In a country as diverse and treacherously complex as India, leadership has many different attributes and follows different idioms. Writing some four decades or so ago, one India hand from Britain identified three clear patterns - the modern, the traditional and the saintly.
With his arrogant impatience for the old and fanatical devotion to what he perceived was both rational and aesthetic, Jawaharlal Nehru epitomised Indiaís modern, cosmopolitan quest. Charan Singh - the proud Jat from Uttar Pradesh - was the archetypal traditionalist. Rooted in kinship, he imparted clout to rural populism. After the Mahatma, Jayaprakash Narayan came to symbolise saintliness. He made a deep impression when politics became a real encounter between the forces of good and evil and then faded into the sunset - revered and well forgotten.
Yet, there was another idiom of leadership that India looked up to, an idiom that never passed the test of squeamish respectability. It offended every canon of the countryís projected self-image. It was amoral, unflinching, imperious and made a virtue of expediency. It was the idiom of ruthlessness that was personified by Indira Gandhi.
Nearly 18 years after her death, the memory of Indira is intact in the popular imagination. Nehru may have ruled for 17 years and created the institutions of democratic India, but when it comes to choosing the best prime minister India has ever had, the finding of the India Today-ORG-Marg opinion poll is unambiguous: Indira Gandhi.
The choice doesnít stem from longevity of tenure alone. History isnít assessed either in a vacuum or on the strength of moral absolutes. It is entirely a function of the present. If India deifies the leadership of Indira today, it is less on account of her tangible achievements and more on the strength of what she symbolised - a ruthless and defiant exercise of power.
Indira wasnít about ideology. Her socialism that had the fellow travellers crawling as cheer-leaders was only peripherally grounded in a vision. It was entirely an instrument of control. From the treasury to the judiciary and from CM to DM she stood for personalised autarchy. Autonomy, todayís buzzword, didnít exist in her lexicon. She didnít care to "manage" contradictions, only manipulate them when expedient and suppress them when timely. She had no permanent allies, only a heightened sense of self-interest.
One day she would court Bal Thackeray and pulverise him the next day. She would use Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to outflank the Akalis and trigger Operation Bluestar when he got out of hand. If she was uncompromisingly secular in 1972, she was unabashedly Hindu a decade later. She had the ability to keep friends and foes alike in a state of permanent anticipation.
Indira belonged to an age of absolute majorities, an age when the Constitution was a negotiable instrument and an age of regulated information. She would have been dangerously out of place in todayís fractured polity and media intrusiveness. Perhaps that is why her real elevation to the status of Durga is entirely posthumous.
In the imagined Indira, the people of India identify resolve, strength and patriotic ruthlessness. At a time when terrorists call the shots in Jammu, provincial chieftains bargain for ministerial berths and a Pakistani ruler can get away with insulting India on Indian soil, Indira has come to be perceived as the likely avenger. She wouldnít have stomached the insults, digested the assaults on nationhood and capitulated to the blackmailers and hijackers. Her nuclear India would have brooked no nonsense.
The worship of Indira is the cry of frustration of an India demanding the restoration of national dignity from an effete leadership that had promised to be different.
This article was published in IndiaToday's newspaper, NewspaperToday. I admire Indira Gandhi's courage and like some of her daring steps during Indo-Pak war, Banks Nationalization, Emergency. As Vajpayee stated once.. she really is a DURGA in Politics.