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Demystifying a Demagogue

5 minute read

There are politicians and the usual rent-a-mob in India who want Katherine Frank’s Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi (Houghton Mifflin; 448 pages) banned. It doesn’t matter that most haven’t read it. They were told it was a scurrilous and offensive biography written by a foreigner. Now they want to keep it off the shelves because they fear its revelations challenge the reputation and status of Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India for 15 years until she was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984. At stake is the perpetual myth of Indira Gandhi, goddess and mother of India.

Indians tend to put their leaders on a pedestal, especially if they come from a political dynasty and die in office. Mrs. Gandhi, moreover, was a living monument to her own formidable political reputation. And even today, nearly 17 years after her death, her faults and the tyranny of the 1975-77 Emergency she imposed are glossed over. She was a great nationalist, almost a demagogue. But she is remembered most of all as an almost mythical heroine who launched a war against Pakistan and won it. In so doing she created the new state of Bangladesh. If you are a foreigner, you don’t malign saints in India.

This book does humanize Mrs. Gandhi, shedding light on her joys and tragedies, her achievements and defeats. And for the first time this profoundly complicated person is discussed as a woman, set free from the political hagiography that surrounded her in life and still defines her in death. It is an unusual story and a compulsively readable bookthe rise of this weak, unhealthy girl to leadership of the world’s largest democracy, a virtual dictator who put order first and democracy second.

Brought up in austerity, Indira Gandhi was a moody adolescent, highly sensitive to criticism, especially from her family. The Nehru household was divided along linguistic and religious lines. Her grandfather and father (and his sisters) spoke and wrote in English, while her mother and grandmother ate separately in their private quarters and spoke Hindi. The men were agnostic, the women superstitious and devout. Separated for much of her youth from her jailed father, Jawaharlal Nehru, and from her perpetually ill mother, Indira Gandhi was dispatched to a variety of schools across India. As a teenager, she went to Europe, where she moved in and out of university and sanatorium. She was lonely and infected with tuberculosis, a disease no one was brave enough to mention at the time because it usually meant an early death. Back in India, her father constantly lectured her and, when it suited him, used her as a cipher. His famous Letters from a Father to His Daughter, penned in prison, were never sent to her. Instead, he kept them in his cell waiting for a publisher. She was 20 when they were published in 1938. She didn’t bother to read them until years later.

What has upset the censorious mob are those passages that show the lonely Indira Gandhi to be a woman of deep passion who, as a teenager, fell in love with her future husband Feroze Gandhi. Free from her family, she had an affair with him in Europe that lasted several years before they married, against her family’s wishes, back in India. She was further plagued by rumors and gossip about other affairs when her marriage to the womanizing Gandhi fell apart, including an alleged fling with Nehru’s private secretary O.M. Mathai. Frank does not give a definitive yes or no as to whether these relationships actually took place, relying instead on the statements of contemporaries. But what comes through clearly is Indira Gandhi’s preference for thuggish, rude and forceful menan obvious contrast to her father. Her husband Feroze, her father’s secretary Mathai and her yoga teacher and personal holy man Bramachari all fit this description. She doted on her younger son Sanjay who was of the same mold. He was a selfish, untalented and unprincipled man who rode roughshod over his mother. His death in a 1980 plane crash broke her, personally and politically.

Behind her Western education and fluency in European languages was a deep sense of India. She was superstitious, spiritual and saw conspiracies everywhere. She adored the crowds that flocked to her rallies and gave her the affection she craved. But it is hard to discern from this book whether she was strongly principled or just enjoyed power. “History,” according to Frank, “is not going to remember Indira Gandhi for any one thingfor a coherent strategy, ideology, policy or vision.” This is not a political biography. And anyone who turns to it thinking they will see a picture of how Indian politics works will find it lacking. But as a picture of one woman, driven by her perception of duty, a woman courageous, ruthless and paranoiac, it is a compelling read.

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