Indira’s Coup

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi; drawing by David Levine

New Delhi—Indira Gandhi once said something in my presence that I have never quoted. A sentence she uttered three years ago, when I had finished interviewing her. I remember the episode in every detail. Having turned off the tape recorder, I rose to take leave and, since it was already two in the afternoon, Indira said she’d leave too. We walked along the deserted corridors talking, and descended the stairs leading to the door of 6, South Block, the building housing the government offices.

Mrs. Gandhi had taken my arm and was relaxed and friendly after the tension of the long hours of our interview and the effort of self-control it had forced on her. She asked me about my job and what difficulties I encountered in it as a woman, comparing them to the ones that hampered her in her ministerial functions. But when we reached the outer door, she fell silent. An aged beggar, lying in a heap of rags, was asleep on the pavement. Beside him, a cow was evacuating its bowels, soiling him with excrement. Maybe I ought to have refrained from any comment. Instead, I murmured: “Things certainly do move a bit slowly in India.” I had barely uttered the words when five steely fingers gripped my arm and an icy voice retorted: “What do you want me to do? I’m surrounded by a bunch of idiots. And democracy….”

I never reported the phrase because she had uttered it outside our interview and because, if the Indian press had got hold of it, it might have harmed her. I am publishing it now because there is no longer any reason why I should respect a commitment not to harm her and because these words do much to explain the despotism with which she is ruling the country after the coup. It is a phrase, indeed, that expresses two things: arrogance and despair. Arrogance, because it starts from the premise that everyone except herself is an idiot and that she is therefore authorized to establish a dictatorship. Despair, because it betrays impotence and insinuates a terrifying doubt: is it possible, was it ever possible, to govern a country like hers without resorting to authoritarianism and falling into totalitarianism?

Is it possible, was it ever possible, to keep alive in India the beautiful dream of parliamentarian democracy the British imported along with five o’clock tea? Is what has happened in India a detached incident or the demonstration of a typical tragedy of our times? Every day we find new evidence of how fragile democracy based on pluralism and freedom is. We do nothing but constantly discover how laborious and heartbreaking, perhaps even naïve, is the struggle to conciliate social progress with individual freedom. The third force represented by “socialism with a human face” is nearly always overcome by right- or left-wing extremism; at best, it struggles on amid…

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