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 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.”

However that may be, the fact is that every bout of famine is attended by an atmosphere of doom which, every time, affects the upper reaches of government. In 1967, when the effects of the 1966 drought were being felt, Indira was stoned and her nose was broken. For a month she walked around with sticking-plaster on her face. In 1975, with the effects of the 1974 drought to the fore, a similar reaction has occurred. Although Indira’s nose has suffered no ill-effects so far, at many public meetings she has been welcomed with showers of stones and shoes. Many of the policemen shielding her have ended up in the hospital.

In theory, the harvest garnered during good years should suffice to provide for lean ones. In a good year, India produces from 97 to 108 million tons of cereals, providing what should be a good reserve from the surplus. But reserves are stored with shocking neglect: between 1972 and 1974 as much as 10 million tons of wheat and rice were destroyed owing to the effects of damp storage conditions and insects. To this should be added the manipulation of landlords who instead of turning over a part of their crops to the government stores, as is required by law, hoard as much as half to sell on the black market.

The result is that every year India has to resort to the United States or the Soviet Union, the main purveyors or donors of cereals. Should a war break out, even this is insufficient. In 1971, during the Indo-Pakistani war, the wheat reserves were ransacked to provide food for Bangladesh and recovery was slow. Last year, instead of the usual 2.8 million tons of wheat, India was forced to import 5.8 million tons from the USSR. And the price had gone up by 30 percent.

The tragedy of insufficient cereal production is aggravated by the fact that cereals constitute the sole food of the population. Practically speaking, no meat is consumed. Hindus eat only a chicken now and again and a piece of buffalo if they are well-to-do and modern, while Moslems won’t touch pork. Ox and pig breeding therefore do not exist. The little milk on sale comes from wild buffalo. Cows, as everyone knows, are sacred. Whoever visits India, even as a mere tourist, can observe the absurd spectacle of cows holding up traffic, causing accidents, soiling the streets with excrement, and penetrating everywhere without anyone daring to shoo them away or, even less, transform them into steaks.

There exists no politician in India daring enough to attempt to explain to the masses that cows can be eaten. Indira herself is silent on this point and even chose a cow, some years ago, as the symbol of her party in the elections. There is the story of a social worker who once attempted to persuade some Moslems to eat pork. It’s nourishing, tasty, he said, and pigs are easy to breed: the Chinese have solved their food problem with pork. He was lynched.

Then there is the population increase: inversely proportional to the insufficiency of food. Fifty-seven thousand children are born in India every day. Every year, 22.52 million new lives are added to those already existent. If we subtract 8 million deaths, the conclusion is that every year India swells by a further 14.5 million mouths to be fed. At this rate, in the year 2000, the Indians will number more than a billion. The birth control campaign has turned out a miserable failure. In many villages, they ate the contraceptives distributed. In others, contraceptive pills were threaded into necklaces. In others still, officials assigned to the birth control campaign were stoned. Especially if they performed vasectomies. There is the case of the physician who sterilized a father of five. The five children later died. Desolate at being unable to generate further offspring, the man sought out the physician and knifed him through the heart.

Abortion, long legalized, is scarcely resorted to. To bear many children is considered not only a religious blessing but also an investment. The greater their number, some Indians reason, the more alms they can beg. There are families where new-born babies are blinded or maimed by breaking bones in their arms or legs or cutting off a hand or foot so as to obtain small monsters suitable for begging purposes. The officials appointed to prevent such horrors are cowardly or corrupt. At the very least, they pocket the sums allotted to the birth control program and issue false certificates. And Indira’s opponents protest: what has she done, they ask, to remedy such a situation? What use has she made of her despotic authority? Only to conduct nuclear research?

