Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

India after Indira, 25 years on

She didn’t have time to learn from our mistakes. What’s our excuse?…

1 November 2009
The Hindu

India after Indira, 25 years on

Siddharth Varadarajan

Indira Gandhi was not responsible for the massacre of some 4,000 Sikhs in Delhi, Kanpur, Bokaro and other Indian cities which began on this day 25 years ago. But the fact that the influential culprits were able to get away with mass murder — and to get away with it in style, despite several changes of government at the Centre since then — is an indivisible part of the complex legacy she left behind.

A legacy of a strong nation unbroken by ‘fissiparous’ tendencies despite the dire predictions of foreign observers; a nation armed with nuclear weapons and missiles; a nation with the ability to assert an independent foreign policy and independent path of capitalist development, in the main, fully capable of holding its head high in the international community and world economic stage. But her bequest is also a nation with a democratic culture built on the proliferating quicksand of personalised, dynastic politics and money power, of weak and ineffective institutions easily subverted by the individuals carefully chosen to lead them. A nation where the rule of law is a plastic, contingent concept which rarely makes demands on those in authority.

Earlier this year, it took an act of individual caprice — the hurling, in desperate anger, of a shoe at the Home Minister — to effect a small but symbolic dent in the edifice of impunity that all Indians now take for granted. The Congress (Indira) finally decided not to allow Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler to contest the elections on a party ticket.

But even this concession came infected with a pathology caused by decades of valueless machine politics: one of the two tainted politicians was able to dictate that his brother replaces him as candidate.

What is it that allowed a local-level leader to wield such embarrassing influence on a national party? The Congress was not always like this. In a remarkably perceptive assessment of Indira Gandhi’s career as Prime Minister penned barely two years after death, Sudipta Kaviraj traced the decline of ideology and of a robust party apparatus within the Congress to the populistic transformation of party politics. That, in turn, was the product of Indira’s need to overwhelm established party interests, especially at the State level, with top-down campaigns centred around her own personality and the loyalty of a new breed of politicians who could use “resources” rather than “arguments” to deliver votes. “People who were pressed into political service were more in the nature of political contractors who were willing to go to any length to dragoon votes, systematically replacing discursive techniques with money and subtle forms of coercion. Thus, out of the logic of the technique Indira Gandhi brought in, Congress started becoming gradually depoliticised. Even earlier, people had regretted that arguments were being replaced by resources as the primary political asset; now the only arguments used were resources.” (‘Indira Gandhi and Indian Politics’, Economic and Political Weekly, September 20-27, 1986).

Political contractors

Kaviraj does not say so but when Indira Gandhi died, it was these ‘political contractors’ who got mobilised to deliver a headcount of a different kind. And they went about their task with great efficiency.

Their success, however, depended on another factor, which Indira’s India was particularly well-equipped to deliver: the willingness of the police and administration to turn a blind eye to the arson and murder which was taking place. The last essential ingredient in the production of the 1984 massacres was the ability to manage the aftermath by ensuring impunity for the guilty. A sitting judge of the Supreme Court, Ranganath Mishra, was handpicked to head a commission of inquiry which, predictably, found no systemic lapses and assigned no culpability to the ruling establishment. In the best tradition of suborned institutions, Mishra went on to become the first head of the National Human Rights Commission when it was set up and, later, a member of the Rajya Sabha. Proof of the commitment with which he went about his initial brief is provided by the fact that another commission established 15 years later managed to unearth far more details about the violence than he had.

Market economies need institutions in order to function in a stable, predictable and rational manner. Robust institutions function well regardless of the individuals in them; in India, everything hinges on the choice of the individual. Mishra delivered a vapid report but he did so with speed. Others labour for years to produce a similar outcome. When a rare individual like Justice Srikrishna produces a report which indicts the system, as he did in the case of the 1993 Bombay riots, the same system has a hundred ways of consigning his recommendations to the dustbin.

The reality

It is tempting to link this very Indian disregard for the norms of ‘bourgeois’ democracy to the residual pull of feudal impulses in our political and social life. But the reality is that the consolidation of capitalism and the growing power of industrial, trading and mining elites have not led to any emphasis on institution building. If anything, the situation might actually be getting worse.

Indeed, over time, the style of politics the Congress adopted during Indira Gandhi’s time has become the norm for virtually all parties, right down to the induction of sons, daughters, wives and brothers at every level of political power. With the growing salience of ‘resources’ in elections, it was only a matter of time before the alliance between party leaders, kinsmen and affluent regional elites got transformed into the rise of the Seriously Wealthy Politician — leaders like the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and his son, Jaganmohan, Sharad Pawar and the BJP’s ‘Bellary Brothers’ in Karnataka.

‘Fissiparousness’, in the final analysis, even in the Punjab, was ended not by the security forces but by letting a hundred sons bloom.

