Indira Gandhi is learning—the hard way—never to bet on a sure thing
Indira Gandhi is learning—the hard way—never to bet on a sure thing
It was the eve of what many Hindu holy men were proclaiming as their most auspicious religious day in 144 years. As the evening darkened and 10 million of their devout followers began crowding onto the banks of Hinduism’s sacred River Ganges in northeast India for a ritual bathing session held only once every 12 years, the prophecy of the holy men appeared to come true with startling suddenness and in a form that few, if any, in teeming India had anticipated.
With an abruptness that has characterized her 11-year rule. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi eclipsed the austere solemnity of the religious festival with an announcement that the authoritarian measures she had clamped on the country 19 months earlier would be drastically eased. Elections would be held in mid-March; political campaigning, previously banned, would be permitted; press censorship was lifted and political prisoners were released by the hundreds. It looked, initially, like another masterstroke by a political genius. With the Indian economy enjoying a significant upturn and the opposition parties in disarray after most of their leaders had spent long terms in prison, the governing Congress Party seemed certain of being returned to power with a thumping parliamentary majority. Gandhi’s hold on political power would be assured and her dictatorial style of government would be legitimized. But less than a month after the January 18 announcement of elections, the political horizon had become so clouded that only the foolhardy would risk any predictions.
The Prime Minister’s carefully constructed strategy first began to come unstuck late last month when a crafty old politician, Jagjivan Ram, a cabinet minister for all but three of India’s 30 years of independence and a longtime Gandhi ally, resigned as agriculture minister to run in opposition to his former leader. Five other influential Congress members quickly joined a new party formed by Ram, 68year-old leader of India’s 80 million untouchables, the lowest level of the Hindu caste system, and almost overnight the predictability of Indian politics was destroyed. Adding to the turmoil was a decision by all Gandhi’s other major nonCommunist political opponents to bury their traditional differences and patch together a coalition, called the Janata or People’s Party, to contest the elections. Tens of thousands of Indians began emerging from the cocoon of fear created by the Prime Minister’s state of emergency
to voice support for the anti-Gandhi movements. Rallies by the opposition began outdrawing those of the Prime Minister by a two-to-one ratio.
Although the 59-year-old Gandhi was far from a spent force, by mid-February she was clearly on the defensive against the campaign mounted by Ram—whose defection seemed motivated largely by opportunism—and his ally, 74-year-old Jayaprakash Narayan, a disciple of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi. Said Ram : “A clique of six or seven persons has grabbed the Congress Party and has taken over the country,” implying that one of the group was the Prime Minister’s controversial 30-year-old son, Sanjay, who during the emergency became leader of the Congress Party’s youth wing. And it was around Sanjay that much of the hottest rhetoric of the campaign was swirling.
During the last few years Sanjay Gandhi has emerged as the touchstone for the strongest political emotions in modernday India. To his admirers he appears as a charismatic, straight talking, no-nonsense businessman-turned-politician with the ability to sweep aside the ancient class structures standing in the way of social and economic improvement for the impoverished masses in the country of 610 million people. But to his critics, and they include virtually everyone outside the Congress Party, Sanjay is India’s enfant terrible, an ambitious, ruthless upstart who has used his mother’s position to further his business interests and has taken advantage of her emergency rule to widen his personal power base. He holds no public office, but the influence he wields over his mother is extraordinary. Some say he’s now second in power only to his mother; others say he’s second to none.
Sanjay, however, carefully cultivates an appearance designed to contradict his severest critics. He dresses in the simple white cotton first made popular by India’s lay saint and independence hero, Mohandas Gandhi (no relation to the Prime Minister); he speaks little and softly, but when he does talk he displays a quick wit, does his best not to appear arrogant, and has a facility for steering conversations away from topics where his experience is limited. Under Sanjay’s leadership, the Youth Congress, once a somnolent part of the governing party, has become a vital force in Indian politics, with a number of its members likely to be elected in March and with its loyalties firmly pledged to the Prime Minister.
