Why yet another book on Indira Gandhi? After so many authoritative biographies? Perhaps it’s because the Idea of Indira remains so very powerful even today, and she remains, for better or worse, the embodiment of leadership.
President Pranab Mukherjee once remarked in an informal conversation that only two people would attract instant crowds even in inaccessible parts like the North Pole: the Pope and Indira Gandhi! In January 2006, a nationwide survey conducted by CSDS, the respected social studies think-tank, placed Indira Gandhi as the second-most recognized Indian after Mahatma Gandhi and ahead of her father Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Mahatma is the universally revered Father of the Nation, whose face is embossed on rupee notes and who lends his name to at least one major street in almost every Indian city. By contrast, the legacy of Indira Gandhi, who died in 1984, assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards, is fraught and contested. Where the Mahatma’s rallying cry for freedom united a subjugated people against colonial rule, Indira Gandhi’s combative brand of politics is seen as sharply polarizing. She suspended individual rights by declaring an Emergency in 1975, split the Congress, was accused of subverting institutions and giving democratic India its first taste of dictatorship. And yet, 22 years after her death, she was still firmly etched in the popular imagination of the country, admired and reviled in almost equal measure. Even the man whose approval she sought the most, Jawaharlal Nehru, her beloved ‘Papu’, was ranked behind her in the poll.
What explains the enduring mystique of Indira Gandhi? Why is it that in remote hamlets and bustling small towns, senior citizens will instantly become emotional on hearing her name? Why is it that swelling crowds pour in to her memorial museum housed in her former home, 1 Safdarjung Road in New Delhi, in far greater numbers than even to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial, the Gandhi Smriti, or even to his cremation site, Rajghat? Why is it that Congress members even two generations later are forced to turn to Indira Gandhi as their passport to relevance at the ballot box?
‘Indiraamma’ to her devoted supporters south of the Vindhyas, ‘Indiraji’ in the Hindi heartland, she was venerated as an avatar of Durga, yet vilified as the woman who turned politics into family raj. No other Indian politician has attracted such sharply contrasting responses. Perhaps, Narendra Modi could claim to similarly divide public opinion and his style of highly personalized politics perhaps draws on the Indira example, but even Modi has not been able to bridge the north-south, urban-rural and rich-poor divide as only Indira Gandhi — the original Indian mass leader with the famous despotic streak — managed to do.
Which is why the centenary year of Indira Gandhi is an opportune moment to unravel the many often contradictory strands that defined the former prime minister’s complicated personality. Who really was this child of privilege, who spent her early years surrounded by towering men and women of destiny, but who in her adult life appeared to turn her back on the democratic idealism that had inspired such great sacrifice from so many?
The imposition of the Emergency in 1975 turned the searchlight on the darker side of the Indira persona. She became the imperious, authoritarian figure who would not tolerate dissent and was a prisoner of her devotion to her son, a love of family that outstripped her commitment to the Constitution. That she came back to power three years later only mirrored how her domineering presence almost dwarfed everyone else at the time. She was the original political beneficiary of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor, yet she also had an instinctive connect with people that enabled a kind of spectacular comeback that no other politician has so far been able to achieve after crushing defeat.
Indira Gandhi, most controversial, most powerful. India’s original power politician, who defended India like a tigress defends her cubs, but whose all-enveloping sari almost suffocated her precious children. In this centenary year I explore the Idea Of Indira in my new book. I hope you will enjoy going on this exciting and tumultuous journey with Indira Gandhi as much as I did.
Excerpted from the introduction of Sagarika Ghose’s forthcoming book, ‘Indira Gandhi: Her Life and Afterlife’.
Comeback Queen: How Indira Gandhi Outsmarted the Vengeful Janata Government, a mini-blockbuster by Sagarika Ghose, is now available on Juggernaut here.