And yet, it would be unfair to lay the blame for the current decline of politics and institutions and the rule of law entirely at the door of Indira Gandhi, even if the trend began with her. But the responsibility for fixing things lies with the present. Just as one sin, if unrepented, begets the next, 1984 led ineluctably to the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. And there will be future killings too, unless the system is overhauled and impunity ended. Indira Gandhi made her mistakes — the Emergency, the opportunistic fomenting of religious extremism for electoral gains in Punjab — and some would argue she paid with her life for them. Had she lived, she might have chosen to chart a different course, though we owe the formal rise of dynasticism and the top-down politics of ‘nomination’ by supreme leaders and high commands to the last phase of her political career. Ironic, then, that the only politician today who seems to have grasped the corrosive nature of this aspect of her legacy is her grandson, Rahul Gandhi, with his emphasis on grass-root level elections in the Youth Congress — an organisation that, in the darkest days of the Emergency, was a metaphor for the worst possible values in politics.

9 comments on “India after Indira, 25 years on

  1. Ram Bansal, the Theosoph
    December 29, 2009

    Although political decay of India started at the time its inception as free democratic India by Nehru through inducting pro-British former princes and lords into Congress, it was much accentuated by Indira.

  2. rageaddict
    November 17, 2009

    That is the beauty of journalism. They always choose the middle path.

    You know the difference between good and evil, but still say both should be treated equally and hence to keep things 'balanced' the middle path is to be preferred.

    What india needs is a modi to smack the smile of the faces of pseudo-seculars.

    I always thought the indian television was where the one-sided crypto-congress opinions and editorials are floated. But then i found this blog. Welcome Siddharth Varadarajan. Let the distortion begin eh?

  3. Anonymous
    November 6, 2009


    Nobody has said that the tragedy of the “kar Sevaks” (Who were by the way out to destroy another communities' place of worship) is acceptable. It is sad and should not have happened.

    The difference is when the state (government) participates in deliberate “thoughtful” massacre in connivance openly with the people supposed to uphold the rule of law it becomes genocide.

    Now you may disagree but this is what civilized people believe in. This is why Karadic is currently at the Hague trying to defend himself. Your lovable CM will have his day. What goes around comes around as they say. Its the circle of life.

    Best wishes

  4. Ganesh
    November 5, 2009

    Interesting to see Hindu has re-discovered the follies of the Indira Gandhi years and the aftermath of the 1984 assassination. It is not so long ago that Harish Khare wrote a “brilliant” article exonerating not just Rajiv Gandhi and his government but also the lesser and more expendable Congress 'leaders' such as Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. That article must be in the standard curriculum of any student wishing to learn spin journalism.

    Those were the happy days when Congress was dancing to the Eastern tunes played out of Marxist HQ more out of necessity than conviction.

    Now the Congress has rediscovered its nationalistic instincts and severed its links with the Marxists, at least temporarily and Hindu has rediscovered the 1984 story, perhaps temporarily as well!

    Any wonder secularism and rule of law is so strong in India?

  5. Itsdifferent
    November 3, 2009

    It will be interesting to see what do you guys, “whatever muslims do is right and whatever a hindu does is wrong” attitude, have to say about this
    I know, simply turn blind eye to these incidents like the other cowards shabna azmi et al.

  6. Anonymous
    November 3, 2009

    It is truly a pearl of wisdom. Well done.

    Surendra Khanna

  7. Markings
    November 2, 2009

    Dear Sir,

    A very thoughtful and sharply penetrating analysis…


  8. I, Me, Myself !
    November 1, 2009


    One of your best piece. Correctly analyses the decline in not just values but functioning, responsibility fixing, and worst of all, dy”nasty” politics. Very nice.

    Especially this line: “Robust institutions function well regardless of the individuals in them; in India, everything hinges on the choice of the individual”.

    You have given good examples to substantiate the above point, and we have also seen umpteen examples of individuals changing the functioning of depts (in both good and bad ways).

    Refreshing to read an article that does not just talk about Indira's years as PM.

    – Sudhir

  9. LPIC1
    November 1, 2009

    2002 massacre of Muslims you say. I wonder if, in your opinion, the lives of the sevaks and other Hindus matter at all.

    Will you then agree that your livelihood is at stake when you write “2002 massacre of Hindus and Muslims”.

    Or is it that you find it hard to go beyond the barriers of what M.Nussbaum had to say about Indian Muslims ( “..where the third-largest Muslim population in the world lives as peaceful democratic citizens, despite severe poverty and other inequalities” ) and calling Hindus fascists.

    While you continue to call that a “massacre of Muslims” , the people of Gujarat continue to vote for N.Modi and the BJP.
    Maybe all GUjaratis and fascists and murderers and only the “secular” media persons are true humans!

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This entry was posted on November 1, 2009 by in Communal Violence, Indian Politics.



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