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A legacy best forgotten

A legacy best forgotten

As a dutiful daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi always remembers the late Mrs Gandhi on her death anniversary. She takes flowers to her samadhi, listens to religious hymns on nationwide television and makes a special effort to attend commemorative events. This is admirable and to be commended in a country where the 'saas-bahu' relationship is usually fraught and ugly. It is when she goes beyond the personal and tries to steer us back towards the policies of her late mother-in-law that conscientious columnists like me are forced to raise a small voice of protest.

Sonia Gandhi is the most powerful politician in India so what she says is taken seriously. Not just by the sycophants and flatterers in the Congress Party but by ordinary Indians as well. Especially those millions of young voters who have no idea how bad the times were when Indira Gandhi ruled. No idea at all of what a shabby, second-rate country India was then or that it got that way largely because of Mrs Gandhi's policies. So when Soniaji invokes her mother-in-law's name, as she did on her death anniversary last week, to hold her up as a role model for young Indians, she needs to be careful.

Let me give you some extracts from the article Soniaji wrote in praise of mama-in-law in her party magazine, Sandesh, last week. "Let us reflect on and recall the simple and austere manner of her living and conducting herself. Let us continue to be guided by her... Her contributions are numerous and continue to resonate. It was her bold political leadership that made India self-reliant in the production of wheat and rice that brought prosperity to lakhs and lakhs of farmers, transforming rural India."

The dutiful daughter-in-law went on to praise Mrs. Gandhi for her "compassionate" leadership and for bank nationalisation. Soniaji believes bank nationalisation is the reason why India was not hit so badly by last year's credit crunch.

When I hear this kind of drivel from India's most powerful politician, I consider it my duty, as a responsible political columnist and as someone who lived in Mrs Gandhi's time, to set the record the straight. Indira Gandhi was a charismatic politician with an amazing ability to convince ordinary Indians that she was their one and only benefactress. Not a quality to be sneered at and I am not sneering. But, when I try to remember anything good she did for India from an economic or political point of view I come up with a very short list.

Certainly, I would not credit her with improving the lives of Indian farmers. They lived in desperate poverty then. And, the reason was that under Mrs Gandhi rural India was given charity instead of development. Anti-poverty schemes instead of roads, schools, hospitals and jobs. Anti-poverty schemes so leaky that her son admitted when he became Prime Minister that no more than 15 paise in a rupee reached beneficiaries. And, with all her talk of 'garibi hatao', India remained as poor when she was killed as when she first became Prime Minister.

Politically, she made serious mistakes that created the secessionist movements in Punjab and Kashmir and that exacerbated them in the Northeastern states. Her creed was secularism but in her time there was at least one major Hindu-Muslim riot every year. Her foreign policy was paranoid and so viscerally anti-American that we supported the Soviet Union even when it invaded Afghanistan. It's lucky for her that she did not live to see the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall coming down because she may not have known what to do next.

By 1984 when she had ruled India for nearly 20 years, she succeeded in turning India into a country in which everything was in short supply and everything second-rate. It was not just she who was 'austere' in her lifestyle, we all were. There was no choice. Every Indian did without regular supplies of electricity and clean water and without luxuries of any kind. Even Indian industrialists lived in genteel poverty. And, they hid their entrepreneurial skills for fear of being fined by Mrs Gandhi's government in case they exceeded their quotas. The licence raj was at its zenith when she was Prime Minister and unsurprisingly, the Indian economy grew so slowly in her time that there was very little wealth to distribute to the poor. Bank nationalisation put Indian banking back by at least 20 years. So for Soniaji to continue praising this policy decision exhibits her own ignorance of economics.

In the end may I humbly submit that it has taken India 25 years to recover from Indira Gandhi's legacy and we have still not fully recovered. To go back to it now would be insanity.

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