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Indira - Katherine Frank

Yesterday was the 103rd birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi. But who cares? The way we, more specifically our political leaders, forgot the implication of 31st of October for Indians, it is no surprise that we similarly omit the significance of yesterday. Indira Nehru Gandhi was perhaps the most remarkable leader India has ever produced since independence. We hardly remembered the 131st birth anniversary of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru six days back. Don’t you think that all of this forgetfulness was not contingent but part of a wider political spectrum that was specifically designed for fulfilling a particular aim – to gradually but completely remove the memory of these great leaders that India ever had since Independence? It is rightly said that the legacy of Gandhis (to be more precise, of Nehrus) ended after the assassination of Indira Gandhi on the 31st of October 1984.


This book by Katherine Frank is regarded as one of the most thoroughly researched and controversial work on the life of Indira Gandhi. Here, a genuine question can be raised – why Indira Gandhi? Why not Pt. Nehru, first? This must be answered at the outset only. I resolutely believe that as far as the conduct of politics for the sake of position and power is concerned, Indira Gandhi appears to be the first name after independence to have associated her with it in this form. Why am I taking such a view of politics? It is quite true that I could also have considered reading the autobiography of Nehru by taking into consideration the moral view of politics. But still, I chose to go with the biography of Indira, considering the contemporary political atmosphere we are having here in India. The politics of today could not be a more ravenous affair for power. The present NDA government is the epitome of that. I just wanted to look into the past for whether any such tendency was ever there in the course of Indian politics or not. By going into the history and associating Indira Gandhi’s reign with that of today was completely a no-brainer. But were the two reigns really similar or apparently so? I will keep my view at the end of this review.


Scholars rightly point out that before coming of the NDA government in 2014, it was only the government of Indira Gandhi which actually indulged in realist politics. Nehru's government did not require to indulge in realist politics due to his charismatic personality, while the governments after that of Indira Gandhi could not indulge in realist politics due to their incompetence. During her childhood, Indu (as she was loveably called) was, however, not as intrepid, audacious, and gallant as we generally think of. She was generally silent and introverted in nature. Her shyness was very much visible in her eyes. Her birth, nonetheless, created an unmistakable wave of deflation and disappointment that swept through the crowd on the veranda of the Anand Bhavan. As Indira Gandhi diplomatically put it years later, ‘while my family was not orthodox enough to consider the birth of a girl a misfortune, it did regard the male child a privilege and a necessity.’ Her mother Kamala Nehru didn’t have good relations with her mother-in-law Swarup Rani Nehru and her sister-in-law Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, so did Indira. The reason being Kamala Nehru was not very well able to acclimatize herself with the ultra-modern lifestyle of the household. Nehrus, though, gradually gave up lavish and luxurious living after coming under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and his ascetic thoughts.


Indira’s early schooling was also very varied. After staying in Allahabad for some years, she had to move to Europe, mostly in Switzerland, along with her father in order to get her mother’s nearly fatal tuberculosis cured. There she studied in Bex, Badenweiler, and L’École Nouvelle. She could not take admission in a degree course in Somerville College, Oxford as she could not qualify the Latin part of the entrance examination. Therefore, she ended up having a diploma degree from there, quite upto Nehru’s despair. We can sense how much-concerned father Nehru was. When she was in Europe, she got to meet scholars like Bertrand Russell, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Ellen Wilkinson, and Harold Laski along with her father. Harold Laski even edified Indira to come out of the shadow of her father's personality under which she was losing her own. Indira decried his advice forcefully, being a dear daughter, much to the annoyance of Mr. and Mrs. Laski who termed Indira as timid and mousy. Meanwhile, Kamala’s health improved and they came back to India on Christmas Day, 1927. The Indian freedom struggle at that time was in full vogue as Gandhiji had acquired the front stage. Even Indira became an active part of the movement by organizing children of her age to channelize them further to amplify the spirit of the movement. It was during this time that Feroze Gandhi also became a part of the freedom struggle. However, he was unknown to Indira at this moment. Feroze had made up his mind to marry Indira. Keeping that in mind, he started making efforts to keep himself close to the Nehru family while simultaneously taking an active part in the freedom struggle. Indira concurrently at the same time also enrolled herself at the Santiniketan.


Meanwhile, Kamala Nehru’s health deteriorated again and it was decided that, again, she would be taken to Europe for treatment. This time Feroze Gandhi was also there with Indira and Kamala Nehru. Feroze burnt the midnight oil to care for Kamala. Day and night, he was there with her with complete alertness. But Kamala’s health waned despite all possible efforts from the doctors. She succumbed to her disease at the age of 35. Pt. Nehru and Indira were in despair, not to mention the desolation in which Feroze was. All these moments strengthened the bond between Indira and Feroze. Both, ultimately, decided to marry. Kamala, before her death, has warned Nehru, when alone, about Feroze being trying to get close to their daughter. Nehru ignored. After Kamala’s death when Indira and Feroze decided to get married, Nehru got reluctant. Nehru did not bother about Feroze’s caste or religion but he was very cautious about his lacking family and class pedigree. Also, Feroze was loud whereas Nehru was soft-spoken. Their personalities were polar opposites. Nonetheless, Feroze’s academic traits were unmatched when compared to the youths of his own age. He was a drop-out from the London School of Economics. Even Indira herself was not in the best of her health. Her weight had dropped significantly. Still, both got married on the 26th of March 1942. Many national personalities attended the wedding ceremony and Anand Bhavan became the abode of gifts. Gifts from unknown senders were repacked carefully and returned to them with greetings. Her love for Kashmir was also visible throughout. This Kashmir – a place of beauty and transcendence – was the bedrock of Indira Gandhi’s life, the thing to which she held fast, which she sought to recover again and again in the course of her long life. Kashmir was a land that nourished and solaced her. The newlyweds went to Kashmir for honeymoon – just as twenty-six years before Indira’s parents had been to.


