Catch a schoolchild today and she is likely to know just two things about Indira Gandhi — Emergency and Operation Blue Star. Catch many young adults and they’d likely know the same words at the same level of depth. Indira as trivia. Even if your interest in political biographies or history is relatively minor, you are likely to find journalist Sagarika Ghose’s new book Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister, extremely engaging.
Little bits jump out. The image of Indira Gandhi as a careful hostess, taking care to decorate and arrange Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s living quarters at Himachal Bhawan before the peace talks in Simla in June 1972. Or the rumour of her affair with her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s secretary MO Mathai. Or even imagining a 60-year-old Indira journeying to Belchhi in Bihar atop an elephant in pouring rain.
Journalist Sagarika Ghose’s book is a detailed study of the Prime Minister’s life, a “no-holds-barred” biographical portrait. In it, the author not just looks at issues like the Emergency, or her failed marriage or her son Sanjay Gandhi’s curious grip over her, but also contains a dialogue with Indira Gandhi’s ghost through letters, asking her questions that Ghose imagines other citizens would have also had for her.
In an interview with The Ladies Finger, Ghose talks about whether Indira Gandhi was shaped more by the men in her life than the women, how the former PM faced tremendous hate and misogyny (she was called a “goongi gudiya”), and how her death might have rehabilitated her image.
In the course of researching Indira, how did your image of her change?
Before I started, she was to me a cardboard cutout, a stereotype. I had, of course, been fascinated by Indira Gandhi. For Indian women, she has been hardwired into our DNA in some way. But I hadn’t delved as deeply into her persona as I did through the course of my research and I found that politically I was disappointed and shocked with the kind of things she did and the politics she played. But as a woman, I found her uniquely attractive. I found that she had tremendous grace and charm, she was a very contradictory, very fascinating kind of a person. She was an extraordinary person. She was the only PM to head a birdwatching society. But her political legacy was a disaster.
Did the manner of Indira Gandhi’s death rehabilitate her public image?
I don’t think people remember her for the bad things she did. If you go to her memorial museum [Safdarjung Road, New Delhi], her death has made her into a legend. People literally pour into that museum, and there are more people who come there than to Mahatma Gandhi’s Raj Ghat. I went to her memorial museum thrice during the course of my book and I was shocked. Thousands of people come there on a daily basis. A lot of South Indians come. As far as south India is concerned, in the 1977 elections (after the emergency), she won in south India; the Congress did really well. It was in north India that the Congress was defeated — in UP, Bihar, Rajasthan etc. Both Andhra and Karnataka stayed firmly with Indira Gandhi.
I think her appeal was more than how we understand it today. Maybe we have a very stereotypical notion of her — that she imposed the Emergency and she was roundly rejected by the country. In fact, she was only rejected in north India. And the percentage of the votes that the Congress (34) got after the Emergency was higher than the percentage of the votes that Narendra Modi got to win this election. I think her appeal really transcended how we imagine her today. She was much more popular than we give her credit for. Her death made her into a martyr.
In your book, why did you decide to write letters to Indira’s ghost?
As a citizen of India, I wanted to write about Indira Gandhi from the point of view of today. And to look at her in today’s context and how people would see her today and assess her legacy. So I got this idea, maybe because I’m a journalist, and I’m used to asking questions: If she was sitting across from me in a television studio, what would I have asked her. I also feel that her presence looms large still, in India. Which is why I think any citizen of India would perhaps like to ask her these questions. The letters are a kind of a dialogue and I also thought it might be interesting to the reader to break the format of the narrative and also have a direct communication with her ghost.
You talk of Indira Gandhi in binaries — tomboy and dowager, living in darkness and light, absolute power and frailty.
She was an old woman tomboy! She was a proficient skier, a very good horse rider, a swimmer, she could ride elephants… Which 60-year-old woman would jump onto an elephant barebacked? But I think she was more man than woman, which again was because of the way she grew up. I think the man in her was dominant and she wasn’t publicly feminine and nurturing kind of a force. Quite aggressive, taking charge, very much of a control freak… Very much a natural leader.