Indira and Nuclear Research

Absurdly, in what must appear the greatest paradox ever registered, this nation that starves at regular seven-year intervals boasts nuclear plants and is able to manufacture the H-bomb. Research started in Nehru’s time, when he established the Atomic Energy Commission and placed it under the prime minister’s direct control. Nehru was opposed to nuclear weapons and even to trial explosions. But he believed in scientific progress for pacific aims and research continued on that basis until the day when Shastri tentatively aired the opinion that the Atomic Energy Commission might serve a further purpose. China had exploded its first bomb in October 1964, and Shastri thought India ought to follow this example. Indira has inherited the costly hobby of nuclear research from her father and from Shastri the fear of China. In addition, she has grasped the fact that a leader holding the nuclear bomb acquires more prestige at home and evokes more respect in countries that represent a threat or can lend wheat. India’s first nuclear explosion took place in February 1973.

It occurred in Rajasthan, surrounded by impenetrable secrecy. Only a few generals and the defense minister, Jagivan Ram, had been let into the secret by Indira. To prevent anyone else suspecting, the army had evacuated the area on the excuse of needing it for maneuvers, and had dug an enormous pit, alleging that they were drilling for water. The deep pit was “for the water.” Next day, a cabinet meeting was hurriedly convened and Indira addressed it solemnly. Seating herself, she was silent for a few minutes, looking saintly, and then announced that the first nuclear explosion in India had taken place: India was on the verge of becoming a nuclear power and the foreign minister, Swaran Singh, had already informed the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France (China wasn’t mentioned).

The ministers were stricken dumb. But the pride of being equal in something to the great powers soon made them enthusiastic and they applauded. The press too sang Indira’s praises. Only a few members of the opposition taxed her with “megalomania.” It was typical of dictators or of those who aspire to dictatorship, they claimed, to strengthen their power with such useless devices. How much had the explosion cost? How many unemployed had it provided work for? How many fields had it irrigated? And what effect had it had on those who could neither read nor write? This demagogue, they continued, had started off with the war against Pakistan and the Bangladesh venture, now she had pulled a nuclear explosion out of her hat. What, they wondered, was she aiming at. Who was she trying to take in? In their opinion, it wasn’t a conquest. It was just one more scandal to add to the string of already burning scandals.

Indira and Public Scandals

In a traditional society like India’s, scandals are unavoidable. They are, in fact, the first consequence of the most ancient of social diseases: corruption. According to her opponents, Indira herself has never been entirely free from its taint. In two or three cases, especially, serious doubts have been cast on her innocence.

The first time followed the death of one Rustom Shorab Nagarwala, sentenced to five years for embezzlement and false pretenses. According to the charges, in 1971, during the Indo-Pakistani war, that is, Nagarwala had phoned the head cashier of the State Bank, Ved Prakash Malotra, and, imitating Indira Gandhi’s voice, had ordered him to withdraw 6 million rupees, equivalent to about £300,000. The operation was to be secret, however: the money was “for Bangladesh.” Malotra complied. Nagarwala was jailed. And on March 2, 1972, he was found dead in his cell. Dead of what? The official version was a heart attack, but the physician who conducted the autopsy confided to newsmen that, although it was impossible to establish that death was due to other than natural causes, in his opinion Nagarwala had been done away with.

An inquest was held. A police officer, Kashyap, let it out that inquiries were leading to “most interesting” discoveries. A few days later, he too was found dead. From heart failure too. At Kashyap’s funeral a few days later, a saddened assistant of his broke into speech, proclaiming that, although his superior was dead, he was alive and knew what had really happened. Next day, he was run over by a car.

At this point, the inquest was shelved, while embarrassing questions were being asked throughout the country. How come that Malotra hadn’t checked to make sure the voice on the phone was really Indira Gandhi’s? Was it because he was used to that kind of phone call? And how come that, instead of being punished, Malotra had become an active and feared member of the Congress Party?

The second scandal involved Sanjay Gandhi, the younger of Indira’s two sons. Going back on her socialist reform program, Indira had decided to authorize the opening of privately owned factories to promote industrial growth. The most coveted prize in this field was the license to manufacture the new Maruti car. Its recipient was young Sanjay, who knew little about the automobile industry and until then had shown no great capacity for work of any kind. The plans contemplated the opening of a plant capable of turning out 50,000 Marutis a year. The contracts had been signed, the payments pocketed. But the plant never opened, which made it hard to understand why, according to his tax returns, Sanjay’s income had soared to dazzling heights.

