There is no dearth of biographical accounts of Indira Gandhi (1917–84), and there lies the challenge before the author Sagarika Ghose, a journalist and novelist, as to what new could she offer. One of the identifiable novelties of this portrait is a creative style of beginning and/or ending the chapters with a letter from the author to the departed soul. Though Ghose does not acknowledge that she may have derived this style from E.M. Forster (1879–1970), who in 1958, looked around the ‘rulers’ of the world, and eventually picked up Nehru, as only he, among all the living heads of the states could be identified as a serious thinker, eloquent writer and philosopher statesman. Forster’s imagination brought Voltaire, the eighteenth century philosopher alive, in order to write a letter to Nehru. It was Forster’s way of evaluating and complimenting Nehru. Sagarika’s letters in the chapters raise several unflattering questions, by way of making dispassionate evaluation of Indira’s persona and politics, paradoxes and contradictions.
One of the lesser known aspects of Indira’s life is about her childhood in Anand Bhawan, Allahabad. But even more significant is the component of Indira’s friendship with young radicals such as M. Kumaramangalam (1916–73) and P.N. Haksar (1913–98). Pre-existing biographies of Indira have not written much on her attitude towards the RSS. Sagarika reveals that Indira harboured antipathies against it at least since 1946 when she noticed its ‘menacing’ rise in Lucknow, on the ‘German’ model. Nonetheless, in her heyday she tried to outwit the RSS only with her own doses of ‘Soft Hindutva’. It went a long way in redefining Indian polity in the 1980s and after.
About her difficult days during 1977–79, Sagarika benefits from, among many other sources, testimonies given by Maneka Gandhi. However, what Sagarika leaves out is how the Indira-Sanjay combine rebuilt the party organization of the Congress to bounce back to power in 1980. She cites some of the political symbolism, gestures, stunts, tantrums, such as braving the odds of rain-fed muddied earthen roads of central Bihar to console the Harijan (its evolved expression for a self-assertive identity, Dalits, was yet to gain much currency) victims. But she does not go much into the socio-political and agrarian roots of such rural distress and atrocities. After all Indira’s electoral relations with these social segments, and her performance-appraisal on this count, deserve a little more nuanced treatment.
An informed reader on Indira looks for such details, otherwise Sudipta Kaviraj’s essay (‘Indira Gandhi and Indian Politics’, EPW, September 20, 1986), is a fine assessment of her politics, and governance, besides exposing her lack of preference for, and of interest in, rebuilding the organizational structure and ideological vitality of the
Congress party. Sagarika appears to have
benefitted from Kaviraj’s wonderful essay,
she however does not acknowledge it even
in her bibliography. Blema S. Steinberg
(d. 2017) of McGill University attempted a psycho-analytical study of some eminent leaders in her book, Women in Power: The Personalities and Leadership Styles of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher (2008). Arguably, had Sagarika benefitted from Steinberg’s account, she may have succeeded further in finding out answers to at least some more of her unanswered questions she raises in her self-indulgent letters to Indira.
A reader may get a feel that one of the sub-texts of this portrait is more towards appreciating Nehru. This sub-text becomes a little more apparent when she argues that Nehru was no dynast and that he actually worked against Indira becoming his successor. And one must say that Sagarika has indeed succeeded well in proving her point. In this context, the only important thing that the author possibly misses is to provide details of the chaos that prevailed in Kerala creating some justification to Nehru, the Prime Minister, and Indira, the Congress chief, for sacking the first popularly elected Communist government, and imposing President’s rule in the province. It needs to be reminded that had this ‘autocratic’ act of Nehru been so unpopular, the Congress may not have bounced back in the Kerala Assembly within a few months of this supposedly unpopular act. Sagarika, rather than exploring such details from the contemporary news-reports of chaos in Kerala, relies more upon putting this blame of ‘dictatorial’ decision on Indira. Notwithstanding such limitations, her chapter five, dealing exclusively with Indira as dictator during 1972–77 is a fine assessment, though one aspect Ghose should have taken into account is the fact that the ideological forces behind, and intentions and modus operandi of the leader, Jaya Prakash Narayan (1902–79), are needed to be looked at more deeply, more carefully. JP’s insistence on sacking some of the ministers of the Indira Cabinet (including Lalit Narayan Mishra, the then minister for railways), on accusations of corruption, without clinching evidences, and eventually the brutal assassination of Mishra in early 1975, is something dispassionate and professional historians need to analyse while evaluating the justifications for imposition of the Emergency on 26 June 1975. It was indeed the severest blow to democracy, but the quite apparent extra-parliamentary and anarchic ways of the ‘JP Movement’, attempting to engineer a coup or a possibility of capturing the Parliament through a mob rather than through an election, also await a meticulous historical exploration. Atul Kohli’s Democracy and Discontent (1990) discussed the more personalized and less institutionalized governance in various provinces. These
problems were foretelling the rise of new social forces and elites, of regional satraps, yet Indira and her Congress chose not to care. Sagarika chooses not to go deeper into such aspects.
There are minor, avoidable slips in referencing. Sagarika quotes Bhabani Sengupta (1921–2011), but his book, Rajiv Gandhi: A Political Study (1989), is not listed in the bibliography. Similarly Ajaz Ashraf’s interview with D.L. Sheth published by Scroll. In is wrongly entered as haveing been taken from Outlook.
Even though this account captures less of some of the tumultuous aspects of the life of the republic, the author succeeds well in bringing out what she demonstrates as the aims and objectives of her account on the blurb itself. Ghose classifies Indira as an ‘insecure daughter, betrayed wife, national heroine, tough dictator’. Ghose’s descriptions however hardly corroborate her assertion about Indira as a ‘betrayed wife’. Rather, this account would eventually give an impression that it was her husband Feroze who suffered betrayal from his wife, and that Indira did carry some sense of guilt about having neglected her husband. This sense of guilt, according to Ghose, made Indira excessively indulgent about Sanjay.
Sagarika’s lucid prose, and a specimen
of hard work in terms of collecting evidences, conducting interviews from a large number of people close to, and critical, against Indira, is admirable. This biography may not be a scholarly account; however, for the new generation, this highly readable portrait considerably dispenses with the need for looking into the previously available works.
Mohammad Sajjad is Professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.