Maggie's desi gal pal
Margaret Thatcher, whose funeral will take place in London today, had a strong friendship with Indira Gandhi, thereby laying the foundation for the close ties the two countries share today
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will be laid to rest today in London at 11 am London time (3:30 pm IST). The 87-year-old succumbed to a stroke in the Ritz Hotel on April 8 and a state funeral has been planned for today. The funeral is certain to attract protestors, but it will also be a great historic occasion.
The chimes of Big Ben will fall silent as her coffin is borne by gun carriage along the Strand and Fleet Street and up Ludgate Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral. While eulogies are being prepared for the Iron Lady (as she is often referred to), a little known fact about the leader was her strong connection to India, especially the late Indira Gandhi.
After a visit to India in early 1981, Margaret Thatcher, the then British prime minister, wrote a letter of thanks to her counterpart, Indira Gandhi, sounding almost like one time Congress’ party president Dev Kant Baruah (“Indira is India and India is Indira”). At the end of a typed letter written on April 28, 1981, Thatcher added by hand: “For so many of us, you are the spirit of India.” She underlined the words, “you are”.
Thatcher certainly was not the type to gush. She and Gandhi disagreed strongly on a wide range of issues, ranging from India’s close links with the Soviet Union to the British Prime Minister’s apparent support for the apartheid regime in South Africa. That Thatcher was hostile to the idea of further immigration into the UK was no secret but she once expressed her opposition using language that verged almost on the racist. In a television interview with ‘World in Action’, she provided an insight into how she really felt about immigration: “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.”
Today, as Lady Thatcher’s funeral is held at St Paul’s Cathedral in London - India is expecting to be represented by Farooq Abdullah, the Union Minister for New and Renewable Energy - it is worth examining one aspect of her life that has received little attention since her death. This is the close understanding, even friendship, that developed between Thatcher and Gandhi. Margaret Roberts went up to Somerville College, Oxford, to read Chemistry in 1943 and later worked as a chemist before taking up politics full time. It so happened that Indira Nehru had also come up to Somerville in 1937 to read Modern History but did not complete her degree because of poor health and other reasons. She returned to India in 1941 and married Feroze Gandhi in 1942.
Other than attending the same Oxford college, there was not that much in common between the two, although they would both go on to become the first woman prime minister of their countries - Gandhi in 1966 and Thatcher in 1979. While Gandhi came from a patrician family, Thatcher was the daughter of a respectable but solidly lower middle class grocer in Grantham, a market town within the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire (Margaret Thatcher took as her title ‘Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven’ when she was elevated to the House of Lords in 1992).
I covered Thatcher’s career pretty much from the point she replaced Edward Heath in 1975 as Tory leader and her three victorious general election campaigns in 1979, 1983 and 1987. I also reported on the events of 1990 when she had to leave 10, Downing Street, after being knifed, Brutus style, by her own cabinet colleagues. I travelled abroad with her to the Middle East and elsewhere; and during the Falklands War of 1982, I was based in Buenos Aires. As the “only man in the cabinet”, she won the war, sending the Argentine generals packing after they had underestimated her and dismissed her as just a blonde woman politician. Her status was not unlike that of Gandhi after her victory in the Bangladesh War in 1972.
When Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984, Thatcher made it a point to attend the funeral in Delhi. But it struck me at the time that it could so easily have been the other way round. Gandhi was one of the first world leaders to express her concern when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) tried to assassinate Thatcher on October 12, 1984, by putting a bomb inside the Grand Hotel in Brighton.
Thatcher and most of her cabinet were staying at the Grand because the Tory Party’s annual conference was being held in Brighton. Although Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, five people were killed (including two high-profile members of the Conservative Party) and 31 were injured.
I was in the main conference centre when Thatcher appeared a few hours later, fresh as a daisy, to give a rousing speech. She spoke of “the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared. And the fact we are gathered here, now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism
Today’s female (and male) politicians in India get “palpitations” and take themselves off to a hospital if a crowd says “boo” to them but Thatcher and Gandhi were clearly made of sterner stuff. After the Brighton bombing, Thatcher decided there should be closer cooperation between the UK and India on intelligence gathering in the fight against global terrorism - and that policy has been pursued and strengthened by successive British prime ministers, namely John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
As Thatcher attended Gandhi’s funeral in Delhi, one imagines her thoughts must have been, “There but for the grace of God...” At a press conference at the British High Commissioner’s residence in Delhi, she said: “Ladies and gentlemen, obviously this is a journey I had hoped not to have to make, but the moment I heard the terrible news of the assassination of Mrs Gandhi there was no doubt about it, I had to come. I had to come because of my enormous respect for her work as Prime Minister and the way in which she has dominated Indian politics for such a long time... Also because I felt that in one way, a very special way, she and I had something in common.