Indira was indignant. She answered that such insinuations had been suggested by Morarji Desai, who, at the time he was finance minister, was upset by a scandal involving Kanti Lal, his own son. She did not, however, offer any convincing explanations, nor did she succeed in silencing other rumors referring to cases of corruption. The rumor, for instance, that industrialists were forced to finance the Congress Party on pain of nationalization. In Bombay, a manufacturer who had refused to give in to such blackmail was forced to close down his plant—despite the protests of his workers who were on his side. Indira, it was rumored, knew all about it. On her desk was a file documenting cases of corruption involving as many as sixteen of her most trusted men: the governor of Bihar, four ministers, and eleven officials. But she took no steps.

The third scandal dates back to January 3 of this year and concerns the murder of the railway minister, Lalit Narain Mishra, the man who, as we shall see, had helped her to break the railwaymen’s strike. Mishra was opening a new station at Samastapur when a bomb sailed above the crowd and landed near him. Four people were killed. Mishra and his brother were wounded. Given first-aid at once, they were lifted aboard two cars and taken to two different hospitals. But, although his brother arrived within a few minutes at the city hospital, Mishra himself was driven to a distant village. And, nobody can say how or why (especially considering that he wasn’t seriously hurt), he was dead when he got there.

Further rumors spread. There were those who remarked that, although this death seemed to have occurred at Indira’s expense, this was not actually the case. Mishra knew too much about the infamous methods used to break the railwaymen’s strike and was the most corrupt man in India. His death might prove useful to Indira: an inquest was ordered. Like others before it, it was no sooner set afoot than it was quietly shelved. That was when the opposition launched its final attack.

Indira and the opposition

It isn’t true that opposition to Indira came only from the right. It gathered both right-wing and left-wing opponents in a sort of united front: both reactionaries and revolutionaries. As well as the Young Turks from her own party. Although the opposition had been launched by a man of the right, Morarji Desai, the gaudier aspects of its conduct were owing to a man of the left: Jayaprakash Narayan, known as JP. With his Machiavellian astuteness, Desai had grasped the fact that his name alone wasn’t enough: he was too extensively compromised by being a part of the same cultural and political establishment Indira herself belonged to. Although he was one of Nehru’s principal aides and one of the Mahatma Gandhi’s faithful disciples, Desai had none the less been minister in several governments and been a member of the Congress Party (the secession of Desai and his group took place in 1969). He therefore couldn’t sway the masses.

But Jayaprakash Narayan could inflame them. One only has to remember that, following independence, Nehru had said of him: “A day will come when Jayaprakash will play a very important, maybe crucial, part in forging India’s destiny.” A singular and beloved character, above every suspicion, JP had all it takes to convince his fellow citizens that he didn’t wish to remove Indira in order to take her place but only in order to carry out the divine will. Besides, he was so old and frail, so ill.

JP is from Patna, the capital of Bihar: one of the poorest and most backward states in India. Whoever has visited Patna, as I have, remembers the place with a horrified shudder. In the Thirties, JP emigrated to the United States, took a university degree there, and became a Marxist. Back in India, he founded the Marxist-socialist wing of the Congress Party and threw himself heart and soul into the armed struggle against the British. Arrested and jailed, he staged a spectacular escape and became an underground hero. No count has ever been made of his sabotage attempts during that period, the assaults he led against army barracks, the number of British soldiers he killed. He was ruthless.

After the British withdrawal, he left the Congress Party and founded a socialist party more to the left than the communists. He also took to trade unionism: he inspired the earliest workers’ movements in India. But suddenly, after Gandhi’s death, he underwent a spiritual crisis. He detached himself from politics, from trade unionism, from everything; he repudiated his violent past and became a holy man preaching purity, meekness, a return to the countryside and patriarchal life and direct democracy, i.e., without any parties. His speeches attracted huge crowds, his voice aroused the conscience of India as in Mahatma Gandhi’s day. And Morarji Desai caught him on the wing: when the moment seemed ripe to transform those preaching sessions into political meetings. With JP on his side, who, despite his detachment, remained a man of the left, Desai knew it wouldn’t prove difficult to attract the socialists and Indira’s Young Turks and to undermine her party.

