Indira - terror personified or goddess?


December 7, 2001

When he fell out with "Madam" in the 1970s, a bright young Congress Party spark, who is now back in the party and high in its counsels, described Indira Gandhi's many faces with some bitterness. India's masses worshipped her as Durga, the mother goddess, he said, intellectuals found her enigmatic and foreigners were bowled over by her grace and charm. "But only those of us who work with her know she is the personification of sheer stark terror!" Something of that complexity emerges in Katherine Frank's biography, though on the whole it does not escape the stricture about foreigners. That is not surprising, for nobody could have sustained such a massive work without an intense personal commitment to the subject. Frank's Indira suffers from some of the disadvantages that Mrs Gandhi herself noted in Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi . It was "a spectacle", said Madam, with the central character transformed into a "superstar... messiah - not more than he was but rather less".

Here, too, we have a soap-opera heroine, warts and all, in a book that is as readable as a superior Margaret Irwin or Norah Lofts and deserves to be catalogued as historical fiction. There is too much gossip (the supposed pregnancy and abortion or the rumour of Sanjay's slapping his mother across the face six times), too much trivial speculation ("perhaps in remembrance of the strong autumnal colours of Kashmir, she chose a vibrant saffron-coloured sari"), and not enough examination of the social and political dynamics that shaped Madam for the narrative to count as serious political biography.

Additionally, it bristles with inaccuracies. Frank pins Indira badges on dhotis, unaware that this is a man's nether garment. She turns the Bengali C. R. Das into an Allahabad-wallah, delays the Bangladesh war by a decade to December 1981, confuses Delhi's South Block with South Bank, and further insults Mrs Gandhi's neglected husband, the hapless Feroze, by calling him the "maternal grandfather" of his son's son. Worse, she must have given Madam's loyal principal private secretary, P. N. Dhar, the shivers by foisting on him three seditious quotations from this reviewer's book, Smash and Grab : Annexation of Sikkim .

Presumably, she relied more on what people told her than on personally sifted evidence. Predictably, this means misinformation. Mrs Gandhi's cousin, B. K. Nehru, one of Frank's main informants, though he later dissociated himself from some of the views ascribed to him, emerges as far more important than he was. His charge that Maneka Gandhi, Mrs Gandhi's daughter-in-law, "did nothing" during Madam's political exile after her fall from power in 1977, which Frank faithfully regurgitates without allowing for family politics, ignores the courage with which Maneka's magazine Surya drummed up support for her mother-in-law in 1977-78 when Madam's unpopularity had plumbed such depths that Delhi taxi drivers sneered at fares to her Willingdon Crescent bungalow.

And did B. K. Nehru really accompany his more august namesake, Pandit Jawaharlal, Zhou Enlai and others on a jolly family flight from Rangoon to Bandung in an Air India jet for the first non-aligned conference in April 1955? Han Suyin tells us that, alarmed by the bombing in Hong Kong of the aircraft that India had sent for him, Zhou travelled secretly to Rangoon and then to Bandung in a KLM plane.

On the credit side, Frank does probe Indira Gandhi the woman, whose "lofty and awesome" presence concealed her yearning for a more civilised life than that of Indian politics. It is the first time that anyone has acknowledged that the young Indira had to be cured of tuberculosis or that she lived in London with the man she later married. Frank also indicates that her subject felt more comfortable with western women (Dorothy Norman, Marie Seton) than with Indian. Most people would have said Pupul Jayakar came closest but Frank announces that "Pupul Jayakar was never as close to Indira, as she later claimed". Both women being dead, there is no way of checking what is obviously the view of another courtier.

But Madam was more than a Woman's Own cutout. Even ignoring the once fashionable chant of "Indira is India, India is Indira", it is undeniable that she bore herself with dignity and invested the Indian label with pride. Her, and India's, tragedy was that she did little to support image with substance, altogether abandoning the early concern for press freedom and clean and caring politics that Frank mentions. A master of rhetoric, Madam was often more posture than policy. When she espoused radical politics in the 1960s to upstage conservative rivals in the Congress leadership, The Times correspondent, Peter Hazelhurst, described her as "slightly left of self-interest". Had Frank studied India's constitutional history, she would have known that Mrs Gandhi backed away from tinkering with the parliamentary system to avoid a confrontation with the judiciary. She saw direct election for the office of prime minister - not president, as Frank was told - as the answer to her party's growing unpopularity, but was warned that the courts, which had ruled that no parliament could alter the constitution's basic features, would strike down any move in that direction.

Other aspects of her tenure that are worth examining include: her expectations in going to war over Bangladesh; what really happened at the 1972 Simla conference; her strategy in Punjab where she stoked the fires of Sikh militancy; her courtship of Ronald Reagan; and her steady destruction of party mechanisms and democratic procedures.

Instead of analysing any of this or assessing how her subject served, and ultimately failed, India, Frank demonstrates again that although Indira Gandhi has been dead these 17 years, thanks to breathless biographers the legend goes marching on.

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is a former editor of The Statesman , based in Calcutta.

Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi

Author - Katherine Frank
ISBN - 0 00 255646 4
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 567

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