It was Christmas time in New Delhi—still a few days away from the general election held Jan. 3 and 6—and at 12 Willingdon Crescent a game was being played that will soon be having its impact on the lives of 660 million people. Indira Gandhi, her family and a few close friends were sitting around the luncheon table playing the “numbers game.” The idea was to guess how many seats Gandhi’s Congress-I Party would win at the polls. Gandhi herself said she thought about 230—not enough for a majority. The estimates of the others varied between 210 and 240.
Sanjay Gandhi, 33, her controversial son, said in his soft voice, “We will win 350 seats.”
Oh come on, Sanjay, everyone chorused, that’s much too high.
“Not only will we get that,”
Sanjay insisted, “but I’ve already discounted it by 15 per cent.” He turned out to be almost exactly right.
The story is worth telling for two reasons. First, it shows Gandhi did not think she would win, even in the final run-up to the poll—and that accounts for her still-incomplete cabinet one month after the unprecedented victory. It also explains her failure so far to introduce measures to deal with spiralling prices, the economic slump and half a dozen other pressing problems. The second reason is that Sanjay Gandhi confirmed himself in the loving eyes of his mother as the only really perceptive politician around, a man who understands the minds of the masses. His influence on her is now believed greater than ever, and his hold over other politicians and bureaucrats will increase commensurately. The people of India are in for a tough five years.
Gandhi has never really apologized for the excesses committed during her state of emergency in 1977 when she was last prime minister. Instead she said to the people: “Vote for me, and I will give you tough government.” They did, and she will. And so will Sanjay who, to some people, is little more than a thug. He has deliberately done much of the recruiting for his Youth Congress (the youth wing of the party) in the cells of prisons throughout India, where he has been held on charges of rioting, assault and taking part in illegal demonstrations. “You look around the prison,” he told me once, “you see who has been arrested with you, and immediately you know you can count on them.” More than a million Indians were forcibly sterilized during the emergency—some estimates go as high as seven million—and Sanjay and his Youth Congress are believed responsible for providing the compulsion.
Today, as a member of parliament in his own right, Sanjay is still the sharp end of the Gandhi operation. Even in this honeymoon period, while his mother assesses the complicated mess she now controls and decides on government policies and legislation, Sanjay has been dropping dark
hints about the future activities of his Youth Congress. Prices slumped immediately after the election, as merchants feared Indira Gandhi would take action against them for overcharging. Nothing happened, however, and consequently prices are spiralling again, with traders hoarding essential commodities such as sugar. When this was pointed out to Sanjay a few days ago he said he would “first” seek government action before sending Youth Congress activists on “de-hoarding operations.” This sounds frighteningly like newspeak for “smashing up shops.”
In other words, Gandhi mère et fils are like a team of Bmovie police interrogators. The one is sympathetic and correct, but if you haven’t done exactly as you’ve been told, as soon as she’s out of the room the other has his knee in your groin and is knocking out your teeth with his fist. There is evidence that India responds well to this sort of treatment. It is a massive, amorphous place. The 1961 survey lists nearly 2,000 languages, of which 15 are recognized in the constitution. It is impossible to martial the nation into a well-disciplined army, and all any government can hope for is to get the people moving in approximately the same direction at the same I time. Indians recognize that they need a special kind of rule: a sort of democratic authoritarianism. Gandhi seems likely to give it to them and, at the end of five harsh years, also to give them the chance to vote her out again if they find they’ve had enough.
The battle for most of India’s people is one of sheer survival: two meals a day, water, shelter. Gandhi has become their talisman. So long as jeeps don’t arrive at villages to vasectomise the men by force, they believe she will work for their welfare. To some she is the cow that gives milk; to others, the reincarnation of a goddess.
There is certainly a regal aura about her. She is a smallboned woman with a broad white streak in her hair and an entirely self-contained personality. She is close to no one outside her immediate family—and closest of all to Sanjay. If a friend betrays her, she cares not a jot. By the same token, to her audiences, she is remote and indifferent. Sometimes she ignores them. During last month’s dazzling Republic Day parade in New Delhi, which featured caparisoned elephants, bands, soldiers, horses, aircraft and French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing sitting next to her, Gandhi spared hardly a glance for any of them. She spent the afternoon on the dais, in public view, going through papers. The tough goddess, remote and aloof, needing no one. These are qualities that have made this particular electorate want her, very much indeed. And if she can keep Sanjay’s Youth Congress from the worst excesses, she might even do the nation some good.
Peter Niesewand is Maclean ’s correspondent in New Delhi.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.