Pranay Gupte, a veteran journalist, author and columnist, first wrote a biography of Indira Gandhi in 1992. This is a revised edition supposedly meant to mark the 25th anniversary of her assassination. It is more detailed in its recounting the life and times of one of the most charismatic if not controversial of Prime Ministers the country had had-and it had many. Encyclopedia in its contents, anecdotal beyond imagination, detailed in its analysis and almost devastatingly ruthless in its conclusions, in writing it, Gupte claims modestly, he has “tried to relay the key facts and to interpret them, often in the light of what others have written”.
Writing a biography of a major politician can never be an easy task. Individuals-not necessarily just politicians-by and large are multi-faceted. Their character, approach to life and acceptability to the public are determined by factors often beyond the realm of understanding. Gupte has tried hard and it is anyone’s guess the extent to which he has succeeded. He accepts his limitations. As he put it: “Indira Gandhi’s life covered such a huge span of modern Indian history that any biographer is forced to be highly selective about which events to include and highlight”. That is being honest.
Gupte’s own belief-which he has tried hard to present-is that Indira Gandhi is sui generies, unique, one of her kind, which is a reasonable conclusion. He adds: “We will never again see the like of her”, which is true. She was a woman of her times. Times change and there can never be a duplication of earlier leaders. What is astounding about this book is the sheer range of topics-personal, political, social intellectual-that it deals with, often with remarkable case Indira is put under the microscope with deliberate intent. Her thoughts, feelings, behaviour under often trying circumstances, are ruthlessly exposed. Her moments of joy, of despair, her relationship with her mother, father, aunts, husband, relatives and friends-even with MO Mathai, Nehru’s secretary and Swaraj Paul, the wealthy Indian entrepreneur in Britain described by some as “the foreign-based manager of the Gandhi family’s ill-gotten fortune” are described, not often with approbation. They do not reflect too well on Indira’s personality. She could be sullen as when she refused to talk with her father who disapproved of her fascination for Feroze whom she finally married. She could be ruthless as when she handled the political situation in Kerala when she got the Communist government of the State dismissed; she could be politically astute as when she exploited the rift between East and West Pakistan to bring about a new State, Bangladesh, but over-considerate when she listened to the advice of their political advisor, PN Haksar, in giving in to the pleas of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as big a humbug as ever lived-and letting go of a chance to settle the Jammu & Kashmir issue once and for all.
If she had unrepentant admirers she also had unforgiving enemies. And they were many. She was often difficult to understand. A charlatan named Dhirendra Brahmachari, reputed to be corrupt and as sexual debauch seemed to have accessive excess to her which almost turned into a major scandal. Jayaprakash Narayan, a veteran of the freedom struggle, and once an ally of Nehru, felt it necessary to rouse popular sentiment against her, claiming “India needs ¬ nothing less than a total revolution”. India, under her, had touched such a low level. The revolution that Jayaprakash sponsored failed, but it led to the imposition of Emergency, attracting strong condemnation from the entire country and the world besides. In those eighteen odd months of Emergency, Indira let her dictatorial son, Sanjay Gandhi literally take over the country’s administration, threatening anyone who did not follow his ruinous orders with dire consequences.
If there is one aspect of her life which history will emphasise most, it will be the Emergency which saw democracy throttled and almost done to death. Yes, she withdrew it and paid for her folly with the whole country determined to teach her a lesson. But in no time she was back again in power because of the terrible mess that her opponents had made during the short time they governed. But she erred again, this time in Punjab. She never learnt that in politics, as in life, wrong means do not justify right ends. That right means, no matter how unrewarding they may sound in the beginning, always make sense while wrong means inevitably tend to prove disastrous, as her early support to Sant Bhindranwale was to show.
Needless to say Gupte has much to say how Indira dealt with Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Nepal, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and even France (she astounded General de Gaulle with her fluency in French) with commendable aplomb and objectivity. She knew how to deal with such vicious characters as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger who held her in disdain and managed to get better of them to their eternal chagrin. Of course, back home, she occasionally overstepped certain limits. Gupte points out the many “missed opportunities” that came in her way. At the same time, Gupte says that “if, at some future date, Third World countries are able to participate more fully in determining the destiny of our planet, much credit will have to be given to Indira Gandhi….”
Towards the end, Gupte devotes a full Chapter to her son Rajiv and his wife, Sonia. His final assessment of Indira Gandhi, however, remains incontestable. He writes: “A contemporary political assessment of Indira Gandhi cannot but be harsh. But perhaps History will measure Indira Gandhi by another yardstick. Did India benefit from her stewardship with all its struggles and flows? And the answer may well be in the affirmative if Indira’s vision of a united and secular India withstands the vicissitudes of today’s corruptive politics”. Gupte is not optimistic about the future of India, though. In a way he lays the blame, as most of our secularists do-on the “vicious intolerance emanating from the Hindus”. His remedy to “resuscitate the once buoyant hopes for economic, social and political development in India” is in instituting a “presidential form of government” that would be “less of a hostage to parochail disputes”. May be he is right, on the subject of his original choice, Indira Gandhi, however, he is remarkably fair. He deserves commendation.
(Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017)