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 insidious threats and abuses that threaten to discourage even the bravest and most faithful. Meanwhile, all around, totalitarian regimes flourish, distinguished from one another only by their color.
Indira’s India has joined this club. That is the tragic truth that must be borne in mind when you read the inquiry that follows, an attempt to relate how and why things reached the point they did on the morning of June 26 when, perhaps out of arrogance, perhaps out of despair, perhaps because of both, she who saw herself as surrounded by “a bunch of idiots” no longer left dots of suspense after the word democracy. Instead, she put a full stop to it, even, thereby, betraying her father’s spiritual legacy.
Indira and her father
The difference between Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi is enormous. She herself recognizes it when she declares: “My father was a statesman, I’m a political woman. My father was a saint. I’m not.” Saint may be an excessive definition to apply to a man with Pandit Nehru’s faults. But he does deserve to be defined as an idealist and an authentic liberal. Nehru was these things to such a degree that he was tormented by the fear of not appearing democratic enough, of not showing the opposition enough respect. He never humiliated his opponents, he never ignored their opinions, and power was so hateful to him that he once wrote an article against himself. He had it published in a Calcutta paper under a pen name. Let us consider this extract from it:
In normal times, Jawaharlal Nehru would be an efficient and successful administrator. But in these revolutionary times, with caesarism ever lurking, we must ask ourselves: isn’t it possible he may consider himself a Caesar? Here lies the danger Jawaharlal represents to India. It would certainly be horrid if, some day, he were to forget that opposition must be overcome, not swept away, and if he were to come to believe himself unexpendable.
Indira doesn’t fear power. Still less does she fear considering herself unexpendable. On the contrary: she wants to be. She showed this even before the coup. The substance of every one of her speeches, every one of the attitudes she assumed, even then, was: “I’m the government.” She never delegated an important decision to anyone else, and even with her ministers she behaved autocratically. It is rumored that she wasn’t above slapping them quite often. In 1972, one of them told me: “At cabinet meetings she’s like a schoolmistress exacting obedience from her pupils. And we pupils, fearful of arousing her anger, daren’t contradict her. We hold meetings where she alone speaks.”
She has never trusted anyone but herself. When she became prime minister, she didn’t even trust the Central Intelligence Service and formed the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), her personal spy system. Through it, she controlled the state mechanism down to the last wheel, kept strict vigilance on every step and every phone call of opponents and followers, on political, cultural, and economic bodies, and on the press. Everyone knew it and she didn’t care if they did. To be described as a dictator left her quite indifferent. According to a writer who knows her well: “She has never considered the masses as her father did, as a splendid visionary who believes in the people and is aware of the people’s historical role. She has always held this to be a utopian view, and she is no utopian. She is a pragmatist. Her father used to preach what must be achieved. She contents herself with what can be.”
Is there some explanation for all this? I’d say there is. And it arises from the very circumstance of Indira’s being Nehru’s daughter. While this has helped her, it has also hindered her. In fact, she has always suffered from an anxiety-ridden, unavoidable complex with regard to her father. A constant fear of not measuring up to, not being worthy of, him. She has always known that she was not accepted by the Indian political establishment, hated by those who were incapable of forgiving her an easily achieved success and who taxed her with having stepped into Nehru’s shoes as the daughter of a king mounts his throne. It is no secret that Nehru, despite his democratic faith, in his latter days thought of Indira as his successor and confided his secrets and ploys only to her.
After Nehru’s death, when Indira’s name was put forward for the first time, the Congress Party leader Morarji Desai proclaimed right in front of the party assembly that he would never accept “that chit of a girl” as leader. As for Prime Minister Shastri, he added: “If Morarji won’t accept Indiraji, I can’t either.” Shastri hated Indira too. He appointed her minister of information to spite her: “Yes, I know she wanted the foreign ministry. But it wouldn’t have been kind to offer an important ministry to a lady aspiring to become prime minister.”
In addition, Indira is a woman: with all the insecurity and frustration arising from the circumstance of being a woman in a male-dominated society. She knows only too well that, to stay on top, a woman must resist the impulse to be too gentle, too generous, and this is a danger since it carries within itself the germs of faults identical to the faults of men. But these themes of psychological analysis are overborne by a more serious motive, historical in nature. Governing India nowadays is much more difficult than it was in her father’s day. Nehru took over the country in the wake of the wave of enthusiasm following its independence wrested from the British, in a period, that is, that had to fear no comparison with the past: disappointment did not exist, in those days. Only hope existed, which justified any mistakes.
Indira took over the country when enthusiasm had worn itself out, in a period when disappointment lurks behind every corner and comparison with the past is unceasing. Problems that, it was hoped, were to have been speedily solved are still there. The doubt that human beings change but slowly and, in substance, don’t change at all, has become predominant. Old troubles have been joined by new: Soviet influence, American expansionism, Chinese power, the price of oil, inflation, fascist and Maoist movements, the decomposition of the Congress Party—a sort of European-style Christian Democrat outfit that sticks to whatever it touches—population increase, famine. Would Nehru have retained the love of the people if he had been forced to govern them in Indira’s day? Or wouldn’t he have failed as she did, given in as she did?
Indira and famine
Famine hits India in Biblical cycles: every seven years. It follows drought. When the rains brought by the monsoon are insufficient, the crops fail and famine ensues. But famine also strikes, at times, even if the monsoon brings abundant rain, because the water floods the countryside, destroying crops and killing men and animals, then evaporates in the heat as if it had never fallen, leaving in its wake a trial of devastation: churned fields, torn roadways, smashed huts. Of course, were agriculture somewhat more developed, this wouldn’t happen. But agriculture, in India, is still at the stage it was centuries ago. It depends on the monsoons. Fields are not irrigated, except for two or three regions. There is no catchment system for the rainwater, and any conservation, such as cisterns or dams, even wells, is unheard of.
Few tractors, little fertilizer, scarcely any technology at all. There exists a so-called Green Plan for agriculture, but hardly anyone pays it much attention; land reform has been a failure. According to some, it is ascribable to the decentralized administration of the states. Local governments can afford the luxury of ignoring orders from the central government. According to others, Indira is to blame, because she is “superficial and soon tires of following events in districts far-removed from Delhi.”
Copyright © Rizzoli Press Service-L'Europeo 1975.