How much did misogyny contribute to the all-round condemnation of her?
That’s something I also think about a lot. At the moment we see her in the kind of lurid terms that we do, because of the way men have interpreted her… any aggressive woman or an ambitious woman is always seen as a ‘witch’ and a ‘demoness’ and these are the kind of words that are used. And a man who is similarly ambitious and aggressive is never seen that way. But there was tremendous jealousy of her from a lot of men and I think the way she has been caricatured and the way she has been portrayed is a lot to do with the fact that she was a woman. But, on the other hand, it’s not as if she was all good either. The fact is that she did do a lot of damage to India and Indian democracy. It’s not without reason that she’s criticised. But somewhere the viciousness and the stereotypical kind of crudity of language was used against her was a lot to do with misogyny.
Do you feel like Indira was more shaped by the men than the women in her life?
Her mother was really important to her — she was very protective of her mother, who remained all her life a moral and emotional symbol. Her mother’s purity and her beauty and the fact that her mother was always victimised by her in-laws… She was a very rare only child in the early 20th century and also a girl child. And the eldest child of the eldest son, who in that traditional situation would’ve been expected to be male, she had to live up to certain masculine ideas of power, physical fitness (Nehru was determined that she’d be physically fit). She was forced to live up to masculine ideals but emotionally, she was much closer to the women in her life, like her mother and even her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi. She wasn’t emotionally close to her father.
You write about how Sanjay needed Indira and then you mention Indira referring to India as a baby. To Indira, were India and Sanjay helpless babies she wanted to protect?
That’s true. At one point she says, “India’s like a baby.” She was a controlling matriarch and saw the country as a child and Sanjay as a child to be protected and indulged… There was no question in her mind that the Nehru-Gandhis were going to rule India. Constitutional democracy just wasn’t her thing. It remains a big mystery as to why she indulged Sanjay as she did. Again, I think it was because she could trust nobody else, by the time she had become so powerful. She fell back on her family. And I think she genuinely admired him in some way and in some way, he was her in a male form. You know when she was young she aspired to be a boy… This daring, restless little boy to her was an alter-ego of herself.
Those are the two sides of her personality, and that’s the darkness and the light. The darkness is Sanjay’s mother and the light is Nehru’s daughter. I think at the end of the day, sadly, she turned out to be Sanjay’s mother than Nehru’s daughter. These two relationships really defined her. But in moments of crisis she did become Nehru’s daughter. For example, when she decided to call off the Emergency, she recalled how Nehru practised his politics, she did recall how he gave up his life for constitutionally democracy and democratic freedom; there was a lot of Nehru in her and she looked on him with nostalgia. But I think she fundamentally thought of him as weak, that he didn’t play tough politics and he didn’t punish his detractors.
How would Indira stack up against leaders of today?
I think what set her apart from everybody else was sheer physical stamina, the endurance. She walked and traveled incessantly, she was always on the road, living on liquid diets, she was travelling in the heat in an Ambassador… Language riots, she was there; communal riots, she was there; when China invaded, she was at the front. She knew how to capture the political movement.
How much are Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi alike — with their authoritarian tendencies and the ability to charm and hold the crowd?
I think Modi imitates her. And as I write in the introduction, almost every politician today looks at the Indira Gandhi playbook and she wrote that original playbook of the supremo within the party. She was a high command leader, the leader who utterly dominates the party in the government and who reaches out over the head of the party to the people directly, the leader who overrides conditional norms, the leader who doesn’t have much faith in the constitution who doesn’t abide by institutional norms. She was India’s original supremo. Jayalalithaa was imitating her, Mamata Banerjee is imitating her, Modi is imitating her. Which is why I think it’s important we remember that. It was a woman who wrote the playbook of Indian politics today — the Indirafication of politics is very much alive and well. A slightly unfortunate legacy, but it’s something that she did.
Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister by Sagarika Ghose is available in bookstores and on Juggernaut. All photos courtesy Juggernaut.