Face to face with Mrs. Gandhi, August, 1978 – Malathy Sitaram
In July this year,editing Mr. Vijay Rana’s excellent article printed in the current August issue of Confluence aboutlife in Delhi under the Emergency Rule implemented by Mrs Gandhi in June, 1975, I was jolted back to August 1978 when I was holidaying in Delhi at my sister’s residence during the British school holidays. I was a school teacher then.At home in Swindon, I would avidly scour the newspapers for bits of Indian news. Mrs Gandhi’s rule had become tyrannical. Civic rights were abrogated and daily there were arrests made of her critics.
It proved to be an unforgettable visit as I came up with the daring notion of interviewing Mrs Gandhi in the fictitious persona of a British journalist. She had lost the 1977 election much to most people’s relief. I telephoned her press office and was astonished that my request for an interview was granted without fuss. My newspaper credentials were not questioned. I spent the next day or two preparing questions and armed with a tape recorder, took a taxi to her residence on the appointed day for the 10.30 a.m. start. I was shown to a room where Mrs. Gandhi was seated looking somewhat pensive. I believe I was there for at least two hours asking her questions about the era of Emergency rule. Her answers were defensive. It seemed she did not accept responsibility for the many miscarriages of justice that took place.
I realise now that the intense isolation caused by her sudden exit from public life made her long for publicity and my request for an interview was granted immediately. The interview was written up the same day. Unfortunately I cannot remember the date.
I returned home to Swindon and some time later, I spoke to the Liberal Party agent (I was a member then) who expressed much interest and said the interview would be printed in the Party newsletter. And so it was, on October 6th 1979. It was a bit of history.
As my taxi drew up near the gates of the house in New Delhi, I was scrutinized by staff posted at the gates who at the same time contrived to look affable and welcoming. The taxi then entered the gates of the compound.
On the left were rows of chairs, some of which were occupied by an assortment of people, obviously waiting for interviews. I saw Rajiv Gandhi engaged in conversation with one of the waiting group. I was greeted by a neatly dressed, but watchful looking gentleman who consulted a notebook and then verified my appointment. A roomy tent had been set up in one corner of the compound. I was ushered there with great politeness in order to wait my turn.
A scanty-haired and bedraggled looking Afghan hound strolled listlessly out of the house and instantly gave itself up to a frenzy of scratching, contorting itself into grotesque postures in order to do so.
It was not long before Mrs. Gandhi appeared in the verandah of the house. I was called in by one of the three female staff standing in front of the house.
Mrs. Gandhi led me into a simply furnished front room. We sat down on adjoining sofas. She was very simply dressed in a plain cotton sari, her bearing subdued, her face drawn and diffident looking. There was no trace of the abrasive hauteur characteristic of her previously. After one or two sociable remarks, the interview began.
Q The whole world was taken completely by surprise at your overwhelming defeat in the last election.Apart from your natural chagrin, would you agree that the results were the democratic expression of the will of the people?
A There was much vote rigging and bogus votes. The major reason I lost was the massive false propaganda against me. Yes, farmers were angry about our planning strategy for stabilizing the economy and in UP this was the major cause of our debacle. Malicious propaganda was spread about family planning causing panic among the people.
I’ll give you an example of the effect of the rumours and lies that were effectively spread. You know that smallpox was eradicated whilst I was PM. I wanted cholera to be eradicated as well. My government had organised an inoculation drive for children in municipal schools. But people had gone from door to door telling parents that the inoculation was a form of sterilization. Do you know that on the inoculation day most children were kept away from school?
Q How could there have been any rigging? Your government was in power?
A These people have a vast systematic organization. For instance, I visited a place where there had been floods. Not much voting could have taken place. Yet I was told that 20,000 people had already voted – against me. It was too early for voting to have taken place. We would have lost but not in such an overwhelming way.
Q Surely it was the abuse of the family planning drive by officials that was the major cause of your defeat in the North?
A I have not actually directly met anyone who was forcibly sterilized. Always it was someone in the next village or the friend of a friend. Yes, I’m sure that some petty officials were overzealous and there may have been two or three cases of coercion but nothing like the figures quoted.
Q But as PM you bear ultimate responsibility for the actions of your Ministers.
A Generally, ministries work autonomously. States are also autonomous to a large extent. There is broad discussion on policy at Cabinet level, but every Minister is autonomous.
