‘Once a dictator always a dictator’ can be said to be a truism suitable for the late former Prime Minister of India Smt Indira Gandhi. Like any leader, she had her highs and lows, more lows to be fair. Among the illustrious list of discrepancies during her rule, one that comes to almost everyone’s mind is the dark night of 25 June 1975 right before the clock struck midnight. If the father greeted the hour of midnight as the time when India made a tryst with destiny, the daughter made sure that pre-midnight was the time to encage it.
Of course, like the fabled story of Rapunzel, PM Indira Gandhi claimed to keep India fortified to protect it from dangers as her Government cited security threats, stating further that the otherwise democratic strikes and protests had paralyzed the economy of the country. Primarily it was Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, who proposed to the prime minister to enforce an “internal emergency.” It was he who drafted a letter for the President to issue the order ensuring that democratic freedom be suspended while remaining within the ambit of the Constitution.
Many leaders and scholars of that time and today are heard claiming that it is surprisingly tragic that the daughter of the democratic Pandit Nehru curtailed democracy in such a repressive manner. But if one follows the chronology of Indira Gandhi’s career, we can paraphrase Pandit Nehru stating that Mrs. Gandhi had all the makings of a dictator in her — vast popularity, a strong will, ability, hardness, an intolerance for others. She showed this trait even before proclaiming the state of emergency as well as after the proclamation. Let us take a brief look at two of those notable incidents when Indira Gandhi displayed the traits of a dictator:
1. Kerala crisis of 1959– In 1957, the Communist Party of India won the assembly elections of Kerala by a slim majority, forming the first communist state government in the country as well as one of the world’s first democratically elected communist government with EMS Namboodiripad as the Chief Minister. Now while Jawaharlal Nehru saw Indian communists as opponents, he was willing to give the new democratically-elected state government a chance since they promised to function within the constitutional bounds.
But the same cannot be said about his daughter Indira, the President of the Congress party, who was determined to dislodge the elected government. She saw her chance when an education bill was introduced by EMS soon after assuming his post. The bill claimed for better wages and working conditions for the teachers in private schools and colleges; in other words, the bill was an encroachment by government into private educational institutes since the Catholics, Ezhavas and Nairs of Kerala ran multiple charitable schools.
The local Congress party members incited the upset parties into organising state-wide agitations terming them as the “Liberation Struggle”. Kerala was plagued by strikes and protests with the protesters employing mob violence. The government responded with harsh police action. Around 150,000 protesters were jailed. It is now public knowledge that the agitators of the Congress party were goaded by were goaded by Indira Gandhi who pressurized her father who finally relented. The EMS Government became the first democratically elected state government with a clear majority to be dismissed using Emergency Powers in July 1959. While PM Nehru was defamed, few disagreed that it was the doing of his dictatorial daughter.
2. Dismissal of the NTR government: In the 1983 assembly elections, the Telugu Desam Party, led by veteran actor-turned politician NT Rama Rao won by an absolute majority, winning 203 out of the 294 seats. NTR himself won both the seats in Gudivada and Tirupati and was sworn in as the first non-Congress Chief Minister of the state on 9 January 1983.
Although very popular with the voters of the then Andhra Pradesh, the administration was not on good terms with the Indira Gandhi-led government in New Delhi. It was only natural for the centre to dismiss the state government. And the time came on 15 August 1984, when NTR was in the USA undergoing an open heart surgery. His finance minister, Nadendla Bhaskara Rao, was made the Chief Minister by the Governor Ramlal. The reason given was the charge of communal violence which allegedly occurred due to NTR’s negligence. Bhaskara Rao wrongly claimed the support of majority of the TDP MLAs. When NTR returned to India after his surgery, he demonstrated his strength by bringing all the MLAs supporting him, which was a majority in the 294 member assembly, to the Governor’s Office.
The Governor Ramlal, an Indira loyalist, did not relent. In response, NTR campaigned for his restoration by mobilizing public support and also that of various anti-Congress political parties including the Janata Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party among others. The immense popularity of NTR made this campaign a success causing PM Indira Gandhi to reluctantly remove Governor Ramlal and restoring NTR as CM in September 1984. One would have thought Mrs. Gandhi learned her lesson from the debacle of the Emergency. However… Once a dictator always a dictator.
While EMS Nambodiripad’s dismissal showed how the communist theory of agitations and strikes can be used against them, NT Rama Rao proved that true public support is more powerful than high-handed autocracy. It is important that today we remember the examples of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh apart from recalling the momentary demise of democracy under Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule.