The Role of Cold War in Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Period of 1975

The Role of Cold War in Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Period of 1975


In 1975, Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, plonk in the middle of the most intense phase of the Cold War. After the Vietnam debacle, Washington was going to exert every muscle not to allow Moscow to build upon the strategic asset it had created for itself in New Delhi during the 1971 Bangladesh war.

In fact, the Congress split of 1969 was itself an advantage for Moscow. Indira Gandhi had discarded the conservative, pro-capital bigwigs, more comfortable with Congress stalwarts like Morarji Desai whom she had defeated in the parliamentary party contest to become Prime Minister in 1966.

As early as 1967, within a year of her coming to power, Indira Gandhi was given notice: she lost elections in eight states to parties of the opposition. This groundswell would obviously suit the purposes of the Congress old guard discarded by Gandhi. The most succinct observation on Gandhi’s ideological leaning came from the correspondent of the Times London, Peter Hazelhurst: “She is a little to the Left of self interest.”

She dismissed the world’s first Communist government which had come to power through the ballot box in Kerala. That she took American help to unsettle Kerala to justify the state government’s dismissal was revealed by US ambassador, Ellsworth Bunker in an oral interview kept in the Columbia University archives. 

During her Prime Ministership in 1976, the Congress party raised a storm against the US having installed a nuclear device on Nanda Devi peak to spy on China. The controversy had many twists. A joint CIA and Intelligence Bureau effort to install the device in 1965 (Lal Bahadur Shastri was Prime Minister then) had failed because of bad weather. 

The Congress’ attitude towards the superpowers varied from time to time. But for the West, the spectacle of Gandhi and Dange in a warm embrace was alarming because of the context. The West had taken a series of knocks – Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua were all Communist. 

The obstacle in the way of a counteroffensive was Gandhi’s personality. She had evolved into a charismatic and, therefore, invincible leader. The Indian mind reveres renunciation. It occurred to the headhunters that once a top ranking Socialist leader, Jayaprakash Narayan, had renounced political power and greed to lead the movement provided it remained peaceful.

Supposing the Allahabad High Court had not disqualified Gandhi, how would events have shaped? If Sanjay Gandhi, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Muhammad Yunus and others had not forced her hand on the Emergency, how would the Gandhi-JP standoff have concluded?