Q Shortly after your defeat, you announced that you were not interested into getting back into active politics again. Yet you have not ceased to harry the present government in every way you can. What is it that motivates you? Is it that you do not know how else to live other than in Politics?
A What would you have me do? – They are trying to kill me physically. Surely I must fight back – defend myself. All I wanted to do was to go and live near the mountains, but it has not been possible. Who will fight for the people? My party would have been crushed if I had not come back to fight for it. When I found no-one else fighting back I had to stay. Also I have been advised by my lawyers to remain here. I cannot leave Delhi. Service to the people is my life. That is what I was born into. People have been coming to me even on the day I was defeated.
Q It is not unlikely that you may be PM again. Is your present activity directed towards this goal?
A I do not wish to be PM again. My personal preference is not to be PM.
Q If your party wins, it might well nominate you as leader.
A That is a hypothetical question and it need not be discussed.
Q It would seem that the Indian electorate has a short memory. What seemed inconceivable a year and half ago is now not improbable. What is the likelihood of your party winning the next election?
.A People vote according to what is in their interest. They are not interested in political.They will vote for the party which will most likely solve their problems.
Q Talking to local people and the young in particular, I am struck by their cynicism about politics and politicians. They feel that truth is an inevitable casualty and that with politicians, including yourself, the welfare of the country takes second place to the desire for personal gain.
A What have I got out of it? Tell me that. What Have I gained? Nothing. I’m the one who has not got even a house. Look at the others. Lies have been fed to the people about the accumulation of a personal fortune by me, but I have nothing. Young people are not cynical. Masses of them come to work for my party. They are enthusiastic and willing.
QThe Emergency and its aftermath have led many people abroad to see India, as little better politically than any “tin pot” African or South American dictatorship. Can you comment on the damage done to the Indian image abroad?
A The Press took the lead in this destructive process. The big Press barons were chiefly responsible. There were a lot of vested interests against me. Now these Press barons and others are getting rich. The Janata party is on the side of the rich. And what is our image today? Where are we in foreign affairs now? We have no status. Our prestige is low.
Besides, which Western government has ever supported India? They have supported Pakistan and dictatorships like Uganda. Sheikh Mujib was elected in a fair election. Did America support him?
Q Could you enlarge on Western hostility to India?
A The West is terribly afraid of Soviet influence. We have tried to give a boost to the weaker countries to become self-reliant. We gave an impetus to the Non-Alignment Movement. There was no foreign influence in India when I was PM. America always ties string to Aid. When a country is strong, foreign governments cannot openly make conditions. Nixon was the only man honest enough to impose conditions openly.
Q What about Russia?
A Russia was not given any undue favours. They could not influence us in any way. They have not tried to. When our economy was stable and secure, when the govt. was strong, other governments could not bargain with us.
Q Would not a prosperous and stable India be in the interest of the West? India would be a huge market for their goods.
A That is what I have always thought. I think the West has been very short-sighted. They are preoccupied with their balance of power – balance of terror. They are not interested in our welfare. Self-interest forms their policies. As I have said, they are terrified of the Soviets. They seem to think that a strong India would enlarge the sphere of Soviet influence. The West has not been supportive.
Q What lessons have you learnt from the event of the last year and a half? What would be the changes, if any, in your method of governing should you find yourself in power again?
A What is my method of governing? What was wrong with it?
Q It has been said that you autocratic and undemocratic.
A I have always consulted a lot of people, not only known but unknown people. I am the only PM who has followed the advice of colleagues. Even my father never consulted or acted upon the advice of his cabinet.
The imposing of the Emergency was very special. As I have said a thousand times, India could not have survived if the Emergency had not been imposed. Our economy would have gone to pieces. This country would have been in a state of anarchy, which would have led to foreign domination. The Press was responsible to some extent. Look at the state of the country now. It is in a mess. Communal trouble is raging everywhere. The govt. is doing nothing. There was hardly a Harijan problem when I was PM. Rich landlords are now harassing labourers and Harijans. The govt is not on the side of the oppressed.
Thank you Mrs. Gandhi.
Malathy Sitaram was the first Asian
teacher of English in Wiltshire schools.
She was the first Asian to be appointed to
the Swindon Bench of Justices of the Peace
and also the first magistrate in the country
to be appointed to serve
on the new Sentencing
under the Chairmanship
of the Lord Chief Justice
from 2004 to 2010.