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India Is (Still) Indira

Fifty years after her inauguration as India's first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi still casts a long shadow over the country's politics.

With the Indian government launching an increasingly brazen attack on the country’s students and workers, several commentators have argued that India is going through an “undeclared Emergency.” This conjures up images of the actual State of Emergency declared in 1975, which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her coterie in the Indian National Congress party used as an opportunity to jail political enemies, censor the press, ban rival political parties, and dissolve intransigent state governments.

These days, Indira Gandhi’s legacy is being invoked not just in think pieces, but in the halls of parliament. This has played out in unexpected ways. On March 2, Rahul Gandhi, Indira’s grandson and Congress Party scion, lashed out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Criticizing Modi’s authoritarian style, Rahul chided, “The country is not the prime minister. The prime minister is not the country.” (An inversion, perhaps unconscious, of the famous Emergency slogan, “India is Indira, Indira is India,” coined by the Congress party sycophant D. K. Barooah.)

While Rahul seemed to repudiate his grandmother’s legacy, Modi embraced it. Responding to Rahul’s remarks, he questioned the Congress’s lack of support for his “Make in India” manufacturing initiative, and suggested that Indira would have taken a different tack, quoting her disapproving 1974 remark that “we make our image as that of a beggar in front of the world.” Modi, like Indira, is extremely conscious of India’s image on the world stage, and he is not afraid of using draconian measures to push his agenda.

This verbal jousting should not be mistaken for a disavowal of Indira by the Congress high command. Congress leaders still invoke Indira, especially when confronted with the corruption scandals that have plagued the once-hallowed party of Mahatma Gandhi and Indian independence.

The most recent trouble has been the reemergence of the National Herald scam, in which top Congress leaders — including Rahul and his mother, party president Sonia Gandhi — are said to have created a shell company to illegally transfer assets from the firm that owns the National Herald newspaper.

While the case against the Gandhis was filed by the notoriously bombastic and reactionary Subramanian Swamy — an economist and politician affiliated with Modi’s party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the accusations have merit; the judge who recently summoned top Congress leaders to court wrote that there was substantial evidence the accused set up a company “as a sham or a cloak to convert public money to personal use.”

Sonia Gandhi’s response to these allegations has been, in the words of the Indian media, “unusually combative.” Answering a reporter’s question about her upcoming court date, she said, “I was asked in the morning by your colleague if I was afraid. I replied that I am the daughter-in-law of Mrs Indira Gandhi and I am not afraid of anybody or anything.”

The Family

It’s now been fifty years since Indira Gandhi began her first term as prime minister, but she clearly still looms large in the Indian political imagination. Her most obvious legacy is her role in consolidating the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, whose control of the Congress party dates back to the pre-independence days.

Indira Gandhi was born Indira Nehru on November 19, 1917, just weeks after the October Revolution in Russia — an event Indira’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, followed with great interest.

By the time of Indira’s birth, Nehru had been involved with India’s independence movement for several years, largely under the tutelage of his father, Motilal Nehru, and Theosophical Society member Annie Besant.

By the 1920s, having become significantly more radical than his father, he was encouraging the Congress party to move beyond its traditional tactics of muted negotiation and constitutional agitation. By 1929, he was chosen as party president, replacing his father, who had twice held that position.

The younger Nehru initially served as Congress president for two years (he took up the role twice more later in his life, but the position generally rotated between party stalwarts). When India won its independence in 1947 and Nehru became its first prime minister, he left the role of party president to others.

Nehru did not object, however, when his daughter Indira — now Indira Gandhi, after her marriage to Congress politician Feroze Gandhi — became party president in 1959.

When the hugely popular Nehru died in 1964, it created a power vacuum in the party. Nehru’s close associate and trusted lieutenant, Lal Bahadur Shastri, supplanted Nehru as prime minister, but only briefly — he died early in 1966.

The opening at the top occasioned a bitter power struggle between those supporting Indira Gandhi and those supporting Morarji Desai, who was seen to represent the more conservative wing of Congress known as the Syndicate. Indira’s side won out, and she became prime minister on January 24, 1966.

If Motilal Nehru and Jawaharlal Nehru had tacitly supported their children’s political careers, Indira Gandhi dropped the pretense. She explicitly groomed her younger son, Sanjay, to be her heir. After Congress’s poor showing in the 1967 elections, especially among top Syndicate members, internal tensions in the party increased, and Indira finally engineered a split in the party in 1969. With her Syndicate enemies gone, Indira consolidated her power and surrounded herself with a small group of loyalists and family members.

