The Indira enigma

Print edition : April 28, 2001

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Indira, The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank, HarperCollins, London, 2001; pages xx+567; special Indian price Rs.595.

SEVENTEEN years after her death, a flat and rather monotonic image of Indira Gandhi as a political being living and dying for the larger causes of the nation and the people, continues to be a powerful device in the hands of her legatees. Further difficulties are posed by the fact that her political heirs also happen to be her immediate surviving family. Efforts to unravel the enigmatic persona of Indira Gandhi as a key to understanding her political career - sometimes inspirational but often erratic and whimsical - invariably encounter the family's instinct to keep her inner self outside the public gaze.

As a family with a strong sense of its own destiny, the Nehrus were once fastidious record-keepers. Yet during Indira Gandhi's later tenure as Prime Minister, the family proved eager to efface certain aspects of the public record. An instance is the J.C. Shah Commission of Inquiry into political excesses during the Emergency - many hours of tape-recording of the depositions before the commission have been lost and it is believed that not one copy of its final report has survived within the country.

A political family's inescapable selectivity is a barrier that the biographer has to surmount. Katherine Frank, has in this respect, had a rather mixed record. She has been able to obtain the cooperation, though by all accounts on a highly qualified basis, of the surviving Gandhi family. There is no new primary material that she has been able to access. All the correspondence that she cites, as between Indira Gandhi and her father, is from published sources, notably the two volumes edited by Sonia Gandhi. But these remain an incomplete source, as Frank herself explains in a rather elaborate footnote: "The published letters are an invaluable resource, but there are significant omissions. Indira Gandhi showed a number of crucial letters to Sarvepalli Gopal, who edited (Jawaharlal) Nehru's Selected Works, which appear in the book but are not in Sonia Gandhi's edition... Sonia Gandhi quotes from several letters written by Indira Gandhi to Feroze and Rajiv Gandhi in her memoir of her husband, Rajiv. She has no plans at present to publish any further letters or papers of Indira Gandhi."

Frank's principal sources then are secondary in character, though a number of embellishments have been added through interviews with some of her subject's main associates and confidants. Frank has acquired a reputation as a biographer of strong women, but her knowledge of Indian history and politics is limited to the terrain she had to cover to gain a grasp of Indira Gandhi's life.

There are evident suggestions that Frank is fundamentally in sympathy with her subject. Though there is little effort to absolve Indira Gandhi of responsibility for some of her most indefensible acts, Frank does show a tendency to rationalise political excesses by invoking the many psychological vulnerabilities of her subject. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that a biographer who had actually lived through the turbulent political career of one of independent India's most dominant personalities, would have had a different attitude. In Frank's narration, Indira Gandhi was an individual often driven to reckless extremes by her inner ghosts, by the unappeased demons of a lonely childhood and youth. This is a novel construction of the Indira persona, which has thus far been rendered in one of two contrasting tones: either lofty self-sacrifice or cold political calculation.

Perhaps inevitably, all assessments of Indira Gandhi as a politician finally reduce their focus to the Emergency, that dark interlude in India's career as a democracy. From the pinnacle to which Indira Gandhi had ascended in 1972, says Frank, she had nowhere to go but down. She had won a famous landslide in national elections, pursued a war effort that had vanquished a hostile neighbour, and engineered a sequence of victories in State Assembly elections that re-established the Congress' hegemonic presence across the Indian landscape. But then her luck ran out. A succession of monsoon failures crippled agriculture, making a mockery of her grandiose slogan of "removing" poverty. The unquestioning loyalty that she demanded from her inner circle induced her more reliable advisers - such as P.N. Haksar - to depart, making her more dependent on the ill-informed and self-serving counsel of the sycophants who had begun gathering around.

Indira Gandhi, in Frank's account, knew of the growing corruption of her immediate political milieu, but she did nothing to arrest the slide. However, in an exchange of letters with her American friend Dorothy Norman she did confess to a deep sense of unease: "I am feeling imprisoned - by the security people who think they can hide their utter incompetence by sheer numbers and a tighter closing in, but also and perhaps more so by the realisation that I have come to an end, that there's no further growing in this direction."