But Sanjay has seriously hurt his
mother’s political support in other areas. Generally considered to be right of centre ideologically, Sanjay has openly split with the Communist Party, once among the most faithful supporters of the Prime Minister. The Communists, in turn, have accused Sanjay of being a reactionary and claim his influence over his mother has forced her away from socialist policies. Late last year, Mrs. Gandhi took up her son’s cause against the Communists and promptly lost their backing in return. Said the Prime Minister: “The Communists say they support me, but there can be no greater insult than to say I could be influenced by reactionaries or anybody else. This is very definitely an attack on me.” Among Sanjay’s main preoccupations have been two of India’s most pressing problems: family planning and housing. But in both cases his involvement has heightened the growing resentment against him. Shortly after the emergency began, the government launched an intensive propaganda offensive aimed at convincing Indians to limit their families to two or three children. The main form of birth control advocated by the government was sterilization and, with help from Sanjay’s Youth Congress, mobile sterilization camps were set up in villages and major cities. The government claimed that the program resulted in seven million sterilizations of men and women in 1976 but there was little clear indication of the impact on the overall birth rate in India, which averages 60,000 babies a day, or al-
most 22 million a year. With about eight million deaths a year, India’s population shows a staggering net annual growth of roughly 14 million, more than half the total population of Canada. But the family planning scheme has caused widespread bitterness, especially among Muslims who feel it is contrary to their faith, and Sanjay has borne the brunt of their hatred.
The Prime Minister’s son was also instrumental in developing a plan to move 700,000 poor people from the shacks they used to occupy in New Delhi to resettlement villages in a swampy, mosquito-ridden area outside the city. Many of the resi-
dents claim living conditions have not been improved and their prospects for finding and holding jobs in the city are infinitely worse. Complained one irate laundryman: “In the 1971 elections, Mrs. Gandhi promised to eradicate poverty. Well, she couldn’t eradicate poverty, so they’ve decided to eradicate poor people instead.”
Despite their political vulnerabilities, Gandhi and her son can claim some solid accomplishments. India’s economic progress during the last two years has been impressive. Inflation has been brought under control, food grain production has been the best in years, huge trade deficits of the past were turned into surpluses during several months of 1976, record foreign exchange reserves have been built up,and industrial production this year is expected to increase 10% over last year.
Regardless of the gains, however, there is little doubt Gandhi faces a tough electoral battle, and perhaps her greatest asset in the campaign will be the known eccentricities of her three major antagonists. Jagjivan Ram is built like a bear and is revered throughout India as Babuji, or Father Sir, but he totters with a cane, peers out from behind heavy spectacles and is anything but charismatic. The leaders of the non-Communist coalition don’t appear much more promising. The coalition’s chief tactician is 80-year-old Morarji Desai, a former deputy prime minister released from 19 months detention in January. He is remarkably fit for his age, but his rigid approach to politics and morality and his long campaign to institute prohibition in India have in the past deprived him of the popular support needed for a shot at the prime ministership. The spiritual leader of the coalition is 74-year-old Jayaprakash Narayan, an enfeebled, quixotic intellectual with little political
ambition. Of all her foes, the man known across India simply as J.P. probably represents Gandhi’s most serious threat, for the saintly old follower of Mohandas Gandhi and his pacifist ideology has an almost mystical hold on the Indian imagination.
Whatever the party strengths, many Indians appear to believe the election may turn on what political figure offers the most promise of resolving India’s prolonged, agonizing national identity crisis. After more than 100 years of British rule and centuries of alien occupation before that, India is still at a loss to decide what kind of society it wants. The supreme self-confidence Gandhi and her son radiate gives them a distinct advantage in appealing to those who feel this uncertainty. Said one young Indian woman: “Before the emergency, the young, educated people of this country were screaming for someone to take the country by the throat. Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay had the courage to do it. If suddenly we’re all feeling fingers around our necks, that’s just too bad.” EDA COLE
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.