The Idea of India – Learning the hard way

After the untimely death of Nehru in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri took over the reins as the prime minister of India. A Soft Spoken and mild mannered person, Shastri carried himself with a strong resolve. As the country teetered towards chaos at the death of Nehru, his leadership inspired a sense of calm. In his first broadcast to the country he implored the citizens to look forward and carry on the legacy of Nehru’s socialist reforms

There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the cross-roads of history and must choose which way to go. But for us, there need be no difficulty or hesitation, no looking to right or left. Our way is straight and clear—the building up of a socialist democracy at home with freedom and prosperity for all, and the maintenance of world peace and friendship with all nations.

Shastri refused to align with any major power bloc and looked to promote India’s agrarian reforms. He enabled the White Revolution and raised the slogan “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” (Translated to Long Live the Soldier, Long Live the Farmer). Shastri’s assurances that English would continue to be used as the official language as long the non-Hindi speaking states wanted helped quell the protests by the Southern States as the Government looked to set Hindi as the Official language of India. The biggest moment of Shastri’s tenure materialized when he had to take decisive action and mobilize the Indian Army to ward off Pakistan Insurgency in Kashmir in 1965. His quick actions neutralized Pakistan’s hand. The Soviet Union helped broker peace between the warring neighbours. Shastri and Pakistan PM Ayub Khan are invited to Tashkent to sign the peace treaty. Shastri mysteriously died in Tashkent a day after signing the treaty. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery and his close relatives suspect foul play. Though, not many details have been made public, several conspiracy theories have been around for a long time now. Shastri’s sudden death lead to Indira Gandhi assuming power as the Prime minister of India in 1967.

The Rise of Indira

Indira’s ascent to the top rung of Indian politics shattered several glass ceilings. She was the first and as of today the only Indian female prime minister. Indira’s presence in the Indian political spectrum was not new. She was nominated to the Rajya Sabha (Upper house) and was elected the president of the Indian national congress in 1959. It was generally believed that the congress party chose Indira over party hard liner Morarji Desai as they saw Indira as someone who would never do anything contrary to the party’s interests. The country was facing unprecedented levels of unemployment, religious communalism, and famine. She was forced to undervalue the Indian currency and borrow wheat from the Americans. The Congress party had lost its shine, and their leaders were seen as corrupt and as ones who no longer had interests of India in mind. Though the party managed to retain the majority in the central government their vote share had dropped considerably. Several regional parties won the state assembly elections and wrested control of the power at the state level. The Communist Party of India (CPI) made gains in Bengal and Kerala. The Dravidian Party (DMK) won Tamil Nadu and engaged in populist schemes and played to the local Tamil sentiment.

Indira’s rallying slogan was “Gharibi Hatao” (Translated to Eliminate Poverty) and unleashed a slew of socialist reforms looking to eliminate poverty across the country. The programs looked to gather support from the rural and the urban poor. The Bangladesh Liberation Effort and victory in the Indo Pak war deliver the next general and state elections to Indira. While Nehru’s policies were based on the four pillars of democracy, socialism, secularism and non alignment, Indira’s policy decisions seemed to be heavily influenced by her Socialist advisers. She nationalized banks, stopped the monetary payments that were being made to the erstwhile “royal families”. The agricultural reforms headed by Subramanian C start paying dividends as the yield of Mexican wheat grown in India doubled. For the first time in many years though the political landscape still seems shaky, the economical and social landscape seemed stable.

The Rule by Decree

Indira Gandhi looked to consolidate her power at the state and central levels, by choosing those loyal to her to lead various state governments. She nominated judges to the Supreme court who aligned with her visions, these actions all were seen by historians as being authoritarian. It is widely believed that the government led a mass sterilization program to limit population growth. In rural India many were unwittingly forced by government doctors who were assigned quotas to fulfill. The breaking point was when the Allahabad high court decided that Indira had misused Government funds on election rallies and declared Indira’s election to the lower house in 1971 invalid. Indira rejected the calls of resignation from the opposition party and vowed to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court. The 1972 war had taken a heavy toll on the supply chain and inflation was rearing again. George Fernandez (NDA Defense Minister) joins the fray and brings the western railways to a standstill further compounding the logistics issues. JP Narayan, the erstwhile congress leader and Nehru’s mentor led protests against the government in Bihar and Gujarat. As the protests against the government intensified, Indira decided to impose the Emergency Rule in India, jailed the opposition party leaders, and muzzled the independent press. Citizens were detained indefinitely and the state enforced curfews to keep the public in state. The president signed ordinances that allowed Indira to rule by Decree. These were truly the darkest days of Indian democracy. Two years later, in 1977 Indira called for fresh elections and released a few political prisoners. The Congress party was routed in the 1977 elections, and Indira and almost all of the congress leadership lost the election. For the first time since independence, the congress party would no longer be in power.

Return to Power and Assasination

The Janata government takes over the reins and Morarji Desai becomes the prime minister of India. The Jan Sangh Party provides support and its leaders assume various ministerial positions. If it took 30 years for the congress party to lose its way and succumb to the temptations of power, it hardly took 2 years for the Janata Party. Reports of government offices and bungalows being ransacked by those in power came to the fore front. The only positive thing to come have from the government is from the efforts of Law Minister Shanti Bhushan (who in later years joined Anna Hazare in the fight against corruption) who was instrumental in rewriting the laws that enabled Indira to wield authoritarian power. The laws were amended to seek majority parliamentary approval before their enactment. The government was unable to deliver on the pre election promises, and Indira drove the point home. She campaigned across the country, attempted to connect with the rural folk and established her credential as the only leader who could help India on her path to glory. The 1982 elections saw Indira ascend to power for the 3rd time.

In the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra film actors turned politicians like MGR, and NT Rama Rao connect with the people and storm their way to victory in the state elections. For the first time Indian Politics has paved way for non political players to reach the pinnacle of power. Their populist style regimes are still celebrated to this day. While the southern states, resorted to political battle to consolidate their power, the North Eastern State of Assam break into revolt against the influx of Bangladeshi Immigrants. In Punjab, fringe Sikh Extremists demand to establish the sovereign state of Khalistan as a homeland for the Sikhs. The protests in Assam to an extent and Punjab subsequently turn very violent.

As reports of Insurgency in Punjab rises, so does the tension between the Indian Government and the Punjab Akali Dal Party. It is widely believed that Pakistan Intelligence Wing ISI was responsible for providing the Khalistani supporters with weapons and instigating them to violence. The Punjabi Sikhs, who remained in India after partition felt that they were mistreated by the Hindu community and their identity was being diluted. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Akali Dal leader took refuge in Akal Takht and fortified the temple complex with his supporters. Similarly many khalistani supporters took refuge in the “Takhts” to evade arrest by the Indian authorities. Indira ordered the army to commence Operation Blue star to remove JSB and his armed militants from the complex, the operation resulted in the death of about 500 people. (78 Indian Commandos, and 400 odd militants). The Indian governments military action inside the Sikh temples were condemned by several Sikh religious bodies. Indira was assassinated by her own bodyguards in retaliation. Her death lead to massive public outcry and resulted in the Anti Sikh riots of 1984. The riots claimed many innocent Sikh lives (Official numbers indicate 3500).

Thus ends the legacy of one of India’s most charismatic personalities. Indira had shown the world India’s strength and resilience built on the pillars of democracy, secularism, socialisms and inadvertently by her own actions chose to threaten two of the four pillars. It remains to see if the country can survive the prolonged attack on these foundational pillars.

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