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Mrs. India

1.

Anand Bhavan, the family mansion of the Nehrus, lies in the small North Indian city of Allahabad. It was bought by Motilal Nehru, the lawyer-father of Jawaharlal, in 1898. It was later added to, and turned into a base for the Congress Party that led India’s freedom movement and then ruled India for four decades after independence. It is only a five-minute walk from the campus of Allahabad University, where I lived as an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s, and it is strange to think now that I hardly ever went there.

Not that there was much to see. You walked through the wide verandas and balconies and peered into rooms where French meals were once served on Dresden china with Czech glasses, and where, in a more political time, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and other great men of the Congress Party discussed ways of liberating India from colonial rule. In a newer building on the large walled compound, you could see peasant women in gaudy nylon saris shuffling shyly through an ill-lit gallery of photographs from hopeful times: of Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, inaugurating dams and factories—what he called “the new temples of India”; Nehru with other celebrities of the postcolonial world, Nasser, Sukarno, Nkrumah; and Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, in an elegant silk sari, hugging Fidel Castro at a summit meeting of nonaligned nations.
In Allahabad, a decaying city whose brief moment of glory belonged to the anti-colonial struggle, you couldn’t but feel distant from these celebrations of postcolonial nationalism and third-world solidarity. It was also hard not to wonder what, if anything, the peasant visitors made of the photographs. Most of them came on day trips from the vast rural region around Allahabad where the young Jawaharlal Nehru had, after his seven years at Harrow and Cambridge, first been exposed to “the degradation and overwhelming poverty of India.” Their parents and grandparents were probably among the enthusiastic voters who, after independence, repeatedly elected Nehru to the Indian parliament from a rural constituency near Allahabad. But they themselves had remained close to destitution: even two years ago, I could still see people in the villages around Allahabad begging their rare election-time visitors from the cities for drinking water and primary schools and culverts.1

Things haven’t changed much even for those with privileged access to the owners of Anand Bhavan. In the late 1970s, Dom Moraes, the Indian writer and poet, met an old couple, Becchu and his wife Sonia, who had worked as servants in the house for much of the century. Moraes was then researching a semi-authorized biography of Indira Gandhi; the officials in charge of Anand Bhavan let him take out the leatherbound books from the shelves and discover Nehru’s interest in Balzac, Dickens, Maugham, and Koestler. The same officials, one rainy day at Anand Bhavan, brought Becchu and Sonia to see Moraes, and told him that “Becchu was beating Sonia too much. Now he is not beating. Since she is becoming blind, he is taking care.”

The two of them sat before Moraes, “dripping and shivering after coming in from the cold.” The interview wasn’t a success. Moraes got only a blurred picture of the “splendour, hedonism, and ostentation,” that had marked life at Anand Bhavan until the early 1920s, when Gandhi, the charismatic new leader of the freedom movement, partly converted the Nehrus to his ascetic and defiantly Indian lifestyle. Becchu, a “skinny old man,” kept shouting at his wife in between fits of crying. His “convulsive sobs turned into positive roars of sorrow” when Moraes mentioned Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the national elections she had held two years after imposing, in 1975, a “state of emergency” on India and suspending civil rights.

Becchu’s grief, however, was more personal. During her nine years as prime minister of India Mrs. Gandhi had promised him a pension; it hadn’t been paid and it now looked very unlikely after her defeat. An unsettled Moraes tried to console him with a big tip. Becchu stretched out a “wizened hand” for the rupee notes; but his wife, “blind or not,” was quicker. “She whipped the money away and stuffed it in her blouse” and “Becchu started to cry once more.”2

Nehru was often perceived by foreign visitors as a “lonely Indian aristocrat… presiding over his deficient but devoted peasantry.”3 But the description “aristocrat,” which Nehru himself encouraged, is too easily achieved in India. You only need to be placed slightly above the general wretchedness.

The Nehrus were Brahmins from Kashmir who became in the early eighteenth century minor courtiers to Mughal emperors in Delhi. After the British destroyed Muslim power in India in the nineteenth century, the Nehrus found new roles in the new imperial dispensation. Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal’s father, was trained as a lawyer; and he moved to Allahabad in 1886 to practice in the new high court that the British had set up. He first lived in Allahabad’s old “native” quarters—a brothel filled with very young Nepalese women now stands on the site of his house. But he outgrew these modest beginnings very fast, in time with the rise in Allahabad’s importance as an administrative and educational center. There was much money to be made from representing in court the decadent and exuberantly litigious landed gentry of North India—the upstart men rewarded with grants of land by the British for their loyalty during the mutiny of 1857—and soon after buying Anand Bhavan, Motilal acquired liveried servants, horses, an English chauffeur for his imported car, and an Irish tutor for his son, and started to order his clothes from Savile Row.
These were also the affectations of the half-literate landlords he represented. In Bengal, where India’s first modern culture was almost a century old, these aspirations to respectability would have been met with sarcasm: Rabindranath Tagore and then Nirad Chaudhuri wrote witheringly of the shallow and gaudy Anglicization of socially ambitious Indians. In feudal North India, which possessed little of the self-confident egalitarian spirit of the Bengal Renaissance, the meeting of East and West usually resulted in tackiness and a crude kind of snobbery: Nehru’s younger sister, who was educated by an English governess, looked down upon Nehru’s wife, Kamla, mostly because the latter could not speak fluent English.

