Decoding Indira

Ambika Shaligram
Sunday, 10 September 2017

While talking about her recently released book Indira: India’s Most Powerful Minister, at PILF, journalist Sagarika Ghose discusses the former Prime Minister’s frailties, insecurities and her tenacious fighting spirit

“Handloom weaves were what she loved; she was a woman of letters, literally speaking. She and her father exchanged their thoughts and missives through letters; she was the original Baahubali of India; also you could term her ‘dabang’.”

The ‘she’ Sagarika Ghose was referring to, at a session at PILF, is the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, also hailed as ‘Goddess Durga’ for leading the country to victory in 1971 war against Pakistan. In the same period, informed Ghose, when Gandhi was lobbying in the US to highlight the cause of East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) refugees, spilling over in India, she snubbed Richard Nixon.

“Nixon and Gandhi had a cathartic brawl when the two met. Nixon had made it clear to his aide, Henry Kissinger, that he ‘didn’t like Indians’ and that ‘old lady (referring to Gandhi) is a witch.’ When the two met again for a State dinner hosted in her honour, Gandhi snubbed Nixon, by keeping her eyes shut throughout the meal. Nixon didn’t know what to do. At the press conference next day, she addressed the media in chaste French, which again Nixon didn’t understand. She wore a condescending air when she was around Nixon. That’s a classic Indira Gandhi for you,” Ghose said while speaking about her recently released book, Indira: India’s Most Powerful Minister, at PILF.

When asked by fellow scribe, Shantanu Guha Ray, about the timing of the book, Ghose said, “This is her birth centenary year. Also, I wanted to let the youngsters know what she meant to the people of my generation. We were teenagers in 1984, when she was assassinated. And, we remember very clearly what we were doing when she was gunned down. It’s a watershed moment in India’s history. So through the letters that I wrote to her in the book, I was trying to build her persona for those born after 1984.”

The book, which is full of anecdotes and observations, gives the readers a peek into the Indira era — how she and Nehru didn’t get along, Nehru’s disappointment at her not doing well in academics, his goading her into fitness, how he thought that she would eventually do something in ‘interior decoration’, and how he hadn’t groomed her for politics. “But she rose to the occasion, threw herself into things, always responded authoritatively and quickly,” said Ghose and narrated another anecdote, “After she had lost the elections post-Emergency, she had become persona non-grata. Around the same time, atrocities were committed on dalits in a village in North. On hearing this, Gandhi travelled to the nearest town in a railway, then hopped on to a tractor and for the last few kilometres, travelled on an elephant. This shows her tenacious fighting spirit.”  

The journalist has analysed how Gandhi’s decisions also damaged some of the democratic institutions of the country. She has also put on record the vulnerabilities and insecurities that Gandhi harboured. “Gandhi’s vulnerabilities are all to be seen when Sanjay Gandhi entered politics. It was her blind faith in him that led to some of her damaging decisions,” explained Ghose.

“However, the ‘Indira Gandhi Playbook’ — the way she ran the country — is referred to and practised by all those who want to stay in power, including Narendra Modi and Amit Shah,” Ghose concluded.

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