Thirty three years after she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, Indira Gandhi’s legacy is still a deeply polarizing one. For some, she remains a national heroine who directly connected with the masses with populist slogans like “garibi hatao”. For others, she was the autocratic ruler who declared Emergency and encouraged the undermining of democratic institutions to fulfill her political ambitions.
This week in Feeds alternate history, we analyze the legacy that could have been. That is, if Indira Gandhi had not been assassinated on 31st October 1984, what would the narrative be today?
In 1984, owing to the Sikh separatist movement and Operation Blue Star, communal tensions were at an all-time high. The general elections scheduled for 1985 would have been Gandhi’s major concern in the time leading up to it. Rampant factional infighting, corruption and dissatisfaction with the government for their failure in preventing violence would have undermined the public’s faith in her. These factors would have resulted in either a slim victory or a coalition government; a stark contrast to the two third majority she enjoyed previously.
Unlike the 1970’s when she unilaterally nationalized banking, insurance and coal, this new electoral scenario would require her to be apprehensive about risky policies. In 1982, her government took a landmark decision to completely deregulate the cement industry. This deregulation of the cement industry was the canvas on which other liberal economic policies were painted. Since she was the only political leader at that time who could cut across party barriers and get policies passed, she would have probably succeeded in lifting trade barriers and liberalizing India. This fast tracked liberalization would have completely transformed the economic situation in India today.
On the foreign relations front, mutual distrust and tensions over disputed territories had considerably soured Indo-Pak relations in the 1980s. The threat of a renewed conflict was heightened by Pakistan’s nuclear program. This was also a time when India had pro-Soviet leanings and there was increased US military assistance to Pakistan. There was very little stopping the situation from escalating into an all-out proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union.
Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency in 1975 after a court had declared her election void and public unrest ensued. Considering that, it isn’t too far-fetched to speculate that she would have used the Indo-Pak war to consolidate her power.
India’s already precarious economic situation would have been worsened by the cost of war. We would also have had to deal with the Arab states imposing a limitation on the flow of remittances, which was a major source of foreign exchange for New Delhi. This would have brought about the balance of payment crisis much earlier than 1991.
Following political fallout, she would have had to step down and transfer her powers to Rajiv Gandhi. Considering her popularity with the masses, the Congress leadership would probably nominate her for the presidential elections when the position becomes vacant in 1987 and she would go on to become the first female president of India.
With all this speculation, it is still inconclusive as to how she would have gone down in history had she lived past 1984. Was her legacy saved by her assassination or would she have redeemed herself if she lived?
– Trisha Reddy