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Ram Jethmalani is a senior politician and eminent lawyer.

Indira as PM was a tragic mistake

Even when Jawaharlal Nehru was PM, Indira Gandhi had shown that she had scant regard for democracy.

Jawaharlal Nehru with Indira Gandhi and Zhou Enlai in Beijing, 1954. AFP

hatever formative damage Pandit Nehru caused to Indian interests, economic, political and international, I have no hesitation in acknowledging that he was a patriot with integrity. Though not corrupt himself, he took no serious steps to combat corruption. He patronised colleagues who were mediocre and sometimes corrupt, a typical example being Pratap Singh Kairon of Punjab. He gave the nation a secular, democratic Constitution, but failed to explain to the nation and his compatriots what it meant. Though these faults were the result of credulity and negligence, he was quite aware of his daughter Indira's lack of qualification for becoming Prime Minister. Having made her almost homeless in her early life, he was disappointed about her academic non-performance at Oxford and dropping out. He disapproved of Indira's relationship with Feroze, a hanger-on of his once lonely wife Kamla, and her secret engagement to him in Paris.

Political traditions were relatively less corrupt in those years, and the best qualified Indian became our Prime Minister after nearly 17 years of the Nehru reign. Lal Bahadur Shastri proved to be the best Prime Minister India has had so far. As Minister for Railways and Transport, he set a great example of political and moral responsibility in India's political culture, by resigning in the wake of a railway accident at Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu in 1956 that resulted in 144 deaths. Nehru informed Parliament that he was accepting the resignation because it would set an example in constitutional propriety and not because Shastri was in any way culpable. Compare this with the attitudes of today. Shastri frankly stated that corruption was permeating fast in our political systems and reaching the uppermost echelons of the state. He set about combating it with sincerity and vigour, and in 1961 as Union Home Minister was instrumental in appointing the Committee on Prevention of Corruption under the chairmanship of K. Santhanam. The Central Vigilance Commission is one of the offshoots of the Santhanam Committee recommendations.

The most glorious contribution of this diminutive and modest man lay in India's victory over Ayub Khan's infiltration warfare in Kashmir, over his army and tanks. Under Shastri's leadership, Pakistan was humiliated and a Kashmir settlement forced on it by the historical Tashkent Declaration, later destroyed by the folly of his successor, Indira Gandhi. How Indira Gandhi succeeded in becoming the Prime Minister is not relevant to my main theme. I am more concerned with what she did to India.

After Shastri's unfortunate and untimely death, Congress leaders, in their anxiety to maintain the Nehru line of succession, inevitably zeroed in on Indira Gandhi. It was widely believed that she would be a dumb and pliant Prime Minister (remember goongi gudiya?) and all political decisions would be taken by the party machine. How wrong the Congress' elderly, experienced stalwarts were in their judgement of her character. Even during her father's lifetime, while she had temporarily become the Congress president, Indira Gandhi had given enough evidence of her scant regard for democracy. She persuaded her reluctant father to topple the Communist government in Kerala and impose President's Rule. This was the first time since Independence that Article 356 was so grossly misused. Indira accused the Kerala Communists of complicity with China, even outraging her husband Firoze. He died the next year of a heart attack. She did not have much affection and respect for the other members of her father's family, reserving her particular disaffection for her aunt Vijaylaxmi Pandit who was by that time an influential leader in her own right having served as president of the UN General Assembly and Indian ambassador to several countries.

To make Indira Prime Minister without taking cognizance of her anti-democratic predisposition was a tragic mistake of the Congress high command. Once in power, Indira exercised it to the hilt and had no compunction in misusing it. She trounced both her enemies and allies, and drove her party to the point of breaking it. Whatever faint democratic instincts she might have had, if at all, were destroyed by her son Sanjay. Of her two sons, Rajiv was said to be quiet and sensitive and not attracted by politics. Extrovert Sanjay was lively, arrogant and prone to violent behaviour. As a boarder at the Doon School he is said to have bitten off a chunk of the ear of a fellow student. One of his fellow students described him as a "lumpen element". In his late teens, he was accused of stealing and joyriding cars around Delhi. Obsessed by speed and fast moving cars, he was apprenticed to Rolls-Royce in England where his delinquent tendencies alienated his employers. Asked to account for one of a series of mistakes, he told his supervisor, "You people mucked up my country for 300 years, so what's the big deal if I muck up Rolls-Royce?" When Sanjay finally quit his job, a Rolls-Royce executive said they were glad to see his back and all that he was interested in was booze and women. This is accurately recorded in Vinod Mehta's Sanjay Story.

This is the first of a three-part article.

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