What Indira presides over is not so much a party as a rainbow of trends and factions preaching the most dissimilar and often dissenting ideologies. Rather like some of the European Christian Democrats, as I’ve already said, but lacking even their clerical background and popular base to hold it together. Some joined the Congress Party from the ranks of Mahatma Gandhi’s disciples, as followers, that is, of a man who conceived politics in terms of patience and nonviolence: a politics that, practically speaking, could do little to hinder the continued existence of economic and caste privilege. Others are nationalists with neofascist undertones. Others still are right-wing social democrats, or else communists and former communists, or, finally, socialists sincerely dedicated to changing the world.

It is among the latter that Young Turks like Mohan Dharia and Chandra Shehkar agitate. Indira had them both arrested on June 26. The former was formerly her housing minister and used as his visiting card the letter by which Indira dismissed him for professing over-progressive ideas. Both of them waste no time in spiritual disquisitions: their opposition is based on hard fact. When I interviewed him, Mohan Dharia said: “I was a supporter of Mrs. Gandhi. One of her stanchest supporters. I had fought to have her become party leader and then prime minister. I considered her secular, sincere, and capable of effecting reform and controlling the establishment. I hadn’t become discouraged by her hesitations: I ascribed them to the struggle she had to engage in against her opponents and the Indo-Pakistani war. Later, however, I had to resign myself, to acknowledge that she hadn’t been sincere in her promises, that she had never intended to effect reforms: she had only wanted power for power’s sake.

“She is so vain, so presumptuous. There is more illiteracy, more superstition, more poverty and more corruption today than there was in her father’s time. And, do you know why? Because Mrs. Gandhi wants to keep things that way: it’s easier to rule a degraded people. Where’s Mrs. Gandhi’s socialism? The Untouchables are still a day-to-day reality in India. In thousands of villages, the Untouchables can’t draw water from the wells because the latter belong to the landlords. With the help of her police regime, she could put a stop to such indecencies. But socialism is just a slogan to her, nothing more. She uses it because it is fashionable, no more. Like her father.”

Indira and socialism

That’s a point all are agreed upon: neither Indira nor her father was ever a sincere socialist. Nehru hated poverty for its aesthetic ugliness, its unpleasant impact on his sight, not as a human injustice. It is no accident that he put his main emphasis on freedom of speech, of thought, of assembly: he had only the vaguest notion of social justice. He never based his ideas on concrete measures, well-defined reforms. Referring to these, Nehru used to say they would have to be attained, but he never explained how. His condemnation of the privileged was limited to the following utterance: “Material wealth without tolerance and without mercy is fated to turn into dust and ashes.” Maybe because he was terrified of Marxism, or, rather, the Marxist dogma.

The same may be applied to Indira. Here, condensed in a few phrases, are the assessments in that sense I heard from both right and left of the Indian political spectrum. “At most, she can be defined as a reluctant radical.” “Her alleged thirst for progress is not sustained by any rigor or any discipline. She believes, or says she believes, in Marxism, out of convenience.” “She is a Brahmin, consequently an aristocrat, she cannot avoid considering society in hierarchical terms.” “In nine years, she has achieved but two things: the abolition of the maharajahs’ privileges and the nationalization of banks.” “The character she portrays is that of an enlightened sovereign who pays lip-service to a vague populism out of generosity.”

Maybe all this sounds a bit unfair. But her behavior during the railwaymen’s strike cannot but leave one perplexed. India’s railwaymen work to a slaves’ timetable, eighteen hours a day, and for a beggars’ pittance: forty rupees a month when all goes well. Yet their contribution to the country’s economy is vital: the whole communication network in India consists of railroads. So, two years ago, they went on strike. They refused to get any trains moving unless their pay was slightly increased and their hours reduced. Indira was busy with preparations for her nuclear explosion in Rajasthan. She didn’t even attempt any conciliatory moves. She summoned minister Mishra and handed him a list of the reprisals to be meted out. Thousands of families were evicted from railway housing estates. Further thousands had their power and water supply cut off. All were forbidden to buy their food in low-priced government stores.