When Sanjay died in a flying accident in 1980, his elder brother, Rajiv, though initially reluctant to enter politics, soon took his place. Four years later, their mother perished under less-than-accidental circumstances: she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, in retaliation for her military attack on Sikh militants occupying the Golden Temple — the religion’s holiest site.

The assault was the culmination of a stand-off between Indira’s central government and a militant Sikh movement led by the charismatic preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who demanded more autonomy for Sikhs and pushed for a religious revival, while allegedly assassinating his (largely Sikh) rivals. Though the Sikh militancy had multiple causes, it signaled Congress’s waning power, as regional groups sought to challenge the party that had long dominated national political life.

After Rajiv’s installation as prime minister, he made statements widely seen as endorsing the anti-Sikh pogroms that roiled India following his mother’s assassination. “When a mighty tree falls,” he famously remarked, “it is only natural that the earth around it does shake.”

Six years later, he too died at the hands of assassins. His killers were Sri Lankan Tamil separatists who resented the support Rajiv had given to the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government, against whom the separatists were waging a civil war.

The Indian government, after years of backing Tamil organizations in Sri Lanka (partially due to their close links with Indian Tamil groups), had changed course and attempted to broker a peace deal between the warring parties. When the talks collapsed, Indian “peace-keeping” forces engaged in a bloody struggle with the separatist groups the Indian government once favored; Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination was an act of revenge.

After Rajiv’s death, it was his Italian-born wife’s turn to reluctantly enter politics. Despite the predictably xenophobic outrage at her foreign origins, both within and outside of Congress, Sonia Gandhi has proven to be a formidable politician. The party’s longest running president, she guided Congress to unexpected wins in the general elections of 2004 and 2009 (and, it should be noted, a spectacular defeat in 2014).

Now in its fifth generation, the Nehru-Gandhi family’s machinations have taken on soap-operatic proportions, calling to mind Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

Sonia’s son Rahul has also entered politics (though he seemed more at home in his previous career as a management consultant). Sanjay Gandhi’s widow, Maneka Gandhi, left the Congress party after a well-publicized dispute with her mother-in-law, Indira. Maneka had accused Indira of not being a Hindu and had allegedly released papers detailing Indira’s marital infidelities.

She is now a member not only of the BJP, but of Modi’s cabinet. Her son Varun is also actively involved in BJP politics, although his most notable claim to fame so far is being charged twice with hate speech for anti-Muslim remarks (he was acquitted both times).

The familial turmoil is so pronounced that the Nehru-Gandhis served as the inspiration for the first season of the Hindi version of the TV show 24.

Indira’s Legacy

Though her forebears share some responsibility, Indira Gandhi was the key driver behind the Congress’s turn toward a dynastic, dysfunctional institution.

But Indira Gandhi’s legacy goes well beyond her penchant for dynastic politics. Gandhi’s time as prime minister can be seen as a crucial inflection point for the Congress Party, the beginning of the end of the formation’s hegemony.

In some ways, Gandhi was a victim of the failures of “Nehruvian socialism,” an unsuccessful attempt at limited state control within a capitalist economy; these failures, which began to manifest during her time in office despite their earlier origins, still reverberate in the present. In Achin Vanaik’s memorable phrase, “The ideological recoil from bad socialism was so strong that it has led to the widespread endorsement of bad capitalism.”

Congress was at the peak of its electoral popularity in the years after independence, even if that support was inflated. As Perry Anderson has argued, India’s first-past-the-post voting system amplified Congress’s political dominance. In the first twenty years of elections in independent India, Congress received an average of 45 percent of the vote — but this translated into 70 percent of the legislative seats.

These numbers reflected, in part, a fragmented opposition. Buoyed by its association with the independence, Congress easily fought off the smaller parties on their left (including the Communist Party and the Socialist Party) and right (including the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, predecessor of the modern-day BJP). Following the first post-independence general elections, the Communists emerged as the chief opposition despite having just sixteen seats (Congress held 364).

Undergirding Congress’s dominance was a peculiar coalition of elites (particularly the landed, the “upper” castes, and the industrial bourgeoisie) and the most marginalized (including the “lowest” castes, Muslims, and indigenous groups). In many ways, the history of Congress in these years is the history of its failure to balance these two groups’ diametrically opposed material interests.

