Revisionist Flattery of Indira Gandhi

Inder Malhotra’s Indira Gandhi : A Review Article
by Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman May 7 2006, www.thestatesman.net

Indira Priyadarshini Nehru was fortunate to have been a handsome woman born to an eminent and indulgent father and grandfather. Despite her lack of higher education or significant worldly wisdom or experience, she acquired enough of an aura of being born to rule that she became Congress Party President in 1959 at age 41, and India’s most dramatic Prime Minister from 1966-1977 and again from 1980-1984 when she was assassinated. She was lucky too that the Zoroastrian man she married did not have one of the many long and colourful surnames Indian Zoroastrians can have, but coincidentally shared the same surname as modern India’s founder. Hence arose the iconic name and personage known as Indira Gandhi.

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred with their bones”, said Shakespeare. Indira Gandhi’s one and paramount good deed as India’s leader and indeed as a world leader of her time was to have fought a war that was so rare in international law for having been unambiguously just. And she fought it flawlessly. The cause had been thrust upon her by an evil enemy’s behaviour against his own people, an enemy supported by the world’s strongest military power with pretensions to global leadership. Victims of the enemy’s wickedness were scores of millions of utterly defenceless, penniless human beings. Indira Gandhi did everything right. She practised patient but firm diplomacy on the world’s stage to avert war if it was at all possible to do. She chose her military generals well and took their professional judgement seriously as to when to go to war and how to win it. Finally, in victory she was magnanimous to the enemy that had been defeated. Children’s history-books in India should remember her as the stateswoman who freed a fraternal nation from tyranny, at great expense to our own people. As a war-leader, Indira Gandhi displayed extraordinary bravery, courage and good sense.

Unfortunately, this was the only arena in which these virtues of hers came to be expressed. India’s serious history-books, beyond those written for or read by children, need to record that her sheer ignorance of the fundamentals of domestic statecraft as well as her caprice, arrogance and hubris caused permanent harm to India’s polity in innumerable dimensions from which we have yet long to recover. On advice first of her childhood acquaintance, the proto-communist P. N. Haksar, and later of her ruffian unprincipled younger son Sanjay, she single-handedly destroyed India’s nascent parliamentary traditions, federalism, the Rule of Law, and its most important political party; the integrity of the civil services, judiciary, police, intelligence services and other public institutions; as well as monetary and fiscal prudence Beside this, she and her younger son Sanjay contributed to destroying communal harmony and political stability in the Punjab, while she and later her older son Rajiv contributed to do the same in Kashmir. She exulted in the personality cult, courtier culture and durbar politics of her father and grandfather.

Many pertinent questions about the personal and political life of Indira Gandhi have remained to be answered by any serious modern biographer. Her relationships with her husband and his rival for her time and affections, her father, remain in darkness, as does, after their deaths, her relationship between 1967- 1974 with Haksar, her key adviser. Her capacity and her failures as a mother to two very different sons also remain unclear. Her own lack of education was transmitted to them and neither succeeded at what he studied to be, though at least Rajiv became a gentleman. Her father had been an indifferent husband to Kamala and she an indifferent wife to Feroze — the most important thing her sons may have done with their lives was to have married women she did not choose for them, and then to have become well-loved spouses themselves. As mother-in-law, her petulant bullying of the young Sikh widow of Sanjay, mother of an infant child at the time, remains to be contrasted with her apparent warmth and generosity towards her Italian-born elder daughter-in-law. All such questions would be ones of feminine gossip or TV-soap operas in case of any ordinary woman but assume political significance for Indians because of the inordinate impact she, her father, her sons and their widows have had on India’s modern history. Why all of India’s national-level politics have acquired a gossipy joint-family tone about them is because she projected onto them no high and universally known political principles whatsoever, but merely her own personal experiences and desire for popularity.

The book at hand provides almost no new fact or insight on any relevant extant personal or political question about Indira Gandhi at all. The one exception has to do with a brief discussion of her relationship with Lal Bahadur Shastri which reveals her naked ambition most clearly, though the author is too ingratiating to wish to draw such a conclusion himself. He meekly deflects blame for her faults onto exogenous random shocks like monsoon failures, the rise in petroleum prices or other uncontrollable international events, or the ill-will of others. The most fawning apologists and cultists are quoted with approval: Sanjay was merely “inept”, the Emergency was brought on by its victims and not such a bad thing really, the Shah Commission resembled “a Chinese people’s court”, Maneka was a “rebellious chit of a girl”, etc. Two decades later, we must expect the greatest detachment and calm objectivity in any serious treatment of this complex stateswoman’s life. What we have instead received — at a time when Rajiv’s widow is in power in Delhi and Haksar’s protégé is her PM, while The Mitrokhin Archives II are published — is a clear attempt at revisionist flattery, complete with Indira’s face smiling at us at the start of every chapter and old propaganda photos from the PIB. This is deeply unfortunate coming from the National Book Trust. Indeed, neither she nor her father deserve further inquiry and reflection today more than do their respective spouses, Feroze Gandhi and Kamala Nehru, both of whom died prematurely.

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