Portrait Of A Patriot Prime Minister
Indira Gandhi; Inder Malhotra; National Book Trust, India: pp 197, Rs 200.00
By M.V. Kamath
Writing biographies is a dangerous pre-occupation. Writing about a celebrity like Indira Gandhi is even more so. It is not that Inder Malhotra, a distinguished journalist and author is not aware of it. Indeed, he was one of the earliest to attempt a biography of India'sfirst?and so far, only?woman Prime Minister entitled Indira Gandhi: A Personal & Political Biography, published by Hodder & Stoughton, in 1989. At that time he felt that it was necessary to break the vicious cycle of hagiography and demonology and offer a portraiture of Indira as objectively as possible. That he should write what is clearly a follow-up is interesting,
His explanation for doing so is that ?Indira'scountrymen have begun to realise, and to say, that the yeoman services she rendered to India far exceeded the undoubted mistakes and blunders she committed?. Whether that is a correct reading of the situation is another matter.
But let this be said: Malhotra writes with authority. In the first place he lived through the entire period of Indira'slong rule and sad end as a journalist, closely following her political life at practically every step. And, in the course of the last seventeen years he has had time for reflection. Age helps give thought a better perspective.
Malhotra admits that in this new and abridged work ?there is nothing startlingly new? to say, which is fair enough. For all that here and there one comes across some startling anecdotes which underlines Indira'spolitical sophistication.
She may have been unprincipled in some ways and could hardly boast of an adequate academic education. But as even B.N. Tandon who worked in Indira'soffice admits, she was politically very astute. When, following Pakistan'sdefeat in what came to be known as the Bangladesh War she declined to attack West Pakistan as well, there were some who would have preferred India to complete its ?unfinished Job?. To them she had a simple answer: ?In Bangladesh, the people were with us; in West Pakistan, the people and the Army would be battling to defend their homes. We should not subject our forces to undue ordeals.? That may be political wisdom and she certainly had the military leadership'swhole-hearted endorsement.
But, if one is to believe a British journalist, Christina Lamb who covered Pakistan during the entire regime of Benazir Bhutto, were India to invade, it would have had the full support of a large percentage of the people, especially in Sindh and Baluchistan. Indira probably stayed away from taking over Pakistan out of concern about American policy. Any attack on West Pakistan would have brought the United States in the picture. And that would have raised an international problem out of which India would have found it hard to extricate itself. In writing this new work one wishes Malhotra had access to the diaries of B.N. Tandon whose PMO Diary I and II throw plenty of light on Indira.
Tandon was in the PMO'soffice and in constant touch with Indira and has hardly any good word to say about her. Not that Malhotra is unaware of Indira'sshortcomings. As he puts it, no one can rule guilelessly, nor, one might add, is anyone, however great, free from faults, flaws and foibles? and he adds: ?In pursuit of ends, national or personal, she could be indifferent to means, and, when necessary, economised with the truth. She made grievous mistakes and grievously did she pay for them.?
Malhotra is kind to Inder Gujral who was Information Minister. Tandon has something different to say about Gujral.
Apparently Gujral had written a note to the Prime Minister that said that song writers in films should write their songs and poems against Jayaprakash Narayan and other opponents of the ruling party and in favour of government and that his ministry would propagate them! Could it have been that Sanjay Gandhi prompted him to write that note? For all his respect for Indira, Malhotra does not spare her, nor does he spare Sanjay.
Om Mehta, junior minister at the Ministry of Home Affairs was part of the Sanjay ?team? and apparently worked independently of the then Home Minister. Writes Malhotra: ?The Home Minister, Brahmananda Reddy, was to be bypassed not only on that fateful night (when Emergency was declared) but also throughout the Emergency. This pattern was replicated in various other Ministries and institutions as time went by.?
On many issues, Malhotra and Tandon share undestanding and agreement. Both have great admiration for P.N. Haksar. Malhotra says that Haksar did ?not derive all his authority from Indira Gandhi. He contributed in no small measure to her own dominance?. Like so many close to her at one time or other like P.N. Dhar or Prof Dhar, Haksar too was a fellow Kashmiri with whom, no doubt, Indira felt comfortable.
Was Indira vindictive or was she just street smart? One of her first acts in her second innings?after she was returned to power following the Janata debacle?was to pay back the Janata in its own coin. Three years earlier the Desai government had dismissed Congress governments in nine states on the excuse that the Congress party had forfeited its mandate at the State level too. Using the same argument when she was returned to power Indira dissolved the nine State Assemblies and ordered fresh elections. This time the Congress won back all of them. What would one call it: political astuteness, political vindictiveness or just plain greed for power? If we are to believe Malhotra, with the passage of time even former critics have mellowed down. That usually happens. The evil that men (and women) do does not always live after them. It is doubtful that Indira has found her way back into her former critics? hearts. But it is possible that the critics are more charitable.
Malhotra'snew work?or an abridgement of his earlier work with some fresh additions?could possibly place Indira in a better light. Certainly it is not wasted effort. Time heals old wounds. And if it is the intention of Malhotra to present Indira in a different and pleasanter light why would anyone want to quarrel with him? For all her faults Indira was always a patriot till her last breath. And, in the end, that is all that should matter.
(Published by National Book Trust, A-5, Green Park, New Delhi-110 016, India.)