Pranab Mukherjee’s “The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years”

Publication: Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd
Year of publication: 2015

Review by Dr. A. I. Khan

The Dramatic Decade-The Indira Gandhi Years is a political documentary of a troubled decade, 1970-1980, of post-independence India. 

The book begins with political turmoil and social upheaval just after independence followed by division of the country and presents an overview of the Nehru era and post- Nehru political wrangling and complexities. Then it unfolds the history of Mukti Judho, the saga of liberation of Bangladesh and creation of Bangladesh as an independent sovereign nation with the help of India; J. P. Movement against corruption, later to be known as Movement for  Total Revolution; the declaration of Emergency and its political consequences; defeat of Indian National Congress in the election of Lok Sabha and installation of Janata party Government headed by Morarji Desai at the centre; disintegration of Janata party and its losing election and finally coming back of Indira Gandhi in power at centre. The author has vigorously used references from the Autobiography ‘Unfinished Memoirs’ of Mujibur Rehman, Shah Commission’s report, chronicles of the period, correspondences, books written on emergency such as ‘ The Judgement: Inside Story Of the Emergency’ authored by Kuldeep Nayar and Dinesh Thakur to give the book authenticity and make it valid expression of the period. The author has himself called it ‘Dramatic Decade’ and hence it somehow mars its genuine narrative. 

In the chapter Mukti Judho, he traces the Genesis of Bangladesh in political situations prevailing just after creation of Pakistan:

“However economic neglect and political exclusion were not the only issues burning East Pakistan’s psyche. There were also the issues of ethnic and linguistic discrimination. Was the split, then, not inevitable…

Fazlul Huq was responsible for creating a powerful middle class which became the foundation of Bengal’s politics in subsequent years… The impact of the Language Movement and its inept handling by the central Muslim League leadership unleashed an active Bengali sub- nationalism”.

Two instances, described in the book, are remarkable to understand the whole historical perspective of the time. One is Suhrawardy’s support for an undivided Bengal and Shyamaprasad Mukherjee’s strong support for divided Bengal. And another one is the inclusion of Jay Prakash Narayan in Indian Mission to make world opinion in favour of India’s stand in support of the liberation movement of Bangladesh. It becomes possible only with political vision and wisdom, by a policy of accommodating opposition for greater cause. It’s also the part of Nehruvian legacy in polity and diplomacy:

“Where freedom is menaced, or justice threatened or where aggression takes place, we cannot be shall not be neutral.”             

This statement was made by Nehru in 1949.

The next important episode is Mid-night drama and declaration of emergency in the country and political situation preceding it. There is a loud expression of the role of troika, the Law Minister H. R. Gokhale, Steel Minister S. Mohan Kumar Mangalam and Education Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray, dominating the policy process since 1971. The notion is that there is no permanent ally in politics, friends of yesteryear may turn into foe and adversary of coming years. Deposition of these leaders before Shah Commission of enquiry and pleading innocence and blaming solely Indira Gandhi for Emergency is the testimony of changing sides as per convenience:

“Not only did they disown their involvement, they pinned all the blame on Indira Gandhi pleading their innocence. Siddhartha Babu was no exception”.

So, whether it be personal loyalty or ideological loyalty or loyalty with policy and programme, all disappeared like vapour in the face of crisis and failure. The case of D. K. Barooah is a case in sight. Propounder of ‘India is Indira, Indira is India’ and ‘we have lost a battle, we must prepare to win the war’ didn’t hesitate to change sides as per his convenience. The author has termed it an instance of sycophancy. In respect to J. P. Movement against corruption in public life, the author appears in denial mode as in his view corruption was not a monopoly of the ruling class only. In his view the difference was due to economic policy:

“Indira Gandhi’s differences with the old guard of the Congress were mainly on economic policy”.

The author is also in denial of extra-constitutional power centre and caucus dominating the process of decision making but admits  that:       

” It was perhaps an avoidable event”.

He has also the courage to describe the opinion of many foreign leaders including Tajuddin, Finance Minister of Bangladesh, not supporting Emergency:

“…. many of whom couldn’t accept that the only answer was to declare the state of emergency”.

A very interesting part of the book is a letter written by J. P. to Indira Gandhi from Jail:

“Dear Indira Gandhi, please don’t identify yourself with the nation. You are not immortal, India is.”