As his letters to this sister, Vijaylaxmi Pandit, reveal, Nehru was closer to her than to the woman his father had bullied him into marrying—he later gave Mrs. Pandit glamorous ambassadorial jobs in London, Moscow, and Washington.4 At a crucial moment in India’s transition to independence in 1947, Nehru confided more in Lord Mountbatten, the pompous and incompetent last viceroy of India, than in many of his Indian colleagues, including Gandhi. But then Nehru’s greater intimacy with English or Anglicized people, which Gandhi himself remarked upon, was hardly the result of his upbringing in Allahabad.

His intellectual and emotional outlook were formed by his early years in England, by the strain of liberalism in English life, of which the Fabians, whom he admired, were an obvious manifestation. This later made him a hero to Anglicized Indians. But in India he was restless and alienated, with a mystical longing for the Himalayas; and he was actually floundering until he met Gandhi, who set him out on the path to individual greatness by first alerting him to his world—the awakening Nehru later elaborated upon in such books as A Discovery of India—and then by anointing him, among many deserving aspirants, his political heir.
India became, after independence, Nehru’s private laboratory for the ideas—a state-controlled economy, industrialization—he had picked up from his reading and travels. It also forgave mistakes of the kind—his refusal to share power with Muslim leaders made inevitable the partition of India, his complacent belief in pan-Asian solidarity led to India’s military humiliation by China in 1962—that would have tainted the career of any politician.

Other postcolonial leaders were similarly unassailable. But unlike Nasser, Nkrumah, and Sukarno, Nehru was aware of the dangers in his situation. In 1937, the Modern Review, a prominent Indian magazine of the time, published the following anonymous analysis of Nehru. “He has all the makings of a dictator in him—vast popularity …an intolerance of others and certain contempt for the weak and inefficient…. His overmastering desire to get things done, to sweep away what he dislikes and build anew, will hardly brook for long the slow process of democracy….”5

This remarkably acute description of a postcolonial leader in a hurry looks more impressive when you learn that the author was Nehru himself. It was the kind of thing that probably made Nehru appear to his daughter like “a saint who strayed into politics.” Certainly, such self-awareness was absent from Indira’s own life; the gap between father and daughter was wide. “You are such a stranger to me,” Nehru once wrote to her, “and perhaps you do not know much about me.”

Indira, in fact, liked to think of herself as a “tough politician”—one of her more accurate self-descriptions. Interestingly, as Katherine Frank reminds us in her scrupulous, consistently engaging biography, very little in Indira’s early life hinted at the toughness. Born in 1917, just as the freedom struggle got into high gear, she grew up in a distracted household. Nehru was usually away, in prison or traveling across India. It was Indira who accompanied her perennially ill mother to various spas and sanatoriums in India and Europe, and, in the process, drifted through nine schools in Switzerland, England, and India, without distinguishing herself at any one of them. Her star fellow pupil at Badminton School in England was the English novelist Iris Murdoch, who later remembered Indira as being “very unhappy, very lonely.”

The unsettled upbringing probably only deepened the usual insecurities of adolescence. She was “tall for her age and thin,” Frank writes, “with a large nose and skin she felt was too dark.” Mrs. Pandit, who didn’t think Nehru’s wife was good enough for him, also didn’t much rate his daughter, Indira, whom she described as “ugly and stupid,” a remark that Indira overheard as an adolescent and took with her into her tormented old age, its wound still unhealed, or so she claimed to a close friend a few months before she was assassinated in 1984.6

Indira later tried to inject some excitement and glamour into what had been a dull, anxiety-infested childhood and adolescence. Dom Moraes reports her claim that she saw from her house in Allahabad the British police shooting dead Chandrashekhar Azad, an Indian revolutionary. This is quite implausible, given the considerable distance between Anand Bhavan and the park where Azad was killed. And the most convincing rebuttal of her claim that she was ill-treated in a British prison comes from Mrs. Pandit’s daughter, Nayantara Sahgal, who, in a shrewd book about her ambitious cousin, excerpted letters written at the time from the same prison by her mother that attest to the kid-glove treatment the Nehrus generally got from their British jailers.7

She lives in a world of dreams and vagaries,” Nehru had noted when Indira was seventeen years old. “Extraordinarily self-centred…remarkably selfish,” he wrote to his sister. “She must have depths.” Nehru hoped that his daughter would travel and learn languages, and then, just as he himself had, “with this background of mental training and a wider culture discover the fascinating place that is India.” With this in mind, while in prison, Nehru dedicated to her a book of letters about world history—it wasn’t read by Indira until several years later. After his wife Kamla’s death in 1936, he arranged for Indira to study at Somerville College, Oxford, but she preferred to hang out with some fashionably left-wing Indian friends in London and failed her Latin exams twice.