“We were both Prime ministers; we were both fortunate in having a wonderful family; and I think perhaps we both understood what to some people is a paradox - namely, that one can be warm, human, loving, knowing... all of the little things of life and at the same time firm, determined and decisive. It was a paradox we both understood. We understood the loneliness of the work and therefore whenever I spoke with Mrs Gandhi there was a quality that was not present when I spoke with other heads of government, and so of course I had to come.
“We arrived, Princess Anne of course is representing Her Majesty the Queen, and I came representing the government, and I hope that we both represent the people of Britain... When we came this morning we went to the lying in state. I was very glad to go because in a way one came a little bit nearer to Mrs Gandhi at that moment. And then we went this afternoon to the funeral. It is difficult to find words to describe how deeply impressive that occasion is.
It is impressive because of its dignity, its togetherness, and the fact that one feels one is present with the family of India in mourning a loss. I felt, too, in a way the finality of it as a closing chapter of the life of Mrs Gandhi. That volume has now been closed. But as one volume is closed, so another one begins and so I saw Rajiv Gandhi this morning. I have known him for quite a long time. I like him very much indeed.”
In her 1995 memoirs, The Path to Power, Thatcher would write about the hospitality Gandhi extended in 1981: “I lunched with Indira Gandhi in her own modest home, where she insisted on seeing that her guests were all looked after and clearing away the plates while discussing matters of high politics. Both her sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, were present, although it was the former who had most to say for himself. He had, indeed, allegedly been responsible for many of the abuses such as forced sterilisation and compulsory rehousing which had provoked such bitter opposition.
But in spite of everything I found myself liking Mrs Gandhi herself. Perhaps I naturally sympathised with a woman politician faced with the huge strains and difficulties of governing a country as vast as India. But, in spite of a long self justificatory account she gave me of why the state of emergency had been necessary, I could not approve of her government’s methods. She had taken a wrong turning and was to discover the fact at her Party’s devastating election defeat in 1977.”
When Gandhi’s bust was unveiled at India House in the Aldwych in 1989, Thatcher did the honours. “Admiration grew into real friendship when she invited me to India in 1981,” Thatcher stated in her speech. “Indeed, I like to think that, in a very special way, she and I had something in common. We were both prime ministers.... The position of a head of government is always and inevitably a lonely one, and for me it has been lonelier without Mrs Gandhi.” She added: “The close co-operation that we have built up between the Indian and British governments in the fight against terrorism is a very significant development. I am determined to see it grows closer still.”
In 1990, in collaboration with a colleague, Philip Beresford, I compiled and published the first Rich List of Indians in the UK. It was apparent that the Indian business community had flourished under Thatcher’s watch from 1979-90. Thatcher might have been against immigration but she quickly learnt that Indian immigrants supported her free market economic policies.
In November 1981, at a meeting of the Anglo-Asian Conservative Society in her own constituency, Finchley in north London, she reassured her Gujarati voters: “I want to make it absolutely clear that we are all here tonight as fellow citizens of the United Kingdom. That means that each and every one of us, by virtue of being citizens of this country have equal rights, equal responsibility and equal opportunities, without regard to one’s origins or class or background or race or creed. Citizenship embraces us all.”
She also underlined the contribution of the minority communities to the economy: “I know that a tremendous number of you have been very active not only in setting up your own businesses but, in doing so, creating employment for others. That is exactly the spirit of enterprise we need in our country and we need more of it.”
That same year, in a speech to the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, she had set out the economic policies that found favour with British Indian businessmen and allowed them to prosper: “I want to make one or two things clear. You can see my philosophy. Governments provide the economic circumstances, that of inflation down, incentives continuing, the right to own private property and the climate for free enterprise. That in fact is being done and will continue to be done. Then we pass over to businessmen in the free society in our developed economies.”
The last time I saw Thatcher was on September 9, 2007, when she attended a remembrance service for the Indian soldiers who fell fighting in the two world wars. The service was held at the Memorial Gates in Hyde Park Corner, London. She did not speak. She was 82, a stooping figure in frail health. She was lonely, too, following the death of her husband, Denis, in 2003 (as depicted in the film ‘The Iron Lady’, starring Meryl Streep). She was gently helped to her feet as she laid a wreath of red poppies in memory of the soldiers who “gave their today for our tomorrow”.
In 1975, while she was still the Tory opposition leader, she was much taken by Indian ‘Godman’ Chandraswamy who bluffed his way to a meeting with her. He predicted that she would become prime minister “in three or four years” and would remain in the post for “either nine, 11 or 13 years”. Thatcher was prime minister for eleven and a half years. During that period, she changed Britain and the politics of Eastern Europe. In many ways, she was the Indira Gandhi of England.