J. P. once declared in a public meeting:

“This is India. There can’t be Mujib here.”

This was in reference to the act of Mujibur Rahman transforming the parliamentary system into the Presidential system. In fact the author appears to have a blurred view of excess during emergency terming it as political persecution. It is due to his deep sense of companionship with Indira Gandhi. In the same spirit  he terms the 10 point programme as radical and pro-people. Most of the time he appears to be fair with opposition. Despite having no good opinion about Jyoti Basu, he recognises the principled stand of CPI(M) in Parliament and outside. The book further explores the history of political alignment and realignment, split in Congress giving way to formation of Congress (I), fragmentation in Janata party, winning spree of Congress (I) and its return to power at centre in 1980. Widening differences in B. K. D. and Jansangh factions of Janata party, question of dual membership, their arrogance and perpetual fight, atrocities against Dalits and Minorities alienated Janata party from people specially marginalized section. The period also witnessed the regional political aspirations of the people, assertion of youths for their share in political leadership, provinces complaining of lack of cooperative federalism and rallying the people for judicial share of resources between states and centre. The epoch will also be remembered for coalition partnership in government and a new form of democratic setup emerging in Indian political system. Organising dissent and resistance became the political culture of time. Instances of political revenge without caring for prescribed norms and established practices also came in force.  

In fact, the book under review is a reliable source of understanding the dynamics of political economy and socio-cultural aspirations of the people and their active intervention in the ongoing social process. But it lacks the description of many scientific developments of time. Advances made by the country in nuclear and space science find no mention. The Pokhran nuclear explosion in 1974 is nowhere in the book. It cannot be mere ignorance of reality. In the same way Foreign policy statements find very narrow space to our bewilderment. 

Major stunning omission is the all India general strike of railway in 1974, its significance in the history of Trade Union Movement of the country, its suppression by force and allurement. Loyal employees were rewarded by giving jobs to their wards in the railway. It’s hard to say whether this omission is deliberate or not? In the course of the historical process, we come across the situation when sanity and rationality are replaced by strong emotional resentments and it’s not one time phenomenon in the life of a nation. It often moves in cycles whenever the ruling clique is alienated from the masses and feels threatened. So all talk of unity of those who believe in the well settled left-of-centre polity is fine tuned with political exigencies. Alliances of Congress with right-of-centre and even with extreme right political outfit is a case in contrast. A  remarkable submission is of secret visit of Indira Gandhi to Moscow and her meeting Soviet leaders when she was not in power. His honest expression in accepting the party’s political mistake in Haryana is worth noting:

“Of course, in Haryana we made a mistake by allowing Bhajan Lal to switch over to the Congress (I) with his team. This is the phase of ‘ Aaya Ram and Gaya Ram’ in electoral politics of Haryana. His critique of the Congress party headed by D. K. Barooah, K. Brahmanand Reddy and Dev Raj Urs in succession for pursuing a political strategy of constructive cooperation with the ruling party, that is Janata Party is a point in consideration under prevailing political- economic situation at that time. We also have a glimpse of his independent political thinking and assertion of his authority as leader of house in Rajya Sabha despite Mrs. Gandhi’s advice otherwise:

“Some of our party members had defied the Whip and absented themselves. Indira Gandhi told me to take it easy… My stern attitude yielded effect; in subsequent years”.

He also admits his mistake in fighting election for Lok Sabha from Bolpur and losing it in 1980 despite Mrs. Gandhi’s advice not to do so. But readily admits:

“… but the CPI(M) was superior in organization”. His political relationship with the left was always having an eye on the politics of West Bengal. So it was prejudiced and partisan. His political tactics of justifying the action making defections and dissolution of State Assemblies in reference to  same practices adopted by Janata Party in the past is not well founded and is liable to public scrutiny. Despite all odds, reverses and shrinking public debate and increasing pampering, flattery and sycophancy in nation’s political life and body he summarizes the discourse with an optimistic note: 

“Indeed this was the age when democracy matured… its significance lay in signalling the advent of multiple political parties, particularly regional ones, and the emergence of coalition politics in the Indian political landscape… For this the epoch that made India the vibrant democracy it is to-day”.

It’s the recognition of regional political aspirations of the people and assertion of states for their due shares and their cultural identity.

Lastly the book gives many insights into our political-economic system of the time and the question of people to advance on the path of development. 

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