A gesture that had touched the 'Iron Lady' in India

Last Updated: Mon, Apr 08, 2013 14:34 hrs
Margaret Thatcher's advice for India

New Delhi: Margaret Thatcher did not approve of the state of emergency in force during her visit to India in 1976. But she was so touched by a gesture of her host and prime minister Indira Gandhi that she made it a point to mention it in her memoirs.

"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," Thatcher, who died Monday, wrote in "The Path to Power".

"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 re-housing which had provoked such bitter opposition," she said.

"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."

Thatcher had visited India in September 1976 as an opposition leader, three years before she became prime minister, at the invitation of Indira Gandhi. The British press had criticised her for her comment post-visit: "I came to learn and not to comment."

Yet, in her memoirs, Thacker did say that she did not see eye-to-eye on Indira Gandhi's emergency and the restrictions on the press.

"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," said Thatcher, who was called the Iron Lady for the way she handled some pressing labour issues.

"She had taken a wrong turning and was to discover the fact at her Party's devastating election defeat in 1977," Thatcher added.

The fact that Indira Gandhi's gesture of clearing the plates herself had touched Thatcher is also mentioned in the declassified documents from British archives that were released in December 2006.

Thatcher admired Indira Gandhi

With similar temperaments, Thatcher was an undisguised admirer of Indira Gandhi, another woman politician known for her toughness.

"Very early on, we struck up a close rapport, for we both felt the loneliness of high office and it was good to be able to talk to someone who understood," Thatcher said during a 1995 visit to India.

Thatcher, who ruled Britain from 1979 to 1990, admitted that she and Gandhi "had very different ideas about politics.

"But I found in her qualities which seem to me essential in a statesman. She was passionately proud of her own country, always courageous and very practical."

In 1984, Gandhi was among the first to message Thatcher when she narrowly survived when the Irish Republican Army bombed the Conservative party meet at a hotel in Brighton. The attack killed many of her colleagues.

Weeks later, Thatcher "learned the terrible news of her (Gandhi's) own assassination. The unthinkable had happened".

Thatcher added: "Gandhi's death by terrorism is forever linked in my mind with my own survival of it."

Years later, when Indira Gandhi's son and successor Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, Thatcher again felt outraged -- "personally bereaved and angry that it should have happened".

Earlier, in 1982, when Britain hosted the Festival of India, Thatcher gave a warm welcome to Indira Gandhi, calling her a "distinguished leader of a great country".

She recalled how well she was treated during her India trip, how she got garlanded and swathed in silk, and how her husband Denis "was made to look every inch the rajput warrior"!

Thatcher introduced Gandhi as the "prime minister of the world's largest democracy".

She remarked in a lighter vein: "Prime Minister, you have, I am told, one and a half million constituents.

"I have only fifty-five and a half thousand.

"Which leads me to ask: How do you do it?"

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