When the opposition to her rule coalesced around the charismatic figure of Jayaprakash Narayan, Indira Gandhi seemingly sought to surmount the limits to growth she had encountered by breaking the mould of democratic conduct itself. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the Chief Minister of West Bengal then, recalls her ominous suggestions to him, days after the Allahabad High Court had returned a verdict invalidating her 1971 election to the Lok Sabha: "We're in serious trouble... Democracy will come to a grinding halt. Some drastic, emergent action is needed."

Frank's construction of that crucial decision, which imposed an internal Emergency and suspended democratic processes in the country, is that Sanjay Gandhi and his principal patron, Haryana Chief Minister Bansi Lal, had already decided on the appropriate course of action. Ray and Indira Gandhi's Principal Secretary P.N. Dhar were only called in to provide the intellectual ballast and to rationalise the decision for the purpose of obtaining the President's seal of approval.

Two key events frame Indira Gandhi's career as a dictator. On the day the Emergency was declared, she sought to overrule Sanjay and Bansi Lal who had put in place a plan to cut off power supply to all newspaper establishments and close down the courts of law. This was done at Ray's insistence and caused her obvious stress. In the event, whatever reassurance she won from her son and conveyed to Ray, proved useless. Of New Delhi's dozen daily newspapers, only two were published that day to report the declaration of the Emergency and the wave of arrests that had taken place.

The second event occurred in February 1977, when Indira Gandhi called fresh elections just three months after postponing them for a whole year. The reason, according to Frank, was her deep unease with the notion of altering drastically a political system that had been bequeathed by her father, and her longing once again to hear the heady acclaim of the multitudes who had hailed her in 1971 as a saviour. In making this momentous decision, she seemingly overruled Sanjay, much to his ire. "Unfortunately," says Frank, "there is no report or record of the showdown with her son."

FOR an otherwise objective biographer to assume that an event took place when there is no "report or record" of it, must involve a leap of the imagination. This conjecture then is of a piece with Frank's inclination to view much of what went wrong during the Emergency as Sanjay's doing. The suggestions are strong that Indira Gandhi was always a reluctant dictator. For close to a year, no serious abuses were recorded of the special powers granted by the Emergency. In April 1976, the Turkman Gate demolitions took place, with an eager-to-please administration responding zealously to Sanjay's rather peremptory order that he wanted a clear line-of-sight between two landmarks of Delhi. April 1976 also saw the introduction of the new family planning initiative under which brutal coercion and forced sterilisation of the most defenceless people became the norm. In Frank's narration, Indira Gandhi remained ill-informed of the scale of the goings-on and intervened decisively to stop what she perceived to be the most obvious abuses. Moreover, her instinctive maternal reaction was to disbelieve the most horrific stories that were carried to her about Sanjay's destructive rampage.

Then of course came the electoral debacle and the years in political limbo, when even the means to sustain the household were not forthcoming. Failing family loyalist Mohammad Yunus' generosity in vacating a house for their occupation, the Gandhis could well have been in dire straits. Even with this unexpected boon, Indira Gandhi was still struggling. Without the means to engage the retinue of servants she was used to, she often had to help out with the kitchen, which was then running under Sonia's supervision. Frank's narration is piquant in the details it offers of inner family dynamics. Maneka Gandhi, Sanjay's wife of three years, simply failed to pull her weight within the household. And Sanjay himself remained indifferent to the financial travails his mother was going through. He proved rather disinclined, even when the family was most in need of it, to bring out the rumoured wealth he had accumulated in league with his goon squads during the Emergency. A host of connections in the business world were cultivated in this period and once she was restored to power, Indira Gandhi proved keen to requit her obligations to these benefactors in her hour of need.

The description of Indira Gandhi's effort to redeem herself in the public eye is evocative of the effortless ease with which she managed to establish a rapport with the Indian people. Frank's account of the clumsy efforts by the Janata Party government to bring her to book adequately captures the mood of that disastrously squandered opportunity to repair the crumbling props of Indian democracy. Yet there are anomalies in the narrative and the understanding of Indira Gandhi's inner impulses. She remains in this account deeply dependent on Sanjay, though the younger son was of little use in the effort to rebuild her shattered political credibility. When the comeback was crowned with the electoral triumph of 1980, the stamp of Sanjay's authority was evident: of the 351 Congress(I) members elected to the Lok Sabha that year, 234 were new to the institutions of representative democracy and unencumbered by its niceties. And at least 150 were ardent Sanjay loyalists, capable of any misdemeanour in his cause.

