Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Postscript : Indira Gandhi's Troubled India Legacy : Ten years after the prime minister's death, the Parliament, courts and party system remain wounded.

October 25, 1994|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — The favorite childhood pastime of the scion of India's First Family was to summon the servants, clamber on top of a table and deliver a rousing speech.

"One day, I saw her standing at the balustrade of the veranda with outstretched arms," her doting aunt wrote. "She said, 'I'm practicing being Joan of Arc. I have been reading about her, and someday I am going to lead my people to freedom just as she did.' "

The idealistic little orator was Indira Priyadarshini Nehru, the only child of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. As Indira Gandhi, she would become one of the most powerful and best-known women of the 20th Century, serving a decade and a half as prime minister of the world's second-most populous nation.

But in realizing her schoolgirl dream, this determined, steel-willed woman with an intense, brooding gaze and a chinchilla streak of white in her hair succeeded by only half.

Like Joan of Arc, she led her people, and she was gratefully christened Indira Amma--"Mother Indira"--by many of her country's most desperate and destitute. But she also took independent India into the darkest time of its existence, the 18-month Emergency of 1975-77.

"Her legacy is a sort of continuous ruin; she did more than anyone else to destroy institutions in India," author Arun Shourie said when asked to assess her impact. Shourie lost his job as a newspaper editor in 1982 after exposing a suspicious $200-million government contract involving Gandhi's son, Sanjay.

"The fundamental point is that she didn't believe in anything," Shourie said. "Oh, she believed India should be strong. But she believed in no norms, only in the expediency of the moment."

A decade ago, on the bright, clear morning of Oct. 31, 1984, what was known as "Indira Raj"--Indira's rule--came to an abrupt and tragic end. At the sprawling walled compound at 1 Safdarjung Road in New Delhi where she lived, Gandhi rose and had a simple breakfast of milk and fruit.

Her first engagement, scheduled for 8:30 a.m., was a taping for Irish television with Peter Ustinov. There was a delay in setting up the equipment, and at 9:10, a restless Gandhi, shod in black sandals, left the house and started down a paved pathway toward her office.

As she reached the shade of a teak tree, at a spot now marked with glass flowers, two men assigned to protect her, Sub-Inspector Beant Singh, who had a .38-caliber revolver, and Constable Satwant Singh, armed with a 9-millimeter carbine, made their move.

Together, they fired 30 shots. Nearly all pierced the light-orange sari Gandhi was wearing.

She was rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where she received 28 bottles of blood but to no avail. About 2:30 that afternoon, doctors pronounced her dead.

An era had ended in India's history, one summed up in the sycophantic yet apt words of Congress President Dev Kant Barooah, "India is Indira, and Indira is India."

Many of her acts have outlived her--often, observers and political scientists say, with baleful consequences.

During her reign, Gandhi increasingly ignored the country's bicameral Parliament, which had been designed as the keystone of India's Westminster-style system, and centralized power in her inner circle. Subordinates in the prime minister's office became the superiors of even members of the Council of Ministers.

Judges were tightly subordinated to politicians' whims and menaced with transfer if they did not listen. The chief ministers of Indian states, once-powerful figures with their own independent power bases, became Gandhi's puppets.

The Indian National Congress, the patriotic movement to which her father and grandfather Motilal Nehru had been so devoted that the large Allahabad home where Indira grew up served for a time as its headquarters, became little more than her handmaiden.

"I heard her say, 'My father was a statesman. I'm a politician,' " noted Congress spokesman Vithal N. Gadgil, who was her minister of state for defense production.

Official venality and lack of accountability, the bane of contemporary Indian public life, took root and flourished during Indira Raj, though their seeds antedate Gandhi's two terms as prime minister in 1966-77 and 1980-84.

"Corruption started eroding into the political system seriously around Mrs. Gandhi's time," said H.K. Dua, editor of the Indian Express newspaper. "The nexus between business and politics, and the increasing influence of money on politics, became stronger."

These days, some members of the current Congress government are suspected of wrongdoing or neglect in scandals involving large sugar shortages, payoffs for petroleum contracts and the biggest securities scam in the country's history, to cite just three examples. Yet no one has been "brought to book," as Indians say.

The courts remain so cowed by politicians that in Punjab, the chief minister's grandson and his friends can, according to recent reports in newspapers, molest women with impunity, even using their police bodyguards to procure their prey.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|