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All in the Family

6 minute read
Pico Iyer

What’s in a name? Magic, it seems, if the name is Gandhi or Nehru, and the place is India. An unofficial royal family that President Reagan aptly compared to the Adams family in the U.S. and that Indians liken to the Mogul emperors and maharajahs of ages past, the House of Nehru has reigned over independent India in one almost unbroken dynastic line, passing the scepter down from one generation to the next. By now the system of one-family rule has become so firmly entrenched that the newsmagazine India Today calls India “a democratic monarchy.”

Independence itself was won in part through the work of Motilal Nehru, an early and active backer of the concept. He begat Jawaharlal, who served for 17 years as the first Prime Minister of independent India. Jawaharlal begat Indira, who ruled for 16 of the 20 years of the post-Nehru era and, through her marriage, became the namesake, though not a relation, of the country’s spiritual conscience, Mahatma Gandhi. Indira, known to many in the nation as Amma (mother), begat Rajiv and then Sanjay. When the prodigal younger son and heir apparent died in a plane crash in 1980, his brother Rajiv, almost inevitably, took his place. “Indira believed that the House of Nehru was what India needed,” said a Western diplomat last week. “In that she was imperious but, believe it or not, that’s what Indians wanted.”

Motilal Nehru, the father of one of the founding fathers of modern India, was a prosperous and prominent lawyer. In the early ’20s, however, Motilal shed his princely habits and anglophile tastes to become a leader in the Congress Party, which was lobbying for Indian independence. In 1929 Motilal passed the mantle to his only son, and together they joined Gandhi’s crusade for social justice. By 1947, when the country finally won independence, Gandhi had hand-picked his superstar pupil, Jawaharlal, to become the nation’s first Prime Minister.

With his patrician good looks and air of thoughtful intensity, his blend of Western rationalism and passionate nationalism, Nehru was an ideal—and idealistic—leader of the new India. He was cosmopolitan, commanding, charismatic. His interest in civil rights had been quickened by his friend and mentor Gandhi, his intellectual theories refined at Harrow and Cambridge. As Prime Minister, he ambitiously embarked upon a path of democratic socialism, hoping to bring industry, literacy and, above all, modernity to an India that was in many areas poverty stricken and backward. Abroad, as his own Foreign Minister, he pursued a policy of fierce anticolonialism. In 1960 he became a founding member of the nonaligned movement; his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit served as an early president of the U.N.

General Assembly.

Through three successive elections Nehru coasted to one handy victory after another. By 1958, however, the revered Panditji, then 69 and riding the crest of his popularity, wanted to step down. The cries of outrage were so overwhelming that he agreed to continue. Although the widowed Prime Minister retained his shy daughter Indira as one of his most trusted companions and made her president of the Congress Party, he continued to regard a monarchical succession as “undemocratic and undesirable.”

Yet when Nehru’s successor Lai Shastri died in 1966, after only 19 months in power, Indira was chosen as Prime Minister. Though self-effacing and inexperienced, she commanded the affectionate support of the country simply by virtue of being the only child of its beloved father figure.

While silencing skeptics by sweeping through two straight election victories, Indira kept her own counsel and chose to live in a house she shared with her two sons, their wives and three grandchildren.

Gradually, the younger of those sons, Sanjay, began edging onto center stage. By 1975 he was dispensing orders in his mother’s name, popping up on posters next to his mother and initiating a series of unpopular schemes. These included his notorious program of forced sterilization, whereby those who submitted to vasectomies were rewarded with tinny transistor radios.

More than that, the self-styled crown prince agitated for a system of conservative dictatorship far removed from the intellectual socialism of his elders. Associated with a group of young toughs and regarded in some quarters as a lawless power broker, Sanjay hung around his doting mother like a dark and menacing shadow. As Indian Essayist Ved Mehta wrote in A Family Affair, “Rightly or wrongly, Sanjay was seen as representing the ruthless side of his mother.”

Less than six months after taking a seat in Parliament in 1980, Sanjay took up a plane that he was unqualified to fly, attempted a daredevil stunt too low and crashed to his death.

Feared, and sometimes vilified, in life, Sanjay was lionized in a death that the Minister of Agriculture called “the biggest tragedy of this century for the people of India.” Yet hardly had Sanjay been cremated (at the same site as his grandfather) than attention turned to his brother Rajiv, who now seemed, if only by default, next in line for the prime ministership.

Until then, Indira’s elder son had been a shy, soft-spoken Indian Airlines pilot with no political interests or ambitions.

Undeterred, 300 members of Parliament, all from Indira’s party, sent a petition urging him to take Sanjay’s place. The more Rajiv refused, the more he was accused of wielding power behind the scenes. Ultimately, he could no longer withstand the pressure and, in June 1981, stood for a by-election in Uttar Pradesh and won his brother’s seat in Parliament as well as Sanjay’s place on the executive committee of the party’s youth wing.

But the war of succession was by no means over. Into the political arena stepped Sanjay’s rebellious Sikh widow Maneka, a onetime model who had won Sanjay’s hand when she was only 18. Maneka’s strongest political credentials seemed to consist of her illustrious name and her acquired lineage.

But after Indira expelled her from the house they had long shared because of her political activities, the family firm began to dissolve into a family feud. Maneka set up her own party, known as the National Sanjay Platform, and her camp began talking of Maneka’s son by Sanjay, Feroze Veruna, as a future candidate for Prime Minister. The boy is, to be sure, only five years old, but he enjoys what may be the most powerful political qualifications in India: the name of Gandhi and the ancestry of Nehru.

—By Pico Iyer

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