Twenty-five years ago today, 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 shot. 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.
Mrs Gandhi electioneering in 1971
An era had ended. One of India’s most notable politicians and strongest leaders 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, and opened the doors to widespread corruption that leading politicians and bureaucrats now routinely practice day by day by.
She also 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 more favourably 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 realise 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 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 small car joint venture, Maruti, with Suzuki of Japan, which triggered a gradual modernisation 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 capitalise 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 president George W.Bush, India now straddles wider international relationships, especially with the US that has recognised its nuclear weapon status. Speaking at a Hindustan Times conference, 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 practised by Mrs Gandhi in South Asia. Here it is being outgunned by China, which is exacerbating border disputes between the two countries and raising the spectre of a short border war in 1962 that India lost.
Finally, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is firmly entrenched – a fact that was reflected in the vast number of large sycophantic advertisements placed in newspapers today by government ministries to mark the anniversary.
Sonia Gandhi controls both the Congress Party and the current government, and Rahul is 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 interested in maintaining wealth that comes from prestige, patronage and corruption.
This dynastic surge is partly both the cause and effect of a sharp decline in the standards of Indian politics that began in Mrs Gandhi’s time. Standards have worsened enormously in recent years as personal greed has replaced politicians’ concern for the country – especially in regional parties, whose role expanded dramatically after the 1980s as Congress declined.