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Focus on personality, not her sarkar

Manjula Lal | New Delhi |


How can a dynasty be faulted for perpetuating itself when the intelligentsia insists on keeping alive its memory, myths and all?

The reason for this umpteenth biography of Indira Gandhi is said to be the late Prime Minister’s 100th birth anniversary. Somehow, this justification for writing a 300- page tome on a personality on whom there are already about 100 books is not convincing, nor is the sub-title "India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister”.

Can an ungrateful nation diminish Jawaharlal Nehru’s stature and won’t the present incumbent take offence? What is also a trifle curious is that “the only book you need to read about Indira Gandhi” (as per the blurb) is published as a hardcover by Juggernaut, the pioneer in digital books.

The younger generation would surely prefer a snappier, more gossipy biography if they are going to read it on their mobiles. Whatever the provocation for this project, it would have benefited from an attempt to assess Indira Gandhi’s legacy and link it to today’s political culture, not just repeat aspects of her personality that have no bearing on the current state of the nation (like her love for nature, the subject of another recent book by Jairam Ramesh).

For instance, wouldn’t it be productive to assess the sudden shock of bank nationalisation, as drastic as demonetisation in our day. Would the banks have built up such a fearsome stack of bad loans if they had not been forced to lend to crony capitalists close to politicians?

In fact, wasn’t that the purpose of nationalisation? No historian or political scientist was tapped for the making of this narrative, which is a glaring omission. Such an exercise would have enabled the journalistauthor to delve deeper into such aberrations as the subversion of institutions set up by Nehru or the sycophancy of the Congress that allowed so many autocratic diktats without so much as a murmur.

So it operates at a superficial level, as an easy source of facts about the former PM’s personal life and political journey, if you don’t already have such a book handy. Incidentally, the blurb on the cover says “Insecure daughter. Betrayed wife. National heroine. Tough dictator.” And that’s how the narrative runs. Some nuggets are worth highlighting, especially for those intrigued by a contemporary dynast’s insistence on an unworthy son’s leadership of the Congress, even as that party crumbles to pieces for precisely that reason.

It is worth remembering that Nehru was grooming his daughter for politics but not for succession. No less than Harold Laski told her, “If you tag along with your father you’ll become just an appendage…You must strike out on your own.” Of course, she did tag along, even at the cost of her marriage. Did it become a habit, always dining at the high table and being present at important events like the signing of the Shimla Accord?

Is that why Rahul Gandhi aspires to lead the Congress — a strong sense of entitlement without any vision for the country he wants to lead? Dom Moraes’ biography, quoted in this book, says that neither Indira nor her father wanted her to be the Congress chief, but the party stalwarts “bullied” them into becoming president. It is here that Sagarika Ghose could have pointed that this is just what the stalwarts did with Sonia Gandhi later, when she remained out of public life for seven years after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Incidentally, the book mentions The Statesman headline when she took that historic step, “Youngest Woman to be Party Chief”. She did give up the post in less than a year “in deference to her father’s and husband’s unstated wishes than because she really wanted to.”

She displayed the same reluctance when Lal Bahadur Shastri said “he must have a Nehru in the Cabinet to maintain stability”. But once her husband, father and Shastri were dead, she took on the mantle of a tough politician as if this were always her secret plan.

The trend of the Nehru-Gandhis being treated as the Chosen Ones could not be entirely their fault. Lutyen’s Delhi is not just a place; it is a state of mind. Thanks to the colonial hangover, a political dynasty belonging to the English-speaking elite close to the Mountbattens had an aura that could not be matched by the regional satraps whose time would come after decades ~ it was only in 2014 that chief ministers like Nitish Kumar, Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Narendra Modi were finally seen as legitimate contenders for the top post. In 1966, when the Syndicate tried to persuade Kamaraj to throw his hat in the ring, he is quoted as saying, “No English, no Hindi ~ how?”

Therein lies a tragedy, a body-blow to true federalism, that some other book should explore one day. In this book, the focus stays unwaveringly on the persona of Indira Gandhi, to the extent that the winning of the Bangladesh war, the preventing of famine, the space programme are attributed to her leadership without seeing the fundamental flaw in such an approach, for the narrative has already been built by the author that she lacked intelligence, vision and leadership skills.

The book does recount the Emergency over 50 pages, but the clinical description pales in comparison to the drama conveyed by a film like Indu Sarkar, which captures so vividly the sycophantic politicians, the compromised bureaucracy and the suppressed liberties of that era.

No comment on a Congress leader is complete without talking of secularism. While reading the book, we confront again the grim irony of the fact that an incumbent prime minister was assassinated by her own security guards because she did not believe in discriminating against a community that was angry about Operation Blue Star.

It is also ironic that while she upheld that principle, even inserting it into the Preamble, she increasingly came under the grip of Hindu superstitions and finally fell to bullets fired by religious fanatics. Nehru was an agnostic but which religion do his ancestors follow? It is not very clear, and perhaps this uncertainty finally led to the fall of the dynasty in the face of resurgent Hindutva. Most readers will find the “letters” written by the author to the departed leader self-indulgent and rather odd.

They start with “Dear Mrs Gandhi” and there are about 15 of them scattered through the book. The last one says, “You could not build the India of your father’s dreams. You consigned the Indian economy to the doldrums for a decade, left behind a political culture that rode roughshod over democratic institutions and destroyed your people’s roots among the people.

Yet you left behind for Indian citizens an embodiment of leadership, both at home and abroad an example of a remarkable politician and a leader of astounding courage, impeccable style and crackling charisma.

Power was your quest, power that would compensate for your own griefs, power that would enable you to realise your father’s dream, power that would stun your detractors and mesmerize your voters.”

(The reviewer is Senior Editor, The Statesman, New Delhi)