How Indira Gandhi's Congress Declined: Ironically, it's not the INC but Narendra Modi who's following her footsteps

Indira Gandhi built the Congress on toughness, empathy and pride in roots, culture and national security. Today's Congress leaders seem determined to dissipate her legacy.

 |  12-minute read |   06-07-2019
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"I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow... I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it... Even if I died in the service of the nation, I would be proud of it. Every drop of my blood... will contribute to the growth of this nation and to make it strong and dynamic."

today-690_070519062214.jpgA titan fell: Indira Gandhi was killed on October 31, 1984. (Photo: India Today)

Political leaders often include such words in their speeches to inspire millions. But it is only when the words become true that they are deemed inspirational.

As Indira Gandhi, India's first woman Prime Minister — and the most charismatic of them all — spoke these words on October 31, 1984, little did she know that it was a premonition.

Just a day later, she died in the service of the nation.

You may have heard about her. You may have tried to know her better. Perhaps you excelled at understanding the enigma that she was. Maybe you failed at it — but this won't take away the fact that she was born a nationalist and she died as one.

The Iron Lady of India. The darling Amma of the poor. The epitome of grace and confidence.

She was all this and much more.

She was Indira Gandhi.

I was five years old when she was assassinated. During my childhood, I saw her through the eyes of my grandparents and parents. Later, in my pursuit to know the political stalwart better, I read about her, watched her interviews and relived her presence by visiting the many places which could take me a little closer to her — be it her former residence, which is now Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum, or her memorial site, Shakti Sthal. Being a Punjabi Hindu, I have a connection with her on a very different level. No matter what, we will always be indebted to her for saving Punjab and Punjab's Hindus — at the cost of her life.

As I write this piece as an Indira fangirl, I am sure that my thoughts would resonate with millions of other Indira fans. Today's Modi voters are yesterday's Indira's voters.

And although we love her no less, the disappointment that her party has brought spirals through her legacy.

The party's stand on nationalism, or the lack of it, is a clear overture to its disappearance from national politics — and a grave reminder that it is not Indira's Congress anymore.

Indira of India, for India

While there are many fascinating traits to Indira Gandhi's personality, it was her passionate love for her country that stood out the most.

Being someone who wore rudrakash around her neck and patriotism on her sleeve, she took great pride in her faith, in her roots and her nation — in them, she gloried.

indi-690_070519060246.jpgProud, throughout: Indira Gandhi took great pride in her culture, her roots and her faith. (Photo: Twitter)

A perfect combination of a progressive mindset and a soul that remained close to the customs of the countryside, she stunned everyone with her knowledge and simplicity. Sarees, woven by traditional Indian weavers, marked her distinct style and suited her elegant demeanour the best.

I remember watching her videos where most of the time, she was seen covering her head with the pallu, and I said to myself — what a graceful and magnetic woman she is. And she never failed to represent India and its traditions during her visits abroad as well. She effortlessly carried the sari and became a style icon who never had to forego her traditions to be popular.

Someone who read the Gita and the Ramayana at an early age, courtesy her mother and her grandmother, she was also a devoted Yogi. It was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who even found her a Yoga mentor in Dhirendra Brahmachari.

She also loved to visit and worship at temples and shrines regularly, do pooja and observe fasts, apart from seeking the counsel of astrologers.

While her faith held a special place in her heart, to her, there was no love greater than her love for the nation.

For her, India was the only priority.

So, in 1962, when China attacked India, Indira Gandhi even donated all her jewellery to the National Defence Fund. Her nationalism was above all.

During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, she was on a trip to Srinagar. As she was handling the Information and Broadcasting Ministry under Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Indian Army warned her of Pakistani insurgents moving close to her location — but she refused to move to another place. Depicting her courage and love for the nation, she, instead, rallied for the local government and restored the confidence of the countrymen. Such was the valour of that lady.

And the 1971 war corroborates her bravery.

Today, when PM Modi gives statements like "Humara siddhant hai, hum ghar me ghus ke marenge", Indira Gandhi was the one who actually went onto Pakistan's turf and hit it hard. Not only did she split Pakistan into two and change South Asia's map by liberating Bangladesh, but her quick decision-making ability also ensured India's security and made it the regional hegemon of South Asia.

