“Does India tilt?” – “Which way? I think we stand upright.”

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Today is a day to remember Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, the singular child of Jawaharlal Nehru, christened ‘Priyadarshini’ by none other than Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore when she had joined Shantiniketan. Besides studying in India, as a young woman she also had the good fortune and caliber to attend schools in Switzerland and England, including Somerville College, Oxford.

As the second longest serving prime minister of India and the only woman to hold this office, she remains the world’s all-time longest serving female prime minister. She did possess the suave and strength to undertake responsibilities of her post, and as history bears out several decisive transformations occurred in our country on her watch. However, October 31, 1984 remains a horrific testimony to her assassination.

Looking back to the tragedy 33 years later what first comes to mind are her exemplary appearances on the nascent television viewing world of Indians. Be it her beaming countenance when Astronaut Rakesh Sharma aboard the Salyut 7 orbital station responded “Sare Jahan se Accha” in response to her query – “Hindustan Kaisa dikhta hai” or her terse response to Indian foreign policy position in a press conference in USA in 1982 “Does India tilt?” she was asked. “Which way? I think we stand upright.” No one can remain impervious to her presence and presence of mind.

To many minds, her 1982 official visit to USA, dubbed ‘Operation Defrost’ saw her making her presence felt as never before. She conquered the American public and US officialdom with her determination and elegant presence. It was her first visit to the US in 11 years. Even the press was charmed by her persona and speech. Mrs Gandhi dominated the front pages of newspapers and prime time on television!

Clearly Mrs Gandhi’s visit enhanced friendly relations between the two countries and gave the US a better understanding of how important they could be to each other. The most successful aspect was her personal stance before the Senate and also the House Foreign Affairs Committees. These committees play as important a role as the White House and the Senate in shaping US foreign policy and Mrs Gandhi facilitated a respectable bon homie by her serenity and confidence.

It appears in hindsight that the frigid Indo-US ties were unknotted favorably. It is since then that subtle changes in US perceptions of India have gradually taken place over time. Yes, Mrs Gandhi could hold her own. Whether it was addressing the Melbourne Commonwealth Conference, meeting the British Prime Minister or discussing with the Middle East rulers – all contributed largely to the change in perceptions.

What everyone soon came to realize is that Indira Gandhi walks the talk. India was actually seen as being truly non-aligned. We owe this to Indira Gandhi for having given us this respectful position as being ‘seen’ to be with the non-aligned movement. In fact, this may very well have been the reason for the coming closer of two of the world’s largest democracies. Senator John Glenn, a vociferous critic of India on the nuclear and non-proliferation issue, stated – “Mrs Gandhi’s visit provides an opportunity to embark on a new relationship with the world’s largest democracy.”

British actor Peter Ustinov, who was to record on film an interview with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that fateful day, shortly before she was assassinated, said the attack ‘seemed quite unreal’ in the pastoral setting of her garden! Indira Gandhi will remain imprinted on the minds of an era. Even as this day has seen tributes pouring in, our greatest tribute to the unswerving leader would be to adopt her courage and determination.

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