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Two Years Of Modi Govt | Indira Gandhi’s Third Two Year Itch

Sutanu Guru examines how Indira Gandhi lost control two years after storming back to power in 1980. The end result of her third two year itch was tragic

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Some discerning readers might wonder why the headline refers to the “third two year itch” of Indira Gandhi. A detailed analysis of her second one was done in the first article of this series. The first one hasn't been analyzed in detail. But it happened. It was in 1966 that Indira Gandhi first became Prime Minister of India by beating Morarji Desai to the post. She led the Congress to a “weak” victory in the 1967 Lok Sabha polls, the year that can be marked by contemporary and future historians as one that saw the beginning of the terminal decline of the Congress as the principal political force of the country. By 1968, the Congress was simmering with internal feuds and differences. The old guard of the party had declared war on her. Soon after finishing two years as PM, Indira split the Congress in 1969 and took policy steps that lurched towards extreme socialism and state control over business activities. India still pays a price for that lurch towards state control.

But this piece is about the third two year itch. The second two year itch starting in 1973 had eventually led to the Emergency. But her successor Morarji Desai couldn't last much longer than two years as prime minister. Indira Gandhi stormed back to power with a slogan :” The Government That Works”. Extremely high prices of onions played a big part in the elections that brought her back to power. It is strange and interesting how onion prices often make and mar political fortunes! Anyway, when Indira was re elected, the voters did expect a government that worked. But scams and scandals seem to become associated with Congress regimes. In 1982, when Arun Shourie was the editor of The Indian Express, the paper exposed the “cement scam” involving the then Maharashtra chief minister A. R. Antulay. The basic allegation was that Antulay doled out favours by way of “illegal cement quotas” to builders in exchange for money.

Today's India might not even know what a cement quota would be. But those were heydays of state control and socialism and you had to apply for your quota of cement to local authorities if you wanted to build a house. There was an “official” price of cement fixed by the government and then there was the black market price: at least five times the official price. So widespread was the impact of this expose that Indira was forced to sack Antulay as the chief minister. But one good thing did come out of this scandal in the second year of her term. For the first time, Indira abandons her hardline socialist approach and her government actually deregulated the cement industry. So you could say in a way that Indira Gandhi launched economic reforms 9 years before P. V. Narashima Rao and Dr. Manmohan Singh made it “cool”.

More than scams,it was the dangerous emergence of ethnic and sectarian tensions and hatred that marked the third two year itch for Indira Gandhi. The students agitation in Assam against “outsiders” was rapidly threatening to become a serious insurgency. Despite better advice, Indira Gandhi went for assembly elections in Assam in 1983 and won it. But it also marked the Nellie massacre where close to 3,000 Muslims were butchered in an orgy of frenzied violence. While Assam was seething and simmering, Punjab was threatening to explode. To counter the Akali Dal, the Congress had propped up some sectarian leaders in Punjab. One of them was Bhindrawale. By 1982, with the day light murder of a top police officer at the holy shrine of Sikhs, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, it was becoming clear that Bhindrawale was threatening to morph into a Frankenstein’s monster. By 1983, he did morph. He and an ever increasing band of followers effectively controlled the Golden Temple with sophisticated weapons. Insurgency and terrorism became a reality in Punjab.

The end result of her third two year itch was tragic. Indira was compelled to order the Indian Army to flush out militants from the Golden Temple. The holiest of Sikh shrines was devastated by gun and artillery fire. And it was two Sikh bodyguards Beant Singh and Satwant Singh who assassinated Indira in October 1984. Her son Rajiv Gandhi was promptly sworn in as Prime Minister. His first few days as PM would see the massacre of thousands of Sikhs across India; more than 3,000 in Delhi alone. But as the next article in this series will show, there was a different two year itch waiting round the corner for Rajiv.