Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Resurrection of Indira Gandhi

Somewhere out there, is a photograph of my being introduced to Indira Gandhi at a cousin's wedding reception. This part of the story I often narrate so will abbreviate here: I was 2 when she became Prime Minister; 11 when Emergency was imposed; the election that ousted her was held on my 13th birthday; she returned to power in the beautiful January weather of the year I was 16; and when she was killed, I was a devastated, bereaved graduate student very far away from home in every sense in Syracuse in the days before the internet and satellite television. I had grown up assuming the default gender for all Prime Ministers to be female. And I had learned about dissent in the murmurs, then trenchant critiques of Emergency excesses. All my growing years are associated with the ascent and influence of Indira Priyadarshini Nehru Gandhi.

All my adult years belong to an age where she was an object of vilification, responsible for everything wrong with Indian politics. This is also an age that found her father a romantic fool whose capacity to lead a nation-state was overestimated by those who anointed him leader and those who adored him. And an age that had to be reminded about the Father of the Nation, with whom Indira came to share a last name, through a blockbuster movie. That's life.

This week, therefore, has been really interesting. Starting about midweek on Twitter, I began to notice tweets mentioning Mrs. Gandhi and attempting 140-character assessments of her contribution. They were from television journalists I follow, so I suppose they were preparing for programmes scheduled for her 25th death anniversary. (They have also been discussion the anti-Sikh riots that followed Mrs. Gandhi's assassination.)

India's Indira, NDTV.
Remembering the 'Iron Lady' of India, Times Now.

At the short programme held at Shakti Sthal, Javed Akhtar read his poetry. In Times Now's documentary shown on October 31, Shyam Benegal, Saeed Naqvi, Inder Malhotra and Kuldip Nayar were among those who offered assessments and reminiscences. Some of these people I remember as 'anti-Indira' at one time or another, or just plain, 'anti.' Hmmm, I thought.

Newspapers have had the most fascinating bouquet of articles. The Indian Express, Indira's staunch supporter turned foe, which published and distributed blank pages to indicate that it was being censored during the Emergency, carried these:

In the Times of India, never in confrontation mode, I found: MJ Akbar, Indira: Great heroes make great mistakes, November 1, 2009. Asian Age carried Inder Malhotra's article, Gudiya to Durga, October 31, 2009. Inder Malhotra, Pran Chopra, Kuldip Nayar... these are names I associate with the Indira years. As also, of course, Arun Shourie. Karan Thapar remembers Indira Gandhi in Hindustan Times, the paper most closely associated with Congress governments over the years. And in the Hindu, Pranav Gupte remembers: Twenty-five years later, October 30, 2009. Vir Sanghvi's thoughts appear on his website.

Twenty-five years mark a milestone, fair enough, but what accounts for the whiff of nostalgia in these reminiscences and revaluations? I have a few guesses apart from the most obvious reasons: the resurgence of the Congress party as a player in national politics and the appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi family in its new, chastened avatar. I think people are tired of what the endless politics of identity conflicts has done to the fabric of this polity. Governance failures are not acceptable any longer and while Mrs. Gandhi did undermine institutions with disastrous results, people are now associating her with this UPA 2's resolve to try and address those issues. Twenty-five years is also long enough for most people to forget bad news and with two generations that can barely remember the past, a strong leader with a clear focus must seem appealing. We live in a technocratic age where the messy details of Turkman Gate and the innumerable arrests of the Emergency might even seem like inconvenient expediencies. These are my guesses, not scholarly analyses. Not today, anyway.

Is India ready to dispassionately evaluate Indira Gandhi's contribution to its politics, institutions and socio-economic change? I don't really know. What do you think?

1 comment:

Sudha said...

that's really interesting. I only got interested in politics in my teens when everyone was talking about Op. Bluestar. You burst into the dentist's waiting room where I was waiting to be called in, to tell us that Bhindranwale had been killed. I remember her hug with Fidel Castro, and that everyone outside India seemed very impressed with her. Then I remember her funeral and the mourning music that played all day, and I remember being very upset. I didn't not know anything about the emergency until a couple of years later, in my late teens...I think. Maybe I did know...