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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi

What if Indira Gandhi was alive today?

November 19, 2007

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If Indira Gandhi [Images] had been alive, she would have turned 90 on Monday.

What if she had still been alive and sitting in her South Block office and ruling India?

Rediff.com asked experts, analysts and some people who knew her well for their views on what kind of a prime minister she would have been in 2007.

The result is a very inspiring picture with a touch of mystique.

Senior journalist Kuldip Nayar, a critic of Indira who was jailed during the Emergency in 1975, said she would not have been prime minister. Nayar said she would have instated her son Sanjay Gandhi in power by now, had he also been alive. The scale of corruption would have been much more than it is now in the Congress-led government, Nayar said. "One must mention that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] is not only honest but his family is not involved in any shoddy dealings which would not have been the case with the Gandhi family."

However, Nayar said, "Dr Singh has patience but he doesn't wield power. Indira had power at her command but patience was absent in her."

Nayar, who was among the few fearless journalists who stood up against Indira during her times, said she would have found ways to get the India-United States nuclear deal by hook or crook if she wanted it.

Unlike this government, even in similar circumstances, she would have found a way out of the deadlock with the Left parties, he said.

Speaking of how the Centre has been a silent spectator in the Nandigram issue, Nayar said Indira would have acted on the issue. "How can anyone forget, how in 1959, she advised the central government to dismiss the E M S Namboodripad government in Kerala [Images]?" he asked.

Despite being her critic, Nayar can't avoid but heap some grudging praise on her. "She was less accommodative in domestic politics, but she was a true nationalist in foreign affairs."

Nayar ended by saying he felt sorry for her legacy because, "here is a democrat who imposed emergency to establish her personal rule".

"She blurred the divide between right and wrong and that blot will never go away. Indian institutions could never recover fully after 1975. But, if you keep aside that period, in today's circumstances she would have been unrelenting and would have handled US and China better. Under no circumstances would her government have issued a ban on ministers to participate in functions of the Dalai Lama [Images]," he said.

When asked about how she would have responded to globalisation, Nayar said, "Oh, her fundamental instincts were not that of a socialist. She just played to the gallery on economic issues. She would have gone for globalisation if it would have empowered her rule."

It is not a difficult task to assess how she would have handled internal security as prevalent today.

BS Raghavan, former director (Political and Security Policy Planning) in the home ministry, said, "Indira Gandhi was invariably given to adopting a brisk, brusque, no-nonsense, almost surgical, approach to contentious issues. This came of her decisive and self-assured temperament.

"Whether it was the creation of two separate states of Punjab and Haryana, the challenge of the syndicate to her power and authority, the liberation of East Pakistan or the holing up of Bindranwale in the Golden Temple," Raghavan said, "she never allowed the grass to grow under feet. She would have followed the same approach with regard to the Maoists or other internal security problems were she the prime minister today. She would have made the Maoists feel the heat by a strategy of hot pursuit wherever they were until they were forced to come to the negotiating table."

Raghavan, who was also the secretary of the National Integration Council at the time Indira's father Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi were prime minister, said: "In contrast to the pussyfooting on part of the Congress and the UPA, she would have gone for a tough and no-holds-barred anti-terror legislation and plugged all the loopholes being exploited by the jihadi terrorists to wreak havoc at times and places of their choosing. Not in vain was she called the only man in India's political terrain."

Rajiv Sikri, a former secretary in the external affairs ministry, who retired early because of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's policy on the United States and Iran, told rediff.com that Indira Gandhi would have handled Russia [Images] much better because she understood Russia's importance in security matters. He thinks she would have done the political homework better on the issue of the nuclear deal too.

"Indira Gandhi was one of India's finest prime ministers. One does not have to agree with all her policies (the Emergency is certainly a huge blot on her record) in order to admire her leadership qualities and her capacity to take bold, strategic decisions," he said.

Sikri, who is critical of the current government's US policy, said: "I'm sure Indira would not have succumbed to US pressure to vote in the IAEA in September 2005 for referring Iran's case to the UN Security Council, and would have outright rejected any suggestions that India's foreign policy be "congruent" to that of the US.  I think she would have given a different negotiating brief to Indian negotiators on the Indo-US nuclear deal.  As a politically savvy leader, she would never have allowed a situation to develop where a negotiated agreement with a foreign country could not be operationalised because the requisite political homework had not been done."

"Aisa kab tak chalega?" That is the question Indira Gandhi would have wanted Pervez Musharraf [Images] to ask himself -- as she herself did in 1977 when she decided to call for elections -- as a general and a Bhutto are again dominating the headlines in Pakistan, former ambassador T C A Rangachari, who retired early when Shiv Shankar Menon superseded him.

Rangachari said: "Through the 16 years of her premiership, the politics of the Cold War complicated relations with Pakistan, turning 'Durga' into the 'Old Witch'.

"India would do well to recall her legacy of firmness and resolve in combating the suppression of the democratic will in Pakistan even while pursuing the requirements of peace, good neighbourliness and friendship."

Indira Gandhi's handling of China was very different than the current policy of the Indian government, thinks Dr Srikanth Kondapalli, associate professor in Chinese studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and also an honorary fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.

He said: "Indira Gandhi would have countered China's influence in South Asia, successfully. The 1971 war of Bangladesh was a failure of China's South Asia policy. China could not provide solid support to their ally Pakistan. In 1949-50, India adopted a one-China-policy. Nehru was in favour of full-measure engagement, but Indira changed her father's approach. She opted for a nuanced policy on Tibet and Taiwan. If she would have been in South Block today, she would have kept away China from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

"I have no doubt that she would have fully supported Aung San Suu Kyi. Right now, India is in favour of dialogue between military rulers and Aung San Suu Kyi. She would have taken a hard approach in Nepal, also.

"She would have been much harsher to the royal establishment in Kathmandu. She would have gone for "measured engagement" with China. She was not against good relations with China but she knew how to keep leverage in her dealings. When Soviets occupied Afghanistan, she had sent an envoy to China. She had said, "Outsiders should withdraw from Afghanistan -- she meant Soviets as well as the CIA."

This is what the experts thought. Do you, dear reader, agree? If not, tell us what you think.


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