Her strong stand on America's relations with India and the latter's refusal to support America on Vietnam also says a lot about her conviction.

She very well knew how to keep her rivals under the thumb. And did it without any pomp and show.

indira-690_070519062617.jpgGuts and glory: Indira Gandhi was known for her courage, and her empathy for the masses. (Photo: India Today)

Following the success of the 1971 war, she was addressed as the 'only man in the Cabinet'. And rightly so. Even the then-Opposition leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, hailed her as 'Goddess Durga'. Soon after becoming Prime Minister, she campaigned for the abolition of Privy Purse to erstwhile princely state rulers. In 1969, to alleviate poverty, she nationalised 14 major commercial banks. In 1971, she also nationalised the coal, steel, copper, refining, cotton textiles and insurance industries.

Though one of Indira Gandhi's most controversial decisions remains the order to send the army into Amritsar's Golden Temple to eradicate Khalistan militancy, I personally see Operation Blue Star differently.

A part of that has to do with the fact that I am a Punjabi and my family has lived through the terror.

The terror that only Indira Gandhi could have curbed.

amritsar-690_070519062441.jpgStrong stand: Indira Gandhi at the Golden Temple on June 23, 1984. (Photo: PIB)

Her detractors may criticise her for the operation, but the fact is that if the same circumstances were to repeat today, then so would the move. I am sure that if such a scenario recurs, then even after 35 years, our honourable PM Narendra Modi would likely take the same step.

After Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi knew that her Sikh bodyguards were a threat to her. But she retained them — and paid with her life for that mistake. Her mettle was incomparable and at times, implausible too.

Indira had a place in everyone's heart

Call it her persona or her ability to connect with one and all, but to this day, she is remembered as Indira Amma in the remotest areas of the country. In the south, many even worship her along with religious deities.

Beyond any doubt, she was the only Indian leader who inspired the masses with reverence.

Her love for Kashmir needs a special mention here. Although today, Indira Gandhi's grandchildren may have forgotten their Kashmiri roots, she always cherished the fact that she belonged to Kashmir. She had tremendous love for the place and its people. Captivated by the autumnal Chinar trees, she visited Kashmir and met the locals only three days before her death. Imagine the attachment she had with the Valley that drew her to the place just a couple of days before her death.

Perhaps, it was her love for nature that was abundant in the Valley, for she was an environmentalist who loved flora and fauna.

To quote her, "If a person is not at home with nature then I think he is not at home with himself either."

Mountains, wildlife, birds, stones, forests, trees — all of these were precious to her. No wonder she became an ecological pioneer who took up environmental issues in the 1970s on a global scale.

As I said, there were many facets of Indira Gandhi. All intriguing, all-powerful.

Who is following in Indira's footsteps?

Even though most of Indira's and Modi's critics and admirers will not acknowledge it, but if there is anyone who is following her political playbook, then it is Narendra Modi.

My conversation with someone who worked with Modi when he was Gujarat CM revealed that our PM is a secret admirer of Indira. If you carefully monitor Modi's politics, you will see shades of Indira.

modi-roadhshow-pti_070619100913.jpgShades of Indira? PM Modi is apparently an admirer of Mrs Gandhi's politics (Photo: PTI)

Anyone who has an interest in politics knows that the biggest political strategist was Chanakya — famous for authoring the ancient Indian political treatise, the Arthashastra. Chanakya Neeti was estimable. But it was Indira who changed the rules of the game. I am sure that had Indira Gandhi lived a little longer, she would have definitely either written or would have had others write an Indira Neeti. In my opinion, she has been the sharpest and the most perspicacious Indian politician ever.

If Amit Shah today is said to follow Chanakya, then it's Narendra Modi who is treading on the footsteps of Indira Gandhi.

Yes, she was known to be an authoritarian. She ruled both the Congress and the country with an iron fist. But today, Modi can be seen doing the same. After almost three decades of India without Indira, India has a PM who is as authoritarian as Indira was. But what is missing is the empathy that Indira had. While Indira Gandhi was compassionate, Modi, to my mind, is ruthless. Indira wasn't abusive, and she respected her opponents, unlike our current PM

Modi has also resorted to communalism and polarisation politics — something Indira never did.

