Is another biography on Indira Gandhi relevant in the age of Modi?

Sagarika Ghose's book is a decent primer for anyone wanting to know about India's only female PM.

 |  4-minute read |   16-07-2017
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It’s difficult to write a book on Indira Gandhi. So many shades, so many colours, and so many ideologies. In fact, sometimes her contradictions were so glaring that she was accused of being bereft of any ideological moorings. And this made her both a challenge as well as delight for biographers.

Sagarika Ghose is the latest to join the long list of biographers. Though the book is getting polarising reviews, with the vast majority in the social media trashing it outright, the fact is it’s a decent primer for anyone wanting to know Indira. The author has drawn from the work of several historians and biographers, and seamlessly brought together different narratives.

It’s a job well done given the fact that Sagarika herself intended to do just that when the publisher wanted her “to bring Indira alive for a new generation”.


The book attempts to paint a comprehensive picture of the otherwise enigmatic, often paradoxical, Indira. She was, after all, the living epitome of Goddess Durga, but privately she was meek, insecure and submissive. She fought for the freedom of press in Uttar Pradesh as a young politician, but as PM she put in place the worst form of nationwide censorship on the media.

She took pride in secular, rational values and yet depended too much on godmen and astrologers, especially towards the end of her life. She was convinced for a long, long time, as Katherine Frank reveals in her biography, about being “ugly and stupid”, as the young Indira was called by her aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit. And yet during her US visit in the late 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson was so enamoured by her that he stayed on tossing glass after glass of bourbon on the rocks while talking to her.

So, who was Indira? Was she strong and audacious as she had been projected, or was she submissive and meek as her relationship with the family, especially the younger son Sanjay, showed?

indirabk_071617050112.jpgIndira: India's Most Powerful Prime Minister, by Sagarika Ghose Juggernaut Books; Rs 699.

Indira’s Dr-Jekyll-and-Mr-Hyde personality, when analysed dispassionately, appears to be interlinked, as Sagarika hints through the book. Indira, the “tough dictator”, as the author calls her, was mostly the result of Indira, the “insecure daughter”. The genesis of it all can be found in her troubled, and often ignored, childhood in Anand Bhawan — the palatial abode of the Nehrus in Allahabad.

Frank mentions an interesting anecdote when BK Nehru, Indira’s cousin and India’s ambassador to the US, asked why he had no recollection of her during the childhood. “I was right there,” Indira answered, “but no one ever noticed me.” The only person Indira could relate to — and empathise with — was her mother, Kamala Nehru, who was elegant and beautiful, but treated scornfully by her "Anglicised" and "sophisticated" in-laws, especially her aunts, for not being accustomed to "high-society" life.

Nayantara Sahgal writes, in her book, how at the time of Kamala Gandhi’s death, Indira “saw her (Kamala) being hurt” and “was determined not to be hurt.” Feroze Gandhi came to her life around Kamala Nehru’s death, as a pillar of support. As Indira confessed several years later that Feroze “was always there for me”, she couldn’t have let him go away.

The marriage, however, didn’t work and she blamed herself for her two kids, especially Sanjay, growing up without a father. Indira could see her own plight in Sanjay’s. Coomi Kapoor writes in her book, The Emergency, that Sanjay adored Feroze Gandhi and “believed that his father had been abandoned and that the neglect of his well-being had led to his early death from a heart attack.”

This sense of guilt seemed to have made Indira gloss over Sanjay’s excesses. One suspects the book also aimed at reminding the readers of the perils of a strong, decisive leadership gone wrong, especially when the contemporary India has a powerful prime minister.

Thankfully, Sagarika resists the temptation of blatantly bringing in Narendra Modi into the narrative, something which her critics often accuse her of doing in the past. Also, her "letters to Indira" seem self-indulgent. But, on the whole, especially in a country where history is learnt only in passing, the book has its relevance.

Read it as a primer on Indira, but if you expect any scholarly revelations or in-depth analysis, you would be in for a disappointment.

(Courtesy: Mail Today.)

Also read: 9 things we didn't know about Indira Gandhi


Utpal Kumar Utpal Kumar @utpal_kumar1

The writer is Associate Editor, Mail Today.

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