Sanjay Gandhi’s brief spell in politics from 1975-80 was as controversial as the crash which killed him.
During the Emergency from 1975-79 he had become an unconstitutional headache for both government and country. Taking advantage of his mother and capitalising on his family background, he launched himself into politics and succeeded in becoming a powerful ally of Mrs. Gandhi.
He used his power ruthlessly to create a political base held aloft by bands of youthful storm-troopers and troubleshooters. The not too distinguished band of ‘Sanjayites’ included businessmen, princelings from various former royal families, sundry aspirants to the tribe of professional politicians, leaders of criminal gangs, rich farmers, and bureaucrats out to advance their careers by helping Sanjay on the road to power.
Young Sanjay Gandhi was supposed to be a man in a hurry. He wanted things done without too much fuss. It is not clear what he wanted done. But he had little time for ideology, the public sector, land reform, civil liberties or the struggles of the peasant and working classes.
It is said that he stood for family planning, planting trees, clearing slums; that he was against the practice of dowry in Indian marriages.
As far as family planning was concerned, during the Emergency he become notorious for forced sterilizations of poor people in towns and villages. He had a single track approach to population control and had little idea that land reform, preventive health services and mass education could be more effective in controlling population growth than just family planning.
His interest in combating the practice of dowry and in ecological matters was limited to speeches on occasions when no dialogue was possible. Neither he nor his followers were in the mainstream of various movements in the country to protect women from dowry and rape, or trees and the environment from the axe of speculators and contractors.
The Indian media would have us believe that the ‘legend of Sanjay’ will become a part of the folk-lore of modern India. It is difficult to believe how this can happen unless the Indian people suddenly lose all their good sense. It is true that he was a source of great strength to his mother. It is also true that he proved more wily than the aging politicians in the Congress Party.
Apart from these ‘plus points’, his career was a string of failures, and politics an easy short-cut to redeem his lacklustre record.
Sanjay’s monumental failure was his attempt to produce a budget car and thus launch himself as an industrialist. In addition to mobilising capital, he also mobilised his family name and a willing mother’s political clout for his grand project. A little way from New Delhi’s international airport stands a deserted factory, a huge white elephant that never came out with the cars it was supposed to produce.
From a small airport near his house, Sanjay used to fly in and out in private planes with a contemptuous disregard for rules and regulations, even those designed for the general safety of fliers. The Director General of Civil Aviation, a retired Air Marshal of the Indian Air Force, had in fact written to the minister in-charge of civil aviation about Sanjay’s contravening the rules. His reward for offering good advice was a summary removal from office.
This is how Sanjay Gandhi functioned. Either you went along with him or were out. Many young Indians were attracted by this kind of style. He reflected their disgust with the older generation of politicians, the ‘red tape’ in the bureaucracy and their impatience with worn out ideologies. Sanjay appealed to the young and gave them hopes for a new generation of young leaders. But their admiration was more an act of political opportunism; it failed to translate itself into a search for answers to India’s many pressing problems.
Baljit Malik, ANF, New Delhi