The erstwhile Congress versus the present-day Congress

The Indian National Congress, India's original and only nationalist party that fought for the country's independence, has stopped embracing nationalism today. There was a time when only the Congress' leaders were known as Indian leaders in the country. After all, the party was founded on the cornerstone of nationalism.

A party which is the heritage of the tallest national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, who devoted their lives to the nation and died for it, was supposed to be a custodian of nationalist values.

Instead, it has let them down.

The party, which Indira Gandhi led with so much vigour, is in a state of despair today. Her soul must be crying, seeing that the nation for which she died today calls her party 'anti-national'. And it is Congress leaders only who have besmirched its reputation.

When the likes of Digvijaya Singh called Osama Bin Laden 'Osama Ji' and cried for militants, questioning the Batla House encounter case, the Congress failed Indira.

singh-690_070519063036.jpgOut of hand: With leaders like Digvijaya Singh, the Congress' legacy seemed to slip away. (Photo: PTI)

When Congress leaders visited Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, where anti-national slogans were allegedly raised, the Congress failed Indira.

For no matter what, had Indira been there, she would have never stepped on that campus where students were apparently ranting, 'Bharat tere tukde honge'.

But that's what the Leftists have done to the Congress mindset.

Today, Congress leaders refrain from speaking against Pakistan. While politicos like Mani Shankar Aiyar pleaded with Pakistan to 'remove Modi', Navjot Singh Sidhu was quick to show solidarity towards the neighbour by asking if an entire nation can be blamed for the actions of a few. In fact, he had also hugged Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in the past.

There was a time when Indira Gandhi received a standing ovation in the Lok Sabha after Pakistan's surrender in December 1971 in the Indo-Pak war. In contrast, the present Congress never misses an opportunity to receive the ire of the nation for not speaking against Pakistan and calling out its terrorism. Perhaps its leaders are afraid of nationalism. Or perhaps, they find it too anti-elite to remind the country that it was their leader who was the staunchest nationalist leader ever.

Post-the Balakot air-strike, the Congress didn't trouble itself to hold a press conference, saying that it was Indira Gandhi who actually split Pakistan into two, making the neighbour weak in its knees for as long as she lived.

rahul-gandhi-sam-pit_070619101042.jpgCongress leader Sam Pitroda invited the nation's ire by questioning Balakot. (Photo: PTI)

On the contrary, the chairman of the Overseas Indian National Congress, Sam Pitroda, probed the success of the Balakot air-strike and even reportedly remarked that all of Pakistan can't be blamed for Pulwama or the 26/11 attack — and such incidents "happen all the time".

I can only imagine the ire of Indira Gandhi, had she been alive.

The party and its leaders, once known for being there for the nation through thick and thin, are now touted as 'anti-national' and the Congress is as impassive as it can get.

First, it ceded the Hinduism space to the BJP. Now, it's ceding the nationalism space. Ironically, it is the same party which was once addressed as 'Hindu Congress'. In fact, the extremists in Punjab wanted a separate Khalistan because they believed that at the centre, the Hindu Congress was ruling. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale used to call Indira Gandhi "Bibi Indira of Hindu Congress". Today, the same party is struggling to get Hindu votes.

In days gone by, the Brahmin Samaj identified with the Congress because of Indira Gandhi. Today, it is isolated by the Congress.

Indira Gandhi, being the strong leader that she was, worked hard to mould the Congress and India. But her legacy is being hurt by her party the most. In reality, the kind of politics Congress favours is unclear.

The Congress and its leaders must introspect — are they doing justice to Indira Gandhi's legacy?

Even so, an oversight won't be surprising.

Also read: When netas beat us up: Why BJP's Akash Vijayvargiya and other politicians like 'justice', Sanjay Gandhi-style

Writer

Sadhavi Khosla Sadhavi Khosla @sadhavi

Entrepreneur, blogger and political analyst based in Gurgaon.

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