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Remembering Indira Gandhi

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-31

TWENTY years ago this day, I was visiting my father one morning in Mumbai. He lay dying from a botched operation in which he was misdiagnosed with cancer when, in reality, he had only a benign tumour in his oesophagus. It was also the morning on which, more than a thousand miles north in New Delhi, bullets from the machine guns of her Sikh bodyguards sprayed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India as she walked in her garden to be interviewed by Sir Peter Ustinov.

They took Mrs Gandhi to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, a few miles away from her home, where they desperately tried to revive her. They gave her large transfusions of blood. But with nearly 100 bullets in her frail body, Mrs Gandhi was probably already dead by the time her aides brought her to the hospital. Her assassination touched off massive riots in the capital city; predominantly Hindu crowds braying for blood killed some 3,000 innocent Sikhs - men, women and children. To this day, not one person has been brought to justice for those crimes.

The story of Indira Gandhi is worth recalling because she, more than any other figure in post-independent India, stymied a huge country of great human capital and vast natural resources from becoming a genuine economic superpower. She ruled as prime minister for almost two decades, critical years in the late 1960s through 1984, when India's impoverished millions could have been unshackled from a Statist economic system created by Indira's father, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nehru, a Cambridge-educated, naive Fabian Socialist, did not believe in the benefits of free enterprise. In his view, Indians needed to be guided from birth to death by an altruistic government. At least Nehru wasn't corrupt, nor were his closest aides, all colleagues from the long, non-violent struggle for independence against the British Raj. For the most part, highly competent men and women who'd been trained in Britain staffed the national civil service.

Under Indira, however, the federal bureaucracy - which managed or monitored everything from the production of soap to the running of steel mills - grew from one million to seven million. Jobs were specially created for ethnic and regional constituencies whose political support was deemed desirable by Mrs Gandhi's ruling Congress Party. Many bureaucrats were not even required to show up for work; they were nevertheless plied with the accoutrements of office such as air-conditioned cars, lavish homes, and generous allowances. In India's traditional arranged-marriage system, federal civil servants became prize catches, displacing physicians and engineers.

But the most devastating - and enduring - part of her legacy isn't the bureaucratic behemoth that Mrs Gandhi created. It was the system of cash tributes she expected from India's industrialists. The money, billions of dollars of it, went into the coffers of the Congress Party, allegedly for electioneering. Everything had a price - licenses for industrial expansion, permissions for travel abroad, applications to buy automobiles - and few were granted exemption.

And so, very quickly, every official - from the lowliest of peons to government cabinet ministers - began demanding their share. To submit a file to a ministry in order to set up, say, a shoe factory, you had to give baksheesh to the peon so that he could relay it to the clerk who registered that file. The clerk had to be paid to move the file to his supervisor and so on. Even federal civil servants had to bribe their ministers for choice positions. A posting in London? This is what it would cost. A Washington sinecure? Here's the price.

The system continues. Corruption is now so deeply embedded in Indian society - even though Indira Gandhi has been gone for 20 years - that virtually nothing gets done in federal and state capitals without an exchange of cash. Try getting a passport. You have the option of obtaining it in four hours or four months. It's all determined by your ability and willingness to shell out cash.

One consequence of Indira's perfidy - all in the cause of party politics, to be sure - was that the entire Indian economic system became insulated from the global economy. Favoured indigenous industrialists - which is to say, those who gave the most money to the Congress - did not want foreign competition; they could get by with turning out shoddy products because the domestic market was so large and because Indians didn't have much of a choice in the consumer market. For nearly three decades, only one brand of automobile was available - for those who could afford it.

When Mrs Gandhi's younger son, Mr Sanjay Gandhi, started a company to produce a so-called people's car - the Maruti - the joke was that it would solve both India's energy problem and unemployment problem. How so? Because the Maruti wouldn't need any petrol; and it would take 10 Indians to push every car.

And so, under Nehru and his only daughter, Indira, India lost four decades when it could have instituted an open system of transparent government, free enterprise - a system that would have attracted valuable foreign capital and spawned a new generation of indigenous entrepreneurial talent. Instead of poverty doubling or tripling, more jobs would have been created. Indira liked to visit countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and the United States and deliver sermons on the high moral standards needed among the world's governing classes. Meanwhile at home, those standards simply didn't exist.

In the end, Mrs Gandhi paid the ultimate price of death at the hands of bodyguards who were followers of a Sikh renegade, Sant Singh Bhindranwale, once her protege, who agitated for a secessionist Punjab state.

So what does it matter now, 20 years after she was murdered?

It matters because contemporary India, struggling mightily as it is to unburden itself of socialism and Statism, is still weighed down by Indira Gandhi's legacy of corrupt governance and political chicanery. It matters because her favourite daughter-in-law - Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi - now is the de fact ruler of India, practising the very politics of fundraising-for-electioneering, and governing by diktat. It matters because there's still another generation of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty waiting in the wings, Sonia's son Rahul, and daughter Priyanka, who are openly admirers of their grandmother.

It matters, finally, because India is so hopelessly mired in squalor and political sleaze that the national spirit and polity are utterly depressed. There's economic progress, of course, especially in sectors such as information technology and computers - all post-Indira phenomena - but the saddest thing of all is that India could have developed so much faster. It's been left way, way behind from where it should have been - and all because of one strong-willed woman who couldn't see beyond the parameters of her own parochial politics. It's unkind to speak harshly of those long gone, but 20 years after Indira Gandhi's murder it's still hard to forgive her.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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