A Streak Of Lightning In Modern Indian History

A Streak Of Lightning In Modern Indian History

Even today, aggressiveness is not seen as an admirable trait in women, never mind what their position may be in any hierarchical structure

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Friday, November 17, 2023, 12:11 AM IST
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Former prime minister Indira Gandhi |

In a couple of days, it will be Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary — she was born on November 19, 1917 — and though it’s not a milestone birthday, it is as good a time as any to remember the former prime minister, more so since the many recent OTT projects about the 1971 Indo-Pak war for the liberation of East Pakistan have her in a supporting role. That distinctive grey streak in her hair, which made her a cartoonist’s delight, also makes it easy for any actress to play her, if she can manage the slightly nasal, yet commanding voice. That war was a brave if controversial decision, and needed the cool-headed decisiveness that she always displayed.

Today, there are far more female politicians, but still not enough, considering there is such a strong role model. At one point, when the subject of women leaders came up, most people could come up with just Jhansi Ki Rani and Indira Gandhi. If a woman was being too aggressive, the taunt that invariably came up was, “Who do you think you are? Indira Gandhi?” Even today, aggressiveness is not seen as an admirable trait in women, never mind what their position may be in any hierarchical structure.

Indira Gandhi was not the first female prime minister — that honour goes to Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike — but she was certainly the most charismatic. As the daughter of the first prime minister of Independent India, the educated and well-spoken Indira accompanied her father on state visits and when she was given the post of the president of the Indian National Congress — the field of politics being as nepotistic as it is now, without receiving a fraction of the flak Bollywood does — she did not hesitate to take tough decisions. Those who called her “dumb doll” would have their prejudices shredded and thrown on their faces. (Incidentally, hardly anyone remembers her husband Feroz Gandhi, whose surname she took, with whom she had two sons and carried forward the dynasty.)

Nehru’s successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, gave her charge of the Information and Broadcasting ministry, and she was also elected to the Rajya Sabha. All this paved the way for her taking over the PM’s chair on Shastri’s sudden death in 1966, edging out a formidable rival like Morarji Desai. She led the Congress to victory in two subsequent elections in 1967 and 1971. By this time, people who were expecting her to fail said things like she was the only man in Parliament, which would be considered condescending today. Perhaps because she was always having to prove her worth as a female leader, she bent towards authoritarianism, and reduced party members to sycophants. One of them actually coined the term, “India is Indira, and Indira is India.”

Her Garibi Hatao and Green Revolution initiatives, the Five-Year Plans and 10-Point Programmes may have faded into obscurity; not everybody has history at their fingertips, but she was equally admired and disparaged for the abolition of privy purses to former rulers of India’s princely states, the more difficult decision to nationalise 14 of the largest banks in the country, and the incorporation of Sikkim into India after a referendum — a move bitterly criticised by China, still smarting from their attacks on the borders of India being repelled.

After the victory over Pakistan in 1971, Gandhi was hailed as Goddess Durga even by the Opposition, and there was an Indira Wave during the Assembly elections across the country in March 1972.

As it usually happens, the negative wins over the positive — and today her name is linked with the Emergency and Operation Blue Star. Corruption, already endemic in India, galloped and even the excesses of the Emergency to clean up the bureaucracy (while also silencing the free press and arresting opponents) could not get rid of it. Her assassination by her bodyguard, and the horrific Sikh genocide that followed is blot on Indian history, made worse by the fact that the Congress leaders who ordered the pogrom went unpunished.

The one film that was made by Gulzar—Aandhi (1975), a fictionalised but thinly disguised biography of Indira Gandhi, and Nasbandi (1978) lampooning Sanjay Gandhi, were banned during the Emergency; prints of a small film Kissa Kursi Ka (1975), a spoof on Indira and Sanjay Gandhi (who launched some major anti-people schemes during this time, like forced sterilisations), mysteriously vanished. Years later, Madhur Bhandarkar made Indu Sarkar (2017) on the Emergency, and Vikramaditya Motwane’s documentary, Indira’s Emergency, was screened at the MAMI film festival. There are, as mentioned before, sightings of Indira in many films like the recent Bell Bottom and Pippa. If a full-fledged biopic of Indira Gandhi has not been attempted, it is perhaps because in India, anything but a hagiography would be opposed by her admirers, and one that covered her blunders would be trashed by her critics.

Still, the world saw her as an astute politician and powerful leader. In 1999, she was named “Woman of the Millennium” in an online poll organised by the BBC. In 2020, she was named by Time magazine among the 100 women who defined the past century.

For a leader of any gender, a great deal of personal sacrifices are required — but it is worse for a woman if she is seen as neglecting her family, or putting work over home. Indira Gandhi must have had to fight a lot of patriarchal biases within her own party, but somehow, to the people of the country she was simply a prime minister with her share of flaws, which is quite an achievement in a largely conservative country. There have been many books and academic studies about her; she is still seen as an inspiring figure who, ironically, did not inspire many women to get into electoral politics — the number has declined rather than increased over the years, and the shadow of nepotism hangs over many female politicians. Even with all her privileges, Indira Gandhi had to project a tough, unsentimental, no-nonsense image, because a male politician might occasionally show softness, but a woman would immediately be deemed weak and unworthy.

Maybe because she wanted to convey a gender-neutral image, she did not appoint women in her cabinet. She also did not see herself as a feminist. In a letter to her American friend Dorothy Norman, Gandhi wrote: “I am in no sense a feminist, but I believe in women being able to do everything ... Given the opportunity to develop, capable Indian women have come to the top at once.” An overly optimistic view, it took women many more years to reach some level of gender parity, but she did make a start.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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