In an unpublished dissertation, Sudipta Kaviraj — now associated with the subaltern studies school — analyzes the core of this contradiction. To gain the support of the party’s electoral base (the most oppressed), Congress had to promise major progressive, even radical, reforms.

But, as Kaviraj notes, Congress’s “support base in ordinary ruling depended on [reforms] not being implemented seriously.” Simply put, “Nehruvian socialism” promised, but, did not deliver, socialism. It implemented moderate doses of state control over the economy and passed largely symbolic social reforms.

In some parts of the country, it quickly became evident that Congress had no intention of keeping its promises. In pre-independence Hyderabad, Communists had joined a peasant insurgency against the corrupt Nizam (prince). When the Nizam attempted to keep Hyderabad out of newly independent India, Nehru sent in the army.

But after his troops defeated the Nizam’s dreaded private militia (the notoriously cruel razakars), they turned their guns against the rebelling peasants and their Communist supporters. In the end, the repression of the Communists was considerably more severe than the repression of the razakars.

By the 1950s, the Communist Party of India (CPI) had turned away from violent insurgency and was trying its luck at the ballot box. In 1957, exceeding even its own expectations, the party triumphed in elections in the southern state of Kerala. Once in power, the Communists employed a brilliant strategy: pass the measures Congress had long promised, particularly land and education reforms.

Congress didn’t take the facsimile strategy well. Immediately, the party formed the ironically named “Liberation Struggle” to contest Communist rule in Kerala; the new organization included upper-caste Hindu associations, as well as conservative Christian and Muslim groups, and it allegedly received support from a CIA then in full Cold War mode.

The conflict represented the first major test for Indira Gandhi, who had recently become Congress president. She came down harshly on the Communists, convincing her father to invoke a clause of the Indian Constitution that was a holdover from British rule and that allowed the central government to dissolve state governments in times of crisis.

Indira’s harsh actions were a major blow to the CPI and its electoral approach. It also set a precedent for the central government to exercise control over insufficiently pliable state governments — a favorite tool of Indira Gandhi when she became prime minister.

As prime minister, Indira blended the usual Congress line with her unique blend of warm populism and cold authoritarianism. Early in her tenure, following the party schism, she made good on several of her popular vows, most notably removing the privileges enjoyed by India’s erstwhile princes and nationalizing India’s fourteen largest banks.

These moves were widely appreciated, and Indira Gandhi won an overwhelming majority in the 1971 elections, campaigning under the slogan “Garibi Hatao!” (“Eliminate Poverty!”).

But these reforms did little to change the country’s underlying structure. The first reform was largely a symbolic gesture, and the second one — while opposed by the banks — ultimately strengthened India’s capitalist economy. Indeed, the short-term popularity they brought Indira disguised her ultimate unwillingness to confront the roots of economic and political inequality in India.

Emblematic of this was Indira’s support for the Green Revolution, an agricultural strategy that emphasized the import of high-yielding crops, fertilizers, and mechanized farming equipment. Organizations like the World Bank, USAID, and the Ford Foundation, in the grips of the Cold War, evangelized for the Green Revolution as an alternative to land reforms (which they feared could lend support to Communist movements).

The Green Revolution largely succeeded in its aims, doubling wheat production in India between 1965–66 and 1971–72. But it also increased inequality in rural areas, cemented India’s dependence on Western imports, and set in motion a process of environmental degradation that has created exhausted soils and poisoned populations.

India’s ties to the larger international economy accelerated under Indira’s rule, leaving it vulnerable when the global crisis hit in the 1970s. Inflation quickly skyrocketed to more than 30 percent.

Faced with economic turmoil, Indira tacked to the right, cutting government expenditures, seeking assistance from the IMF (at the urging of neoliberal economic advisers like future prime minister Manmohan Singh), and brutally suppressing a railway workers strike.

Amid this maelstrom, Gandhi imposed a state of emergency from 1975 to 1977. The immediate spark was a court ruling convicting her of electoral malpractice and declaring her election to the legislature void.

But the Congress coalition was unraveling, and disappointment over the failed promise of independence was widespread. A section of the elite wanted the state to cease steering the economy; meanwhile, the rural intermediate castes, never a strong part of the Congress base, were becoming increasingly powerful and were asserting their electoral weight.

The general sense of discontent, amplified by spiraling inflation, was crystallized in the call for “total revolution” by the social reformer Jayaprakash Narayan, who led the charge against corruption in Indira Gandhi’s government.

