‘Middle class will never understand Indira Gandhi’

For several years, H.Y. Sharada Prasad wrote a weekly Wednesday column in M.J. Akbar‘s Asian Age, on this, that and the other. But for an acknowledged man of letters, he spent a fair bit of time looking at books. In November 2003, he took up a spate of new books on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.



Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi between them held the prime ministerial office for 33 long years. The India that we live in bears a mark of their vision and their masterful leadership. The achievements and failures of this dazzling father-and-daughter pair will long remain a challenge to historians and biographers.

Even though Nehruism is supposed to be currently unfashionable, if not discredited, new books continue to appear on the father and the daughter. Earlier this month I wrote about one of them, Nehru: The Invention of India by Shashi Tharoor. A biography by the British academic, Judith M. Brown, entitled Nehru: A Political Life has also attracted wide notice.

As for Indira Gandhi, her most controversial act, the Emergency, continues to keep authors busy. Bipan Chandra‘s In the Name of Democracy has been widely read. It will hold the field until Granville Austin comes out with his book on the Emergency. We have to wait and see whether he will throw any new light on the reasons which compelled Indira Gandhi to think of the unthinkable and on the manner in which her son Sanjay Gandhi hijacked it right at the outset.

The birthdays of Nehru and Indira Gandhi fall just five days apart. This provides a marvellous chance to their critics to take a swipe at them. Dynasty-bashing is so fashionable. Political commentators are credited with so much of insight, and write with such authority, that we are surprised at some of the things that surprise them.

Let me give as an example what a particularly magisterial columnist wrote a few, days ago.

After remarking that Indira Gandhi’s death anniversary this year had passed off almost unnoticed, she observed, “What puzzles me about this seeming lack of remembrance is that if you travel in rural parts and engage in political discourse with the average villager, you continue to hear much praise of Mrs Gandhi. She was a real leader, they say, she knew how to rule. She is remembered with more awe and admiration than either her father or her son.”

As a self-confessed non-admirer of the dynasty, this columnist is curious to know why the common people continue to think well of Indira Gandhi. She subjects them to grilling, and she finds out that the general feeling among the poor is that Indira Gandhi was for them, although they could not give any concrete proof to substantiate their belief.

This left the columnist in a quandary.

On one side of the balance are the known bad things of the Indira regime, such as the Emergency excesses, the mishandling of Kashmir and Punjab problems, the failure to liberate the economy, and the damage to political morality and administrative integrity.

On the other side are unnamed, unquantifiable benefits. This makes the columnist throw up her hand and exclaim, “It is not for us political pundits to disregard the wisdom of the common man.”

The Indira phenomenon will not be easily understood by the middle classes who tend to equate her with the Emergency. Most academics and journalists after all come from this stratum. Even among them a considerable number seem inclined to give her credit for voluntarily ending the Emergency and going in for elections.

The electoral drubbing she received should have been the end of the story. But in her case it was her rebirth. The miserable record of the Janata government and her re-election were seen as expiation. Sanjay was seen as the sinner. I have even heard that she won sympathy on the ground that she paid a price for the very common motherly weakness of trusting her son!

A visit to 1 Safdarjang Road will provide a clearer opportunity to know the secret of Indira Gandhi’s continuing hold on the popular mind. Nearly 10,000 people visit the memorial house every day. Only the Mahatma Gandhi memorial draws an equal number of people.

The first remark of the visitors to the Indira memorial is, “What? Did the Prime Minister of our country live in such a small house?” The photographs on view bring out the Spartan life she led and the fact that she was so approachable and worked so hard. The photographs of the Bangladesh war make the people re-live what is probably the proudest moment in our history for a long, long time. It was our first decisive military victory in hundreds of years, and it was due in large measure to Indira Gandhi’s leadership. And by the time the visitors reach the spot where she was assassinated they would have become confirmed Indira acolytes. Such is the power of martyrdom and of national pride, two of the most compelling human emotions.

Indira Gandhi had the good fortune to get the kind of death that she had desired. More than once she had remarked that she wanted to be spared the physical decline her father had had to endure. In her view, many of his troubles were due to the fact that he trusted people too easily.

Once she said to me:

Mahatma Gandhi is called a saint in politics, but if ever there was a saint in politics, it was my father. The Mahatma was too shrewd.

Proud as she was of her father, Indira Gandhi used to describe herself as more her mother’s daughter. In her early years she did not get much of Nehru’s company. As Nehru has said in his autobiography, in the Twenties he worked like a man possessed, neglecting his wife and child and family. He was in and out of jail, and when out, he travelled all over the provinces taking the message of the Master. There were some dearly cherished moments together though, and besides, he kept in touch with his daughter through his letters.

Much has been written of Indira’s lonely childhood. Anand Bhavan was by no means a lonely house. It was filled with people. But Indira, precociously sensitive, felt that her mother Kamala was not treated well by the other women of the household who thought her to be not sophisticated enough.

Indira felt that her father had not given enough support to her mother. So much so that when Kamala Nehru died in Europe, the daughter did not speak to Nehru for days together. His counsel to her a little later, when she had decided to marry Feroze Gandhi, that she might seek the advice of her aunt Vijayalakshmi, showed how ignorant Nehru was about his daughter’s feelings towards her aunt.

If she was a difficult daughter, Indira was also a diligent pupil of his politics, although Harold Laski advised her to get out of her father’s shadow. The two large volumes of Nehru-Indira letters, Freedom’s Daughter and Two Alone, Two Together show she developed a mind of her own.

Indira Gandhi insisted that her father did not discuss official matters with her and that her induction into politics was the work of Govind Ballabh Pant and U.N. Dhebar. But the turn of events forced her to become her father’s close companion. She also secured a position of her own in the Congress Party. But her role in the ouster of the Communist government in Kerala certainly did not please him.

However the belief was prevalent that Nehru was grooming her for power. Her name appeared regularly In “After Nehru, Who?” lists. But Nehru himself, in one of his last encounters with the press, declared, “How can I rule from my grave?”

How do we compare them? Indira was very much her father’s daughter in courage, in energy, and in dedication to India and its people. His intellectual horizons were much wider. But Indira Gandhi’s intuitive feel for history and her capacity to understand the modern world deserve better recognition.

The striking difference between the two was that every issue, even a political one, was to him basically a moral question, whereas she was a pragmatist who used all the weapons available to her for achieving her purpose.

Courtesy: The Asian Age

Photograph: Femina editor Vimla Patil interviews Indira Gandhi, with H.Y. Sharada Prasad, then the prime minister’s press secretary, in the background, in 1974 (courtesy vimlapatil.com)