Issue :   
November 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         November 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:November' 2018

BOOK BAZAAR

Rare glimpses of Indira years

Excerpts

Anuradha Dutt

Living in Delhi we had occasions to meet Mrs Gandhi and members of her family. Sanjay had died tragically in a plane crash within city limits during the summer of 1980. His demise led the prime minister, aware of the need to reform the economy which was suffering from the structural inefficiencies of “license raj socialism,” to grow closer to her remaining son Rajiv and to the latter’s Italian wife Sonia who, with their two young children, provided for her the comfort of family life as a refuge from the hectic solitude of power. She also called to Delhi one of her provincial cousins Arun, whose influence went on increasing in the years that followed as we noticed when we met him. Through our conversations in the political circles we could sense that the old rivalry between the Anglo-Saxon powers and the Soviet Union over India remained intense and that Mrs Gandhi and her government were in the middle of that muffled battle in which the USA had lost a potential ally in the late Sanjay Gandhi. Not long after his death, his widow Maneka, whom we knew for her interest in animal welfare and ecology, fell into disgrace with her mighty mother- in-law and had to leave the Prime Minister’s house with her infant son.
It was rumored that the Americans and the British, closely aligned with Pakistan as they had been since 1947, fomented unrest in the state of Punjab where Sikhs were a majority.

Come Carpentier de Gourdon A section of the large and affluent Sikh diaspora in the United Kingdom and in North America had become violently separatist and claimed the right to form an independent state. The USSR on the other hand supported its important Indian ally and supplied intelligence on the alleged plots of the Reagan administration and of the Thatcher government, neither of which sought to hide their hostility to Indira Gandhi’s “nonaligned” policies.

The Indian Prime Minister could not easily determine whether the Soviet sources relayed by the influential Ambassador at the time, Yuli Vorontsov and the large KGB station in Delhi were truthful or self-servingly denigrating their NATO adversaries who sought to thwart the USSR’s military operations in Afghanistan. Her refusal to change sides in the midst of this cold war, which pitted a reinvigorated neo-liberal West against a declining USSR, prevented Mrs Gandhi from embracing the rapid economic development strategies adopted at the time by several East Asian countries, including China.

Indira Gandhi In spite or rather because of efforts to remain equidistant from both camps, India stayed on what was then commonly seen as the losing side with other variously socialist countries of Afro-Asia and Eastern Europe.
In France, Mitterrand’s widely heralded semi-Marxist experiment came to an ignominious end within two years and the West retained its hegemonic unity. Mrs Gandhi herself realized she had to distance herself somewhat from her Russian mentors and to that effect in 1981 she set up the World Peace and Solidarity Organization as a rival to the Soviet-funded and hitherto highly influential World Peace Council through which the Kremlin furthered its strategic aims and won allies all over India.

If Mrs Gandhi had a literary temperament, Rajiv was an instinctive technocrat whose attraction to engineering had led him to become a civilian pilot. His main interest was not ideology but efficiency and modernization and by temperament he was a rationalist who viewed spirituality as an intriguing but rather mysterious and secondary concern, contrary to the vast majority of his countrymen.

Rajiv Gandhi We had once a quiet conversation with Rajiv Gandhi at the prime minister’s house where he received us with his customary, rather charmingly diffident courtesy. His new prominence made him visibly uncomfortable as he was not yet used to it, having been elected to Parliament only a few months earlier in the constituency formerly represented by his late brother.
Not yet forty, he had reluctantly and lately been pushed into politics, against the wishes of his wife, by his mother who, estranged as she was from senior members of the Nehru family and much of the Congress’s Old Guard, placed her trust in her immediate kin.
Rajiv had an easy-going affable personality, which contrasted with Sonia’s apparent coldness and reserve. Having been raised at the heart of power, he was not awed by it but he was aware of his inexperience and keen to hear various viewpoints on public issues. We realized that unlike Indira Gandhi, an alumnus of Shantiniketan who had read Indian philosophy and history extensively and was familiar with her country’s religious traditions, her son was a product of Doon school, an Indian version of English elite institutions and of Imperial College in Britain.

If Mrs Gandhi had a literary temperament, Rajiv was an instinctive technocrat whose attraction to engineering had led him to become a civilian pilot.
His main interest was not ideology but efficiency and modernization and by temperament he was a rationalist who viewed spirituality as an intriguing but rather mysterious and secondary concern, contrary to the vast majority of his countrymen.
We could not know at the time that fate would make him the prime minister of his country less than three years later but we still felt that he belonged to the contemporary crop of leaders who, in China and other East Asian countries, had launched ambitious modernization and economic growth policies, jumping on the bandwagon of neo liberalism driven by Reagan and Thatcher in the West.
Even though he did introduce information technology and the new telecommunication revolution to India, the age-old mindset and the political structures of India did not permit the radical transformation of society that he would have liked.
In the years that followed Rajiv would be compared to John F Kennedy, another young and charismatic young leader with a privileged background and transformational ambitions.
Those who drew this facile parallel found a grim vindication for the analogy in the many setbacks and tragic end that both men met.