Sanjay Gandhi's 42nd death anniversary: The black sheep of India's First Family

"Indira and Sanjay, the self-styled socialists, inflicted on Indians the humiliation of forced sterilization in order to appease western loan sharks: the irony was lost on them. Socialism, like much else, had been reduced to a slogan," wrote David Frum and Vinod Mehta

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Wednesday, June 22, 2022, 04:33 PM IST
(from left to right) Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi in 1969 | Wikimedia Commons

Thursday marks the 42nd death anniversary of the late Sanjay Gandhi, Congress Leader and his mother Indira Gandhi's heir apparent, who died in a plane crash in Delhi on June 23, 1980. Sanjay, the son, grandson and brother of prime ministers of India, is remembered for leaving behind a complicated legacy, to say the least.

Gandhi, the 33-year-old heir-apparent to India's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, died when a small plane in which he was flying crashed shortly after takeoff.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was reported to be among the first to arrive at the crash scene, located very close to her official residence, in the heart of New Delhi.

According to United News of India, she raced there in the ambulance that took him to a nearby hospital, where doctors said he could not be revived.

According to early reports, he was flying with a companion who was the chief instructor of the Delhi Flying Club when his light plane crashed into a row of apartments for low-level government clerks.

The instructor died in the crash, but there were no reports of fatalities among the apartment dwellers.

Eyewitnesses told United News of India that the plane's engine stopped suddenly while it was not too high off the ground. They said the plane spun and then plunged to the earth.

The crash site was just behind the sprawling English-style bungalow that Indira Gandhi had used as her residence and political headquarters during the 33-months that she was out of power.

A political career fraught with controversy

In 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's cabinet proposed the production of a "People's car": an efficient indigenous car that middle-class Indians could afford. In June 1971, a company is known as Maruti Motors Limited (now Maruti Suzuki) was incorporated under the Companies Act and Gandhi became its Managing Director.

While Gandhi had no previous experience, design proposals or links with any corporation, he was awarded the contract to build the car and the exclusive production licence.

The criticism that followed this decision was mostly directed at Indira, but the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and victory over Pakistan muted the critical voices. The company did not produce any vehicles during his lifetime. A test model put out as a showpiece to demonstrate progress was criticized.

Public perception turned against Gandhi, and many began to speculate about growing corruption. Gandhi then contacted Volkswagen AG from West Germany for a possible collaboration, transfer of technology and joint production of the Indian version of the "People's Car", to emulate Volkswagen's worldwide success with the Beetle.

During the emergency, Gandhi became active in politics and the Maruti project went on the back burner. There were accusations of nepotism and corruption. Finally, the Janata Government came to power in 1977 and "Maruti Limited" was liquidated.

The Emergency

The Bangladesh war raised Prime Minister Gandhi to virtual “mother goddess” stature at home. She was viewed as a brilliant military strategist and diplomat, and her popularity was never greater than in the years immediately after that brief December war.

By late 1974, however, Gandhi’s golden image had tarnished, for, despite her campaign rhetoric, poverty was hardly abolished in India. Quite the contrary, with skyrocketing international oil prices and consumer-goods inflation at home, India’s unemployed and landless as well as its large fixed-income labouring population found themselves sinking deeper into starvation’s grip and impossible debt.

Student strikes and mass protest marches rocked Bihar and Gujarat, as Narayan and Desai joined forces in leading a new Janata Morcha (“People’s Front”) movement against government corruption and Gandhi’s allegedly inept leadership.

The mass movement gathered momentum throughout the first half of 1975 and reached its climax that June, when the Congress Party lost a crucial by-election in Gujarat and Gandhi herself was found guilty by the High Court in Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) of several counts of election malpractice during the last campaign for her Lok Sabha seat. The mandatory penalty for that crime was exclusion from holding any elective office for six years from the date of conviction.

Sanjay's pivotal role

Opposition leaders threatened a civil disobedience campaign to force the prime minister to resign, and many of her oldest cabinet colleagues and Congress Party advisers urged her to step down pending an appeal to India’s Supreme Court.

