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The real Indira Gandhi remains an enigma

kanchan guptaWhen it was first published in the wake of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, Nayantara Sahgal’s finely crafted ‘psycho profile’ of her cousin was quite a rage. It received rave reviews and was much talked about. It’s not often that family tells all about family, and though Mrs Gandhi had become a household name long before she embarked upon the dangerous course of suspending fundamental rights and civil liberties to preserve her hold over power, little was known about the persona behind the public face of a ruthless ruler and a cunning politician. Nayantara Sahgal provided a glimpse of that persona.

Three decades later, when Penguin decided to republish Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power, revised and updated by the author, I had expected similar interest would be generated – all said and done, Mrs Gandhi remains the most charismatic as well as most enigmatic leader of post-independence India. Yet, the book, whose text has been revised and updated to bring the study of Mrs Gandhi’s politics, has elicited little response, which is a pity and a shame.

There could be three reasons for this. Twenty-eight years after her tragic assassination, Mrs Gandhi has been all but forgotten and evokes neither interest nor intrigue. Indians who have come of age in recent years have no memory of the woman who was admired and loathed, at home and abroad, in equal measure and who, in her own way, fashioned a post-Nehru Indian society, politics and economy whose features, no matter how hard the effort to erase them, continue to block change and reform.

A second reason could be that with Sonia Gandhi dominating the mindscape of middle India – amazingly if not coincidentally, she too is admired and loathed though perhaps not in equal measure, the latter outweighing the first, at home – it is only natural that popular interest in the original and one-and-only Mrs Gandhi should have waned. Not surprisingly, flatterers who flourished under Mrs Gandhi’s tutelage have latched on to the inheritor of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s political legacy and lavish praise on her in the same obsequious manner that fetched them despise in 1975-77.

But there was more to Mrs Gandhi than the Emergency that put on display her contempt for democracy and its institutions – despotism and tyranny seemed far more preferable to her than the messy affair of upholding freedoms and liberties. In fact, the Emergency came much after she had demonstrated her disregard for democratic politics and governance in accordance to the provisions of the Constitution. It could be argued that if morning shows the day, Mrs Gandhi’s role in the dismissal of India’s first Communist Government headed by EMS Namboodiripad in 1960, when the power she wielded was insignificant compared to what she came to wield in the 1970s, showed her attitude towards democracy.

There is, of course, the third reason why the book has failed to become the talking point it was in 1977: In this age of instant books that titillate the 20-somethings, a perceptive study of Mrs Gandhi’s psycho profile is unlikely to find many takers. Sadly, Nayantara Sahgal, the brilliant recluse who never flogged her family connections to promote herself as a writer, is now remembered only by those who remember her mother too. And not many people remember Jawaharlal Nehru’s feisty sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit to whom goes the credit of famously describing her niece as the ‘only man in her Cabinet’.

If Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit knew her niece sufficiently well to have described her so aptly, Nayantara Sahgal knew her cousin well enough to pen this revealing and riveting account of Mrs Gandhi’s politics which took shape as a paper for a conference on ‘Leadership in South Asia’ and then took the form of a book. As Nayantara Sahgal told Tehelka recently: “It is not a biography, but a study of her political style, based on my observation of political trends, and my own knowledge of her.”

And what does that knowledge principally say about Mrs Gandhi? “Her inconsistency showed up in her different approaches to domestic and foreign policy. For example, she fought a war to establish a democratically-elected Government in Bangladesh, while at home — long before the Emergency — democracy was set back drastically with her demand for committed civil servants, her attempt to bring the Press under Government control, and the high centralisation that damaged the federal system. Inner-party democracy in the Congress also suffered for want of discussion,” says Nayantara Sahgal in that interview, “History does not need to be ‘kind’. It needs to evaluate. I’m yet to see an objective evaluation of her place in history.”

Till that objective evaluation happens – which is a near impossibility given our obsession with the reality show called Indian Idolatory – we must make do with Nayantara Sahgal’s book in which the chronicler is at once far removed as well as intimately involved with the subject of her study. I could be horribly wrong, though. Aunt and niece, cousin and cousin, may have believed they knew each other, but if truth be told, nobody can say with any degree of certitude that he or she knew the real Mrs Gandhi. She was neither ‘Durga’ nor ‘Demon’ – those are lazy labels for someone who could out do Mephistopheles in what he did best with a beguiling smile on her face.

— The writer is a journalist, political analyst & activist  

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