Finally, she called in the army to man the trains and had, besides union leaders, 64,000 railwaymen. She also used the radio network and the press to spread the false news that the strike was over. When it really stopped, after total surrender, 10,000 had been dismissed and 800,000 informed that they had lost their old-age pensions. President Giri, whose own career had been spent in the unions, was horrified enough to beg her to “at least temper triumph with mercy.” And she answered that she would deal with the business case by case. A bit difficult, with Indian railwaymen numbering 1,355,000. Lots of people, in New Delhi, assert that without this formidable error, this ruthlessness, the conspiracy to overthrow her might never have materialized. And, maybe, there would have been no trial.

Indira and her trial

That a conspiracy against Indira existed, albeit within the terms permitted by democracy, is beyond doubt. That the conspiracy’s aim was to stage the trial is equally certain. It is no accident that the arraignment coincided with the advance election in Gujarat, where she was defeated, or that the whole affair was ridiculously inflated. To our Western ears at least, the charges formulated by the Allahabad court sound simply laughable. They were charges of election campaign irregularities, equivalent to corruption: 1) a government official had served as her election secretary and campaigned for her before handing in his resignation papers; 2) rostrums and loudspeakers belonging to the town council had been used at her meetings and a large number of policemen kept busy; 3) an attempt to purchase the good will of the electorate by a distribution of blankets had been made. The last charge was dropped.

If these be crimes, our own politicians deserve to be hanged or beheaded. The fact is that the courts, in India, take their functions seriously. The laws are stringent, based on British models, and guilt is discovered in cases where we discern nothing beyond the normal. Incapable of overthrowing Indira by vote during the coming election, unable to furnish proof for more serious charges, the opposition coalition resorted to the courts, exploiting the precedent of an earlier impeachment. In brief, they managed to discredit her through the use of a simple article of juridical procedure.

The charges against Indira relate to the general election of 1971. They had been formulated, at the time, by a defeated socialist candidate from Allahabad: Raj Narain. Nobody knows who put him up to doing it. Narain is poverty stricken, not at all clever, and, in addition, semiliterate. A few hours before he was arrested with the others, I interviewed him. And I felt nonplussed. Even now, I can’t find, in all his taped chatter, a single utterance worth quoting. All I remember is his fat, obtuse face, his hands scratching between his toes and concealing what they have found behind one ear. Watching him, I found myself wondering if, perhaps, the theory of those who perceive the long arm of the CIA behind this business might have some basis. The suspicion cannot be lightly dismissed. Not a single one of those I interviewed said a word against the United States. Not even the good Mohan Dharia. And Raj Narain still less.

However that may be, Indira didn’t underestimate the menace. From the first day, she attempted to avoid testifying in court or, at least, to have the trial remanded. She was assisted by the best legal minds in India and, at one point, she even discussed the problem of an eventual sentence condemning her being brought up for appeal before the Supreme Court. Consequently, without asking anyone’s permission and overriding all precedents and regulations, she replaced the president of the Supreme Court and three of the five judges with four younger men she could trust. Then she commented: “Elderly justices always support the wealthy because they are interested in preserving the status quo. Younger people are required to enforce reforms.”

She already had a friendly, ex-communist minister of justice, and the trial didn’t take place for four years. Then, at last, in June, it did and Indira did not even manage to obtain a judgment in absentia, and avoid the humiliation of appearing in court to be questioned. She stayed in the dock for a full six hours. As for the sentence, it was ruthless: the loss of civil rights for six years.

The opposition thought it had won its battle. Nobody doubted that Mrs. Gandhi would hand in her resignation. As had Willy Brandt and even Nixon. But such forecasts were based too exclusively on outward appearances. True, Indira had emerged from the trial with her nerves gone to pieces, physically devastated, with her black hair now gray like her famous streak, with her thin, delicate features deformed and puffed up into a yellow mask, with her slender figure thickened, true enough. She now looked all of her fifty-seven years, and maybe more.

