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'Sonia carries the Indira legacy'

By As told to Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: October 31, 2009 16:42 IST
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Indira GandhiBefore he became a politician, K Natwar Singh served in the Indian Foreign Service for 31 years. He worked closely with Indira Gandhi who he remembers on her 25th death anniversary.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's sister Krishna Hutheesing's sons were in school with me. I had contact with the Nehrus since 1944, but I first met Indiraji in 1948 when I was in college.

Every time Krishna Hutheesing came to Delhi she lived with her brother. So we used to see Indiraji then.

I came to know her well when she selected me to join her secretariat in May 1966. Till 1971, I was with her in the Prime Minister's Office.

In those days, the prime minister's secretariat was very small consisting of five or six officers. Now, they have a staff of 200. We would have daily contact with the prime minister. We would be sitting next to her in her car. When I joined her in 1966, she had just become prime minister and was new to the job. She was not comfortable in Parliament.

But, very soon, that changed. She learnt very quickly. It took about a year to get on top of the job. She had formidable opponents. In the 1967 election, the Congress did very badly.

The Congress party had 278 Lok Sabha seats, so she had to rely on the Communists. When she was abroad she knew lots of Leftists like Jyoti Basu, Mohan Kumarmangalam and Nikhil Chakravarty. She herself was Left-leaning. She could handle the Left leaders very well.

By 1969, she had complete control over the Congress. She faced two severe droughts. The Green Revolution came about due to those experiences. It is her contribution to India.

Morarji Desai, Atulya Ghosh, S Nijalingappa, K Kamaraj were veterans and were pitted against her. In the 17 years of Nehru's rule, he never experienced the kind of opposition that she faced. Nehru faced one no-confidence motion after the 1962 China war.

But she had to fight for every inch of power in New Delhi. Still, she became stronger with each passing month. She became really strong after 1969 with the abolition of privy purses and the nationalisation of banks. She led India in the Bangladesh war and Pokhran-I. Her stature grew within and outside the country.

Her appeal was pan-Indian. She was above caste and religious appeal. The family has got that thing in them.

Motilal Nehru was older than Gandhiji. He gave up his prosperous law practice to join Gandhiji. Pandit Nehru joined public life at an early age and spent many years in jail. He could have avoided it, but he took that route. Nehru became the most famous man in India after Gandhiji. She inherited this.

None of the Nehru-Gandhi family members have been imposed. All of them have been elected. In 1920, Motilal got elected to the legislative assembly. Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul -- all of them have got elected. That too with large margins, so nobody could say that this dynasty is imposed on the people.

This is the unique dynasty. They are all elected. It is an elected dynasty.

No country has leaders elected for five generations. Each Nehru-Gandhi has been elected. This family has support all over India, they have overcome the limitations of caste, region, language or religion.

During her time anti-Americanism was not ingrained in us as such, but America's image in India somehow was lower than that of the Soviet Union during her rule.

In 1955-1956, India had asked for US military aid. The Americans refused, so India had to go somewhere and the Russians were coming forward. She had a very good advisor in P N Haksar on international relations. Pandit Nehru had been to Russia in 1927 to participate in the 10th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Nehru was intellectually Leftist. She inherited that.

America didn't appear on our horizon for a very long time. It was too far away. In my generation and before that we were much closer to England. We had good relations with the Labour and Conservative parties. The US helped us somewhat, but the real test came in 1971 during the Bangladesh war. The Americans moved the Seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal.

During President Dwight Eisenhower's time we had serious differences of opinion with America and the situation got really bad in Richard Nixon's time.

During the 1962 war, Russia did not support China, a Communist country. They remained neutral. That was fantastic. The Communist countries were together, but in this case they were not. Nikita Khrushchev went to Kashmir in December 1955 and said that Kashmir is a part of India. That, the Americans have not said till today!

Indira Gandhi was a leader with supreme confidence and the world knew it. When she went to Washington, I was with her. When a journalist asked at a press conference whether she tilted towards Russia, she retorted, "India didn't tilt. Don't you see I stand straight?"

Whenever she entered any conference she was heard. In March 1983, she attended the Non-Aligned Movement summit. Everybody looked up to her. Even the queen of England could not match her! I asked her, when then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher met her for the first time, "Madam, what do you think of the Iron Lady?" Indira Gandhi replied, "What Iron Lady? She (Thatcher) was nervous sitting on the edge of the sofa."

During her time nothing much happened with China. 1962 was too close. She didn't visit China. She knew Pakistan very well and the culmination was the 1971 Simla accord.

Like Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi was reluctant when she joined politics. Gradually, like Indiraji, she picked it up. Indira Gandhi was a great influence on Sonia Gandhi. Like her mother-in-law, Sonia is a very good listener.

She dresses very much like her mother-in-law. She maintains her figure. Like Indira Gandhi she is in total command of the party. Sonia and Rajiv got married in April 1968. Indiraji passed away in 1984. All these years both of them lived in the same house. Indiraji made all the difference to her.

Indira Gandhi's personality, how she conducted herself, were a great example for Sonia. Sonia has a very good sense of humour. People don't know it. Oh my God! What humour she has.

But in politics, like her mother-in-law, she is a different person, totally. At that level you have to be. You have to be very, very careful. Today, Sonia Gandhi's position in the Congress is supreme. With grit and determination she has made it.

She has been president of the Congress party for 11 years, the longest in Congress history. There is absolutely no challenge to her leadership.

Indira Gandhi's legacy is going on very well. There is no doubt about it. Look at the interest in her on her 25th death anniversary.

On her 50th birthday, I asked her how she felt at reaching 50. She told me a story of a woman who hid herself under the bed on her 30th birthday because she did not want to be 30. Indiraji told me after she turned 30, she had lost interest in birthdays and she stopped counting. She was very conscious that she had a very long nose. She used to say, "With this long nose I know what is happening. I can smell it."

She was not a feminist, but she was very feminine. She lived a very elegant, but simple, life. She was a great listener. She said little. She was extremely polite and well-mannered to people who went to see her. She was not a one-dimensional person. She had a lot of interest beyond politics. She was interested in music, the arts, literature. She read a lot. She was very comfortable with intellectuals, artists, writers and authors.

She was a very relaxed person. If you didn't talk about politics to her she could be your favourite person. But if you talked politics, she became a different person. She responded to her critics who kept abusing her. All she said was, "My father was a saint, I am not."

She was heartbroken after her younger son Sanjay died. It left a scar on her. She didn't plan her family's rule. After all, she was just 67 when she died.

I would say her legacy is strong. I think any individual who changes or influences the mindset of millions of people for good is a great person. I think Indira Gandhi did that.

After the Emergency she said things went wrong. She regretted it. She announced elections and that shows she knew she went wrong. There were no compulsions for her to announce it, but she did face the people.

In two-and-a-half years people returned her to power through another election and that meant that the people of India forgot the Emergency.

About sending the army into the Golden Temple, I know -- and lots of other people know this too -- that her specific instructions were to not touch the Harmandir Sahib. They flouted her instructions.

The 'Garibi Hatao' slogan came from her heart. I think her legacy is great because millions of people call her India's best prime minister. She was born with charisma. You can't have a recipe for charisma. Nehru had it, Indiraji had it, Rajiv had it but Rahul still does not have it. Priyanka has tremendous charisma. If you ask me, I will give 80 out of 100 to Indira Gandhi.

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As told to Sheela Bhatt