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A familiar tale, grippingly told

Print edition : Oct 04, 1997 T+T-
S. GOPAL

The Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story, by J. Adams and P. Whitehead, Penguin Books, 1997, Rs. 300, 372 pages plus glossary, notes and index.

THIS is the narrative produced by Brook Associates to accompany the BBC television programme on three generations of India's Prime Ministers - the father, the daughter and the grandson. The series was shown on BBC World recently and was watched by tens of thousands of people in India. The book does not have the same appeal, but the producers have travelled around India for almost 12 months, read widely and interviewed a large number of those who were involved and are still alive as well as many historians of the last 50 years.

The book is sympathetic but not uncritical. Most of the facts are well-known in India and will not arouse much curiosity; but the story is stated in a gossipy and anecdotal style.

The founder of the dynasty, Jawaharlal Nehru, derived much support from his father Motilal, who was reconciled to the path which his revolutionary son followed; and in this he was powerfully assisted by Mahatma Gandhi. "Father, son and holy ghost," was a quip of the Madras Congressman, S. Satyamurti, in the 1920s, and this was not an unkind and meaningless remark. But Jawaharlal built on these assets as Prime Minister. For 17 years he laid the foundation of free India and these have proved enduring. India is perhaps the only country in the Third World which, but for the aberrations of two years under Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi, has adhered to the democratic process; this has been a major factor in the history of the world. Nehru had his weaknesses and foibles, which the authors do not fail to bring out: his reliance on the inscrutable and controversial V. K. Krishna Menon; his condescension and failure to appreciate hard-working civil servants; his partiality, inspired by his experience of the inter-War years, for the public sector as developed in the Soviet Union. But, on the whole, Nehru, as the book shows, did well by India.

Nehru died in 1964 and, after an interregnum of nearly two years, his only daughter became Prime Minister. While Nehru was devoted to her, it is doubtful if he expected her to step into his shoes. The man who followed him in his high office, Lal Bahadur Shastri, could have been expected to be Prime Minister for many years. Nehru himself, when an American journalist in a book After Nehru, Who? suggested Indira Gandhi, thought it was a joke and laughed it out. He believed that his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, was better qualified to succeed him and planned for his daughter a sinecure as, say, India's High Commissioner in London.

But Indira Gandhi took over, and soon became an assertive, dominating individual. The authors write about her objectively. Her first period in office was dazzlingly successful, culminating in the war with Pakistan that was thrust upon India and in the liberation of Bangladesh. But she soon became isolated in politics and allowed her son Sanjay Gandhi to influence her, with the consequent declaration of the Emergency and the abandonment of democracy. When she restored freedom after two years and called for general elections, the nation showed its resentment by inflicting heavy losses on her party. Her successor, however, proved unequal to the task and she, courageous in opposition, came back to power. But the death of Sanjay in an air crash in 1980 broke her spirit and her handling of the Sikh crisis showed her to be tardy and vacillating till she was assassinated by a Sikh bodyguard in 1984.

Since the death of Sanjay she had been training her elder son Rajiv to take over from her, and this he did. His first years as Prime Minister were promising and popular but, as time wore on, he became involved in the Bofors scandal and resigned after losing the election in 1989. Two years later, in 1991, he was killed by Sri Lankan Tamil militants as they feared that, with his probable return to power, he would again seek to throttle the Tamils. He was at the time of his death regaining his old popularity.

Did Rajiv's death mark the end of the dynasty which dominated India for three generations? The Congress party, anxious to bask in its charisma that pulls in votes, hopes not and is urging Rajiv's widow, Sonia, to come into politics. But as the authors suggest, she, more than her husband, is said to have been responsible for the Bofors case; and her re-entry into public life would stir the embers. So the question remains.

The authors, while stating to Indian readers no unknown facts, have written a gripping tale.