But her character hadn’t changed: if anything, resentment had freed her from her former uncertainties and complexes. Far from handing in her resignation, Indira appealed to the Supreme Court, which only made things worse. Her appeal was heard on June 23: neither the president nor the three judges she had appointed were present. There was only a “vacation” judge she didn’t know and…. Her appeal was accepted, the vacation judge ruled, but Mrs. Gandhi was denied the right to vote even in Parliament. Moreover, she could perform her duties as prime minister only pending the appeal trial.

The opposition exulted once more. Surely her resignation was now unavoidable: morally if not legally. To remain would mean to accept a dictator’s label on every count. Meetings multiplied. A Satyagraha was proclaimed, a civil disobedience campaign such as the ones Gandhi used to launch against the British. It was announced that Mrs. Gandhi’s home would be surrounded. In the field beside the house of Morarji Desai, the opposition leaders held a press conference and read us journalists a communiqué demanding “the removal of the usurper.” Indira’s answer followed a mere twenty-four hours later. All the opposition leaders under arrest, a state of emergency proclaimed, freedom of the press abolished, thousands more arrested in the following weeks. A coup d’état.

Indira and the coup

Of course, that’s not how Indira defines it. And maybe, in good faith, she does consider what she did to be a strong leader’s security measure, one provided for in the constitution. But her excuses when she spoke on Independence Day in mid-August were grimly familiar: “Drastic steps,” she announced, “were called for to curb political adventurism and indiscipline in every walk of life.” And her claim to have acted under the constitution is undermined by the way she suspended it in August: denying political prisoners any rights; stripping from the courts their powers to invalidate future elections for prime minister; retroactively cancelling the charges of electoral crimes already against her. And since Indira isn’t the kind of woman to accept anyone else’s suggestion, it would be well to assume she acted on her own and ask who backed her.

In this case the answer is simple, as shown by the fact that the Indian Communist Party is the only one not involved in the purge. As shown, too, by the official congratulations of the Soviet government: all the warmer for the fierce hostility from Peking and the icy silence from Washington. In two words, her backing came from the Soviet Union. And maybe some advice too. This is obvious if one reads the sixteen points regulating press censorship: almost more dictatorial than the rules controlling the Moscow or Hanoi press.

Let’s make no mistake: Indira’s foreign policy has never been dictated by ideology. Cynically, or practically if one prefers, Indira has always been ready to accept help from whoever offered it. However, her relations with Moscow have been affectionate ever since the day she became communications minister in Shastri’s government and Moscow expressed its “happiness.” She visited Moscow several times during that period, meeting Khrushchev, with whom she was friendly. She did Moscow small favors from time to time. For instance, she never condemned Soviet intervention in Prague but frequently condemned American intervention in Vietnam. Even her own party criticized her for this: “She swings too far toward the USSR. One doesn’t know whether she’s playing a top level game or is guided by an error in assessment.”

Obviously, she was playing a game of high strategy. With China in between, India and the USSR needed each other, and one could overlook the circumstance that grain deliveries from Moscow were sometimes too expensive. One could overlook the fact that Indian wares purchased by Moscow for a few rupees were resold in Europe at high prices and for valuable currency. One could overlook Moscow’s somewhat ambiguous attitude to Pakistan, given the Soviets’ wish not to let Rawalpindi fall into Peking’s orbit. During the war with Pakistan, it was the USSR that provided Indira with tanks, planes, helicopters, and guns. And there was a signed treaty, an official alliance, between them.

In February 1973, the fated month of the nuclear explosion and the railwaymen’s strike, New Delhi had welcomed Zakov, member of the Politburo for economic relations with foreign countries, and a commercial agreement had been signed. In November of the same year, Brezhnev visited India. Indira would have liked a more categorical statement from Brezhnev concerning the Indian Ocean’s status as a peaceful zone, consequently not to be used too frequently by the Soviet fleet: but Brezhnev answered that the presence of the Soviet warships was necessary to counterbalance the presence of American ones. Wasn’t it thanks to the Soviet fleet that the Seventh Fleet had withdrawn during the Indo-Pakistani war?

