and strengthen it”.[19]

A note was found among her papers after her death in which was written in her handwriting :”If I die a violent death as some fear and a few are plotting, I know the violence will be in the thought and the action of the assassin, not in my dying for no hate is dark enough to overshadow the extent of my love for my people and my country; no force is strong enough to divert me from my purpose and my endeavour to take this country forward…….

I cannot understand how anyone can be an Indian and not be proud the richness and infinite variety of our composite heritage, magnificence of the people’s spirit, equal to any disaster or burden, firm in their faith, gay spontaneously even in poverty and hardship.” [20]

There was perhaps none who loved India and worked for her glory as vigorously as did Indiraji. The best tribute we can pay
to her memory is to dedicate ourselves totally and completely to the welfare of India and service of its proud people.

Thank you. Jai Hind.