Everything seemed to be in place for a perfect married life: Feroze was finally a breadwinner as he was appointed to his first real job as the director of the National Herald, the Lucknow-based newspaper that Nehru had founded in 1937. This state of affairs, however, did not last for long. Things soon started to fall apart. Feroze not only ran the paper in a high-handed, impetuous way but his affairs with other women also started to come to light. Even Feroze started to openly boast about his affairs with other women. Their marriage, atleast, cannot be termed as a success, that is for sure. Indira also went on a trip to the US along with Nehru to meet host state’s president Harry S. Truman and there she made a life-long friend, Dorothy Norman, with whom her correspondence went life-long. On the 7th of September 1960, Feroze died which was physically as well psychologically wounding for Indira. After his death, Indira felt ill – sick at heart.


After in-office death of Nehru and Shastri, for a number of days, the question of who would be India’s third Prime Minister remained uncertain. The Congress Syndicate decided to elevate Indira to the post of the Prime Minister not because she was a strong contender but was everything Morarji Desai was not. She was not only the choice of Kamaraj but also of the powerful Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, D.P. Mishra. They had to agree on someone who could beat Deasi. Indira’s emergence as PM coincided with the burgeoning women’s movement in the West and she was also praised by the best-selling author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan. It was now when the political journey of Indira took an upward trajectory. Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia called her goongi gudia – (the dumb doll) – a label that Indira defied soon by concentrating more and more power in her own hands. I am omitting the details of her political career. I shall only mention some of the important events that took place during her PM’ship.


Indira had serrated relations with US President Richard Nixon, successfully waged war against Pakistan to create Bangladesh, and later on, signed Shimla Agreement with Pakistan which polemically turned out to be in the favour of Pakistan only. She visited America, thereafter, and made personal friends with scholars like Erik Erikson, Hannah Arendt, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her hardworking associates such as M.O. Mathai (who majorly worked under Nehru and allegedly had controversial relations with Indira), P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, P.N. Dhar, G. Parthasarathi are also very well-acknowledged by the author. Among them, notably, P.N. Haksar was the most capable, on whom Indira relied heavily, who had studied social anthropology at the London School of Economics under Bronislaw Malinowski. She declared National Emergency in 1975 to counter the JP Movement. She concentrated powers in her hand by overhauling the constitution through the 42nd Amendment in 1976. Judiciary and Bureaucracy became committed and stripped of their powers, position, and prestige. Short-tempered Maneka Gandhi, the wife of Sanjay Gandhi, also had bitter relations with Indira Gandhi due to her uncompromising and breakneck nature, much to Indira’s disliking. She was supportive of Sonia Gandhi, wife of Rajiv Gandhi, because of her accommodative nature. The fault lines became clear when Maneka was expelled from Indira’s house. Soon her rage, wrath, and frenzy younger son Sanjay Gandhi took up the power in his hands masquerading her, only to end up his life flying an airplane. His death was a moment of utter grief for Indira. However, it was admitted later on, which could not have been admitted at the time of the misfortune, that Sanjay’s death also bought relief to the entire aura of Indian politics which had taken an anarchical turn under his rise. Indira’s connection with her rich and pop Yoga-guru Dhirendra Brahmachari has also been accounted for in this book. The problem of Punjab was also glaring and Bhindranwale left no stones unturned to proliferate terror in the territory for their special demand of a separate state – Khalistan. As documented by Katherine Frank, Bhindranwale was Sanjay’s choice who was supported by him and Zail Singh, the erstwhile President, to divide Sikhs and break-up the Akali Dal. Their experiment failed when Bhindranwale himself established his autocratic rule in Punjab while residing in the Golden Temple. Then happened the contentious and combative Operation Blue Star under the Army and the Commandos which got Bhindranwale killed after heavy bloodsheds and hefty casualties on both sides. Her Private Secretary R.K. Dhawan suggested removing all her Sikh bodyguards from duty but she refused, citing her secular credentials. Somewhere or the other the premonition of her death, and that too a violent one, was very much clear to her mind. She was on her last (perhaps not known to her that it was going to be her last) election tour to Bhubaneshwar on the 29th of October 1984. The speech that she gave in Bhubaneshwar on the night of the 30th of October was emotive, eloquent, and stirring. Indira’s voice drowned out her speechwriter’s:

I am here today, I may not be here tomorrow … Nobody knows how many attempts have been made to shoot me … I do not care whether I live or die. I have lived a long life and I am proud that I spent the whole of my life in the service of my people. I am only proud of this and of nothing else. I shall continue to serve until my last breadth ad when I die, I can say that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.

The very next day she was in her house in Delhi when she was shot dead by her own bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, who pumped up around thirty bullets into Indira’s body. An era of politics was over.


Overall, what I hold is that both Indira and Modi are authoritarian. But what makes them different from each other is the spirit that underpins their authoritarian character. While Indira’s spirit was positive to concentrate power in her hands in order to curb the monopoly of the oppressive class and welfare the downtrodden (whether or not it was possible to achieve but atleast she had the vision), Modi’s spirit is negative who merely plays by appealing the basest instincts of the masses and portraying deleterious politics by not focusing on welfare policies but attacking the already fragile opposition groups and parties. This I conclude carefully and prudently after reading this book which I recommend to any serious reader who not only wants to get to the heart of this extraordinary woman but also wants to understand the dynamics of Indian politics, especially during the 1970s and 80s. The book is a very entrancing read which one does not stop reading until one’s nerves die down.