At the end of the visit they signed a declaration of stanch friendship, stressing the fact that, although the two countries were governed by different social systems, that had no ill-effects on their relationship. And Indira immediately refused a grain shipment offered by the Americans. While Brezhnev needed India’s friendship to oppose China and make use of the Indian Ocean, Indira found her friendship with the USSR very useful for internal reasons. It ensured her the unconditional support of the pro-Soviet Indian Communist Party.

There are three communist parties in India: pro-Soviet, Marxist, and Maoist. The two latter are pro-Chinese and unwelcome to Indira because, critical and revolutionary as they are, they won’t bend to make a compromise with her. The first mentioned, on the other hand, is a sort of faction within the Congress Party. No animosities have ever appeared between Indira and the Indian Communist Party except for some slight dissent at the time of the railwaymen’s strike. But that was overcome thanks to Indira’s capitulating and ending up by freeing the jailed workers and signing a pompous decree titled “Forgive and Forget.”

Brezhnev had always recommended that the Indian Communist Party should refrain from interfering in the prime minister’s decisions and the Party had followed these instructions so faithfully that it did not even oppose the persecution of the Naxalites in Calcutta. Indira could afford to repay the Party with a Forgive and Forget. Besides, the pro-Soviet communists were so easy to deal with: they never preached revolution and still less opposition and they provided crowds for government meetings. All they asked was that Indira side with the Arabs, rejecting diplomatic relations with Israel. And they were the only communist group unaffected by the events of June 26.

Thus, there was nobody left, in the whole of India, to explain that Indira had trapped herself with her own hands: backed by such allies, the Indian communists and Brezhnev, she was henceforth fated to become a puppet of Moscow. Defying the censorship and using a paraphrase, the Washington Post correspondent, Lewis Simons, alone mentioned the fact. Twenty-four hours later, he was expelled from India.

Indira and the Americans

Relations have never been very friendly between India and the United States, even when Nehru went on an official visit to Washington. He met Kennedy, who humbly asked his advice about what to do in Vietnam. Nehru’s only answer was to raise his eyes heavenward and rise to signify the end of the meeting. Indira had always behaved rudely to Nixon and the situation was further aggravated by the American request to be allowed to install a naval and nuclear base on Diego Garcia: the island in the Indian Ocean that the British had formerly used as a refueling station for planes flying to Singapore. The Soviets wanted it too, for the same purpose. Indira was further infuriated by the presence of so many CIA agents in India. In 1973 she forced the United States to recall three officials from their embassy in Delhi, charging them with interference in the internal affairs of the country. On this occasion, the United States ambassador cabled Kissinger: “Mrs. Gandhi believes we wish to overthrow her government. She believes we are a counterrevolutionary, deeply selfish and cynical power.” This perturbed Kissinger and impelled him to announce a courtesy visit.

The visit took place last October and didn’t prove exactly courteous. Suddenly leaving town for the weekend, Indira made her enemy cool his heels for two days. Which irritated the enemy, with the result that, when they did meet at last, he addressed her with great severity. The United States, he said, was willing to accept the Gandhian principle of nonalignment. It realized moreover that India’s size and its strategic position enabled Mrs. Gandhi to assume a position of leadership in Southeast Asia. Especially after winning the Bangladesh war. But there was the problem of nuclear proliferation and it was necessary that Indian nuclear knowledge should not fall into the hands of “less responsible” countries. He was alluding, obviously, to the Arabs.

It was no secret that India backed the Arabs, who want to obtain nuclear weapons; still less of a secret was the fact that some countries, like Libya, were attempting to develop the bomb. It was therefore necessary that India undertake, from the outset, not to offer them help. Indira answered rudely and Kissinger was forced to secure the help of the Soviet Union, which repeated the invitation in other terms. And it was only after Brezhnev himself intervened (on that point Kissinger and Brezhnev were in complete agreement) that Indira promised. But Indira’s enmity persisted and today, in that part of the world, another spark capable of igniting a world war is flickering while she consolidates her dictatorship.

Copyright © Rizzoli Press Service-L'Europeo 1975.

This Issue

September 18, 1975