The Indira Gandhi Legacy

Twenty-five years later, it doesn't look very good

Twenty-five years ago on October 31, I was in Mussorie listening at
lunchtime with other British journalists and diplomats to Tibetan
refugee children singing to Princess Anne, who was visiting from the
UK. The car drivers turned their radios on and heard the news – on
Pakistan Radio – that Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister, had been
assassinated.

We wondered if it was true, or did Pakistan
Radio put such disinformation out every day? No phone or other
communication links were available, but we all eventually decided it
must be true and started a seven hour (or more, I forget) drive back to
Delhi, our cars being plastered with newssheets mourning her death in
towns on the way south.

An
era had ended. One of India's most notable politicians was dead, shot
by her Sikh security guards, leaving a legacy that will long be debated
but is generally regarded more negatively than positively.

Mrs
Gandhi increased socialist economic controls started by her father
Jawaharlal Nehru, opened the doors to widespread corruption that
leading politicians and bureaucrats now routinely practice day by day
by, and sowed the seeds for both her own death and that of her son,
Rajiv Gandhi, by encouraging a militant Sikh leader in Punjab and
separatist Tamil activity in Sri Lanka. She also increased separatist
sentiments in Kashmir.

If Nehru was greater than his deeds, as
many people say, Indira was not as great as she should have been, and
her deeds were more damaging than she probably intended.

Nehru's
controversial post-independence policies of economic centralism and
peaceful relations with China are now generally regarded as
well-meaning but misguided. Mrs Gandhi's mistakes however are generally
seen less charitably as the actions of an insecure woman, desperate to
build power and relying too much on her malevolent power-hungry younger
son, Sanjay Gandhi, who encouraged her to declare a two-year State of
Emergency in 1975.

Strangely, Mrs Gandhi is seen much more
favorably abroad as a great though flawed leader who did her best to
manage a massive poverty-stricken fractured country.

It is easy
to catalogue her failings and the damage that she did to the country
that she undoubtedly loved. Maybe she did not realize the long-term
impact of actions that she took for short-term political reasons – more
often than not stemming from her paranoia and concern about her power
base.

But there was more to her than that. She tried more than
any government before or since to protect India's environment, which
has been progressively plundered since independence in 1947, most
recently by a series of corrupt environment ministers (until the
current minister, Jairam Ramesh, was appointed in May).

She
is also remembered for strengthening the confidence of Indian women,
and for her ability to reach out to people and to care – a gift that
her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, and her grandchildren Rahul and
Priyanka, now display.

In her final years, she started tentative reforms to open up the
economy and unravel the central controls that Nehru and she had put in
place. These reforms were continued by hesitatingly by Rajiv, who
succeeded her as prime minister and was killed in 1991, and then by the
1991-96 Congress government led by Narasimha Rao (with Manmohan Singh
as finance minister), and by subsequent administrations.

She
also initiated (after a disastrous false start by Sanjay Gandhi) a very
successful joint venture, Maruti, with Suzuki of Japan, which triggered
a gradual modernization of India's engineering industry that is paying
dividends now with the country's internationally competitive auto
companies.

Her legacy also lives on in other ways, 25 years after her assassination.

Internal
and regional problems of the sort that Mrs Gandhi dabbled in for
short-term political gain have expanded enormously and, judging by
recent Naxalite developments in West Bengal, some politicians still
play her dangerous game of trying to capitalize on the ambitions of
rebel movements.

In foreign relations, India has moved on from
its reliance on the old Soviet Union, which Mrs Gandhi described as a
friend that had never let the country down. As was illustrated by a
speech made in Delhi this morning by former US President George W Bush,
India now straddles wider international relationships, especially with
the US that has recognized its nuclear weapon status. Bush described
that agreement, perhaps a little euphorically, as India's "passport to
the world".

But India's regional relationships have not grown
out of the hegemony practiced by Mrs Gandhi in South Asia. Here it is
being outgunned by China, which is raising the specter of its defeat of
India under Nehru's watch in 1962 by exacerbating border disputes
between the two countries.

Finally, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is
firmly entrenched, with Sonia Gandhi controlling both the Congress
Party and the current government, and Rahul preparing to take over.

Such
dynastic succession brings a form of political stability to India's
turbulent and fractured politics, but it also blocks the emergence of
other leaders at the top.

Even worse, it has now spawned a
cascade of dynasties across the country involving families that rarely
have the Nehru-Gandhi family's sense of service, but instead are
primarily aimed at maintaining wealth that comes from prestige,
patronage and corruption.

This dynastic surge is both the cause
and effect of a sharp decline in the standards of Indian politics that
began in Mrs Gandhi's time and has worsened enormously in recent years
as personal greed has replaced politicians' concern for the country.

John
Elliott is a former Financial Times correspondent based in New Delhi
and is the author of the blog ‘Riding the Elephant,' which appears
elsewhere in Asia Sentinel.

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