Gandhi responded by jailing much of the opposition, both left and right, and giving her son Sanjay free rein to carry out a series of repressive policies, from widespread slum demolitions to forced sterilizations. Pivoting from her earlier emphasis on social justice, she now promoted economic productivity above all else and introduced measures to accelerate private sector growth.

For her efforts she received praise from the likes of industrialist J. R. D. Tata, who said emergency rule created “conditions of discipline, productivity and industrial peace, price stability and widespread involvement necessary to achieve rapid economic growth.”

After two years of emergency law, Gandhi mistakenly thought she had decisively defeated her political enemies. She called for elections, and was promptly voted out of office.

For the first time, independent India had a non-Congress government. But the new government, under the banner of the Janata Party (People’s Party), was hopelessly divided — its only unifying plank was opposition to emergency. Ideologically heterogeneous, it included defectors from Indira’s Congress, as well as socialists, free-trade advocates, and members of the BJP’s precursor. (By this point, the CPI had split; one of its main factions supported the Emergency, which led to a further weakening of the mainstream left.)

While the new government was able to end the worst features of the emergency period, it saw its popularity quickly dwindle due to party infighting. Indira Gandhi’s Congress came roaring back into power in the 1980 election. But Congress had lost its aura of invincibility. And the Emergency had generated space for a right-wing populist reaction to Congress’s failures, first in the form of the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, and then the BJP.

Toward the end of her second stretch as prime minister, Indira Gandhi again sent the country on a rightward trajectory, taking increasingly large loans from the IMF and loosening industrial regulations. Her son Rajiv then deepened those measures, laying the foundation for the massive neoliberal reforms introduced after his death.

Unmet Promises

The weakening of Congress that began under Indira Gandhi reached its nadir in the 2014 election, which saw the party lose spectacularly to the BJP. The BJP came out with 282 parliamentary seats, while the Congress received a measly 44 (a disparity widened by the first past-the-post system). Many laid the blame at the feet of Rahul Gandhi, who was widely lampooned as an ineffective campaigner and a tone-deaf spokesman.

Recently, the party has taken some tentative steps to improve its standing. As suggested by his recent attacks on Modi, Rahul Gandhi has found some success adopting a strident populist tone, criticizing the BJP for its capitulation to corporate interests and its disregard for the common man.

Yet after generations of populist promises from the Nehru-Gandhis, this rhetoric comes off as more than a bit hollow. For the moment, Congress has contented itself with playing the role of matchmaker, helping engineer a coalition that defeated the BJP in November 2015 in a politically important state election.

But there is no doubt that the Congress is a shadow of its former self, both in terms of its electoral strength and its prestige as the party of Indian independence.

In a narrow sense, the lessons of Indira Gandhi are the danger of hubris, the perils of authoritarianism, and the corrupt dynamics of dynastic rule. In a broader sense, however, the lesson is how destructive unmet promises can be.

In developing countries like India, these are largely the unmet promises of freedom from the colonial yoke. While the post-independence Congress promised to usher in a new era of egalitarianism and social justice, it soon became evident that the party had merely presided over a transfer of power from the British, that it had accepted a system that left internal power relations — including grotesque caste and class inequalities — untouched.

Furthermore, India found itself increasingly enmeshed in a globalized capitalist economy that kept the country in a largely subordinate position. Such frustrated expectations have led to widespread discontent not just in India, but in many “developing” countries (the parallels with South Africa are particularly strong).

The lesson of Indira Gandhi and the Congress party is even more widely applicable, however. In the developed world, the unfulfilled promises of social democracy — or, in the US, of New Deal liberalism — have been eroded by the neoliberal onslaught.

All over the world today, the Left and the Right are competing to channel and shape rising discontent.

As Achin Vinaik has argued, the Right seeks to use “social disorientation and cultural despair” to marshal support for an “incorrigible past” based on ethnicity, religion, and, above all, nation. Such movements offer “neither revolution nor counter-revolution but a program of cultural retrenchment. Cultural exclusivism and xenophobia are not the means to the creation of a new, more powerful and transformative project, they are the end or goal, the project itself.”

The Right in India has employed such a project to capture state power and to embark on its current crackdown on dissent; the nativism of Donald Trump is another variation.

The Left has the difficult task of opposing this vision by advancing the transformative projects of the twentieth century — from anti-colonial struggles to socialist movements — and striking at the economic and political roots of oppression in ways that parties like the Congress never could. And the stakes are high: if the Left can’t harness discontent and push it in an egalitarian direction, in India and elsewhere, the Right will be eager to capitalize.