Indira: Great heroes make great mistakes
By M J Akbar
Gandhi gave us freedom, Nehru protected our independence and Indira Gandhi saved the nation. Is that too neat to be correct?
A leader, unlike a mere office-bearer, possesses the ability to define the existential challenge of the moment, and guide a generation towards a promised destination. Gandhi, Nehru and Indira were leaders, albeit on different tiers of history, each a mixture of success and failure. Gandhi's pedestal is secure from controversy but elevation tends to deflect his achievement. As Jawaharlal observed, Gandhi freed Indians from fear; freedom from the British was a consequence. Gandhi's most significant failure, by his own values, was surely that he could not free Indians from violence.
Did Gandhi insist on non-violence for both moral and tactical reasons? He was committed to the principle, of course, but did he also suspect that only an inherently violent people needed the imposition of non-violence in order to save themselves from themselves? Did he suspect that armed Indians might destroy each other in the name of caste or creed long before they identified the true enemy? Untouchability is best described as insidious and silent violence. Gandhi lost his life to the gun he could not eliminate, but his cathartic death exhausted India's surge towards civil war.
Nehru understood, better than some of his successors, that freedom was not synonymous with independence. Neo-colonization is, after all, the grant of independence on condition you do not exercise it. British India was both colony and neo-colony, the latter being the status of princely states. Nehru saw, all around him, how quickly the post-colonial world sought the sanctuary of nurseries set up by both Washington and Moscow. He believed that India's tryst with destiny was something more substantive than occasional lollipops; that India's success could not be outsourced to even a well-wisher, let alone any cynical superpower searching for allies in a Cold War. He needed to look no further than Pakistan for a narrative of dependency. He stumbled when he trusted the Third World as much as he distrusted the First. His Himalayan blunder was a calculation, or miscalculation, that China would be a partner in such a world view. He confused himself with others, and the Chinese laughed at his commitment to peace. Trust is so often the ultimate naivete.
India welcomed the realism of Indira Gandhi after the travails of Nehru's idealism. Her two decades, between 1964 and 1984, as cabinet minister and prime minister, constituted an age of violence in all its myriad complexities: communal, ethnic, linguistic, Communist, secessionist. Language riots in the south; Hindu-Muslim mayhem across the map; Naxalite insurgents lighting a Maoist prairie fire; radical trade unions; a war with Pakistan; Emergency; and, in her second term as prime minister, upheaval in Assam, explosions across the North-East and a full-fledged rebellion in Punjab led by a charismatic theocrat. Calm was not written in Mrs Gandhi's fate lines. Was Bangladesh her high point and Emergency the nadir?
India could have gone the way so many post-colonial dictatorships in Africa and Asia if the Emergency, justified by sycophants as essential to the national interest, had stratified into long-term one-person rule. Some of her closest advisers were determined that it should continue for 20 years. The government had survived the initial outburst by sending the Opposition into prison and the press into coma. Individuals and institutions were gradually co-opted into the quasi-dictatorship. But just when hope for democracy had begun to ebb, one person realized that a government without a mandate was illegitimate. That person was Mrs Gandhi. In January 1977, she shocked friend and foe by calling a general election. In March, she was shocked when the Congress was routed. Democracy has never been challenged again.
It is odd that a leader who was so adept at war in 1971 should prove so gullible in the subsequent peace process. No matter which way you look at it, the Simla Agreement of 1972 was an opportunity thrown away. The cease-fire line of 1948 should have been converted into the permanent border, sealing, thereby, the 1966 Tashkent Agreement in which India and Pakistan inked a commitment to respect this line. Mrs Gandhi held all the trumps in 1972, and lost the hand to Zulfiqar Bhutto. His successor, Zia-ul-Haq, took revenge for Bangladesh by helping foment the Punjab revolt: its apex, in 1984, saw the destruction of the Golden Temple, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the frenzied massacre of Sikhs. Zia-ul-Haq could not tear India apart, but he left a wound in India's heart.
Mrs Gandhi's martyrdom washed away her mistakes from public memory. But only great heroes make great mistakes.
- Appeared in Times of India - November 1, 2009