Although aware of the monumental damage Sanjay had caused to her political fortunes as also to the basic institutions of Indian democracy, Indira Gandhi in this account remained abjectly dependent on him. Frank's explanation is that Indira Gandhi carried certain emotional insecurities all through life. She had had an unsettled childhood, with her father frequently being called away to his "other home" in British colonial prisons. Her ancestral home in Allahabad did not afford a particularly congenial environment since she was forever at odds with her overbearing aunts, particularly Vijayalakshmi Pandit who emerges as a supercilious snob in this account. Just when she seemed to be settling down at Shantiniketan into an educational regime that she could identify with, she was called away to accompany her ailing mother to a Switzerland sanatorium, where she observed a wasting disease slowly take her life.

INDIRA GANDHI herself went through a long period of solitude in a "frozen world of sickness and death" when she was just over 22 years old. The year-long confinement in a Swiss sanatorium for an illness that was never mentioned in her copious correspondence, but quite obviously was tuberculosis, came at a particularly difficult time. Nehru was in the throes of an acute existential crisis as he watched the progressive estrangement between Hindus and Muslims, and the far from edifying spectacle of his party colleagues running provincial administrations in India. Indira herself was on the verge of momentous choices, particularly to do with her long-running relationship with Feroze Gandhi, the ardent suitor from Allahabad who had followed her to Europe. Yet that was a moment in her life when her bond with her father, which had always been a stabilising influence, seemed to weaken and their deep mutual empathy to falter.

These insecurities recur late in Indira's life too. Frank's reconstruction of the last few years of her life is arresting in the many paradoxes it unravels. Sanjay's death in 1980 had left Indira isolated as never before. She turned to her older son who had never been as close, but still remained prey to numerous anxieties. Dhirendra Brahmachari, the spiritual huckster who had inveigled himself into her inner circle in the early years of her prime ministership, proved a dark and baneful influence during this troubled phase, inducing her to embrace cults of various descriptions in an effort to ward off the malevolent fate that awaited her. Even as she retreated from the proud posture of rationalism she had worn for years, her political decisions were marked by an increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian exercise of power. She stoked the fires of Sikh extremism in Punjab and cultivated the aura of Hindu virtue in Kashmir. For the rest of the country, she was with increasing stridency portraying herself as the sole bulwark against chaos and disorder.

Not very subtly she was beginning to identify the normal exercise of democratic rights, when it challenged her unquestioned authority, as the pathway to political anarchy. Shortly after her brutal suppression of Bhindranwale's criminal insurgency in Punjab, she disregarded the counsel of her more seasoned advisers and plunged into a constitutional coup in Kashmir. And as if she did not have enough on her hands, she recklessly provoked the southern satrap N.T. Rama Rao into a confrontation that was to end in abject defeat for her. Despite the absence of Sanjay, the last four years of Indira Gandhi's life, in other words, were as erratic and authoritarian as anything he could have authored. With or without her younger son, Indira Gandhi by 1980 was set on a course that could only end in self-destruction.

INDIRA GANDHI'S assassination in 1984 was a national trauma, especially in its brutal aftermath. But there was little escape from the hard-headed assessment that she had fallen victim to forces she had herself nurtured. Frank comes to the very verge of endorsing this verdict on her subject's life, but then seemingly retreats because of an evident sense of empathy. Despite this, there is little question that in the growing corpus of Indira biographies, Frank's is so far the most detached and dispassionate, as also the least bound by taboos. There are candid accounts of many intimate relationships and the emotional vicissitudes of a largely dysfunctional marriage. It is revealed for instance that in 1963, just when speculation about her determination to succeed her father was mounting, she was seriously contemplating a great escape from the constraints of Indian political life. As she confided to Dorothy Norman, her greatest desire then was to get away from the life she had been leading and begin afresh in London. She had identified a house to live in and intended to sustain herself by letting out rooms to Indian students. The course of India's history, however, willed otherwise, drawing her into its turbulent ebb and flow. For good and ill, she left an indelible imprint on the terrain that she dominated for close to two decades.

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