Following instead the advice of her ambitious and energetic younger son, Sanjay, on June 26, 1975, Gandhi persuaded President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a national emergency, which empowered her to do whatever she considered best for the country for at least six months.

The elite Central Reserve Police force, the prime minister’s palace guard, was ordered to arrest Desai and the ailing and aged Narayan, as well as hundreds of others who had worked with her father and Mohandas Gandhi in helping India to win its freedom from British rule.

She then blacked out the entire region of Delhi in which the press was published and appointed Sanjay as her trusted personal censor of all future news leaders and editorials.

Her minister of information and broadcasting, Inder K. Gujral, immediately resigned rather than accept orders from Sanjay, who held no elective office at the time but who clearly was becoming one of the most powerful persons in India.

“India is Indira, and Indira is India,” was the call of Congress Party sycophants, and soon the country was plastered with her poster image. Practically every leader of India’s political opposition was jailed or kept under house arrest for almost two years, and some of India’s most prominent journalists, lawyers, educators, and political activists were muzzled or imprisoned.

In the extremely hostile political environment just before and soon after the Emergency, Gandhi rose in importance as Indira's adviser. With the defections of former loyalists, Gandhi's influence with Indira and the government increased dramatically, although he was never in an official or elected position.

According to Mark Tully, "His inexperience did not stop him from using the Draconian powers his mother, Indira, had taken to terrorise the administration, setting up what was in effect a police state."

It was said that during the Emergency, he virtually ran India along with his friends, especially Bansi Lal. It was also quipped that Gandhi had total control over his mother and that the government was run by the PMH (Prime Minister House) rather than the PMO (Prime Minister Office).

He "recruited into the party thousands of younger people, many of them hooligans and ruffians, who used threats and force to intimidate rivals and those who opposed Mrs Gandhi's authority or his own."

Slum demolition and forced sterilizations

Sanjay Gandhi and Brij Vardhan, accompanied by Jagmohan the vice-chairman of Delhi Development Authority (DDA), was reportedly irked during his visit to Turkman Gate in old Delhi area that he couldn't see the grand old Jama Masjid because of the maze of tenements. On 13 April 1976, the DDA team bulldozed the tenements.

Police resorted to firing to quell the demonstrations opposing the destruction. The firing resulted in at least 150 deaths. Over 70,000 people were displaced during this episode. The displaced inhabitants were moved to a new undeveloped housing site across the Yamuna river.

In September 1976, Sanjay Gandhi initiated a widespread compulsory sterilization program to limit population growth. The exact extent of Sanjay Gandhi's role in the implementation of the program is somewhat disputed, with some writers holding Gandhi directly responsible for his authoritarianism, and other writers blaming the officials who implemented the program rather than Gandhi himself.

David Frum and Vinod Mehta state that the sterilization programmes were initiated at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank:

"Forced sterilisation was by far the most calamitous exercise undertaken during the Emergency.

The IMF and World Bank had periodically shared their fears with New Delhi about the uncontrolled rise in population levels.

India’s democracy was a hurdle: no government could possibly enact laws limiting the number of children a couple could have without incurring punishment at the ballot box.

But with democracy suspended, the IMF and World Bank encouraged Indira to pursue the programme with renewed vigour.

Indira and Sanjay, the self-styled socialists, inflicting on Indians the humiliation of forced sterilisation in order to appease western loan sharks: the irony was lost on them. Socialism, like much else, had been reduced to a slogan."

Political impact of Sanjay's death

The death of Gandhi impacted the political face of India.

Gandhi's death led his mother to induct her other son Rajiv into politics. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv succeeded her as Prime Minister of India.

Sanjay Gandhi's widow Maneka fell out with her in-laws soon after his death and started her own party named Sanjay Vichar Manch in Hyderabad. Maneka served in a number of non-Congress opposition-led governments over the years.

Currently, she and her son, Varun Gandhi, are members of the BJP.

Maneka was appointed to the cabinet as Minister of Women and Child Development by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014. She currently represents BJP from Sultanpur Lok Sabha constituency in Uttar Pradesh.

Varun is a BJP member of Parliament from Pilibhit constituency in Uttar Pradesh.

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