He was probably most disappointed by her intention, soon after returning from England in early 1940, to marry one of the hangers-on at Anand Bhavan, a Parsi young man called Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi). He registered his own protest against the “absurd haste of a marriage” and then brought much pressure upon Indira through his friends and relatives. Mahatma Gandhi, worried that Indira might be getting swept away by her sexual feelings for Feroze, recommended a celibate marriage to her—a proposal dealt by Indira with some obvious irritation. Surrounded by powerful men and their bullying advice, Indira wished to be, for once, her own person, and it is hard not to sympathize with her, even though the marriage was, as everyone expected, a disaster. Feroze was as unformed as she was, and although he developed into a vigorous parliamentarian just before his early death in 1960, Indira remained, much to his resentment, in thrall to her father’s immeasurably greater power and style.

Harold Laski, whom Indira met in England, had noted her “timid desire to submerge [her] personality in [her] father’s” and warned her that “you’ll just become an appendage.” It was what she did become in the years after independence: Nehru’s companion on his trips abroad, a housekeeper, and the host of official parties at Nehru’s house in New Delhi—the quite solemn occasions devoted to classical Indian dance and music, whose Gandhian austerity drove out at least one guest, W.H. Auden, who later complained to Nicolas Nabokov about the alcohol-free evening with the Nehrus.

2.

In one of her letters to Dorothy Norman, a rich Manhattan woman whom Indira had befriended during her visit to New York with Nehru in 1949, Indira confessed to not having found her “métier.” She also confided in Norman her desire to retire to a small house in Eng- land with her two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay. She claimed to have little in common with the Indians she and her father were surrounded by: “They amuse me and they irritate me and sometimes I find myself observing them as if I were not of the same species at all.”

Nevertheless, for someone so much at odds with her environment, Indira was quick to accept, and then grow into, the responsibilities thrust upon her by the coarse politicians she complained about—the powerful regional bosses of the Congress who brokered the party’s compact with the popular mass base that the freedom movement had created, and who made her, in 1959, the president of the party. Just a few months later, the first ominous sign of her authoritarian ways appeared when she persuaded Nehru to dismiss, on spurious grounds of law and order, the Communist government in the South Indian state of Kerala—it was the first democratically elected Communist government anywhere in the world.

The ease and speed of Indira’s ascent to the prime minister’s office, two years after Nehru’s death in 1964, surprised everyone at the time. It looks inevitable in retrospect. In the mid-1960s the Indian economy was crippled with food shortages, and there was much dissatisfaction in the country with the way things had gone since independence. Successive governments had remained preoccupied with Nehru’s ambitious blueprint of an industrial and technical infrastructure for India: a strategy that, while creating thousands of exportable scientists and software engineers, even now doesn’t directly address India’s basic problems of poverty, disease, and illiteracy—problems that Indira later spoke of constantly, but, as Katherine Frank points out, did little to solve. The vast, complicated administrative network the British had set up to hold on to India had remained intact, except that the civil bureaucrats, who were the unaccountable rulers of India during colonial times, had to now accommodate the ambitions of elected politicians.

The state-controlled economy encouraged corruption as much as inefficiency, and the bureaucrats and politicians parceled out among themselves its large and varied booty of big public projects, defense contracts, bribes from businessmen, jobs, foreign trips, telephone connections, etc.—a kind of steady internal plundering of the overcentralized state’s resources that in the early Nineties would expose India to the drastic therapies of the IMF and the World Bank. National politics became, and has largely remained, beyond the excitement of new slogans and personalities, a set of transactions, with regional and caste leaders delivering votes to a broad-based national party like the Congress in exchange for a share of the power and resources at the center.

There were regular elections—which along with freedom of the press are the major achievements of Indian democracy—and the Congress often lost at the state and local level. But these setbacks did not much weaken the party’s stranglehold—quite like that of the PRI in Mexico—over the immensely powerful federal government in Delhi. Its supremacy wasn’t successfully challenged by other parties until 1977, after a spell of dictatorship, and then only, as it turned out, for the sake of rewiring the network of patrons and clients the Congress had set up. Not surprisingly, despite universal suffrage, India has been very slow to develop, beyond a small minority privileged by caste, class, and education, a sense of citizenship or an awareness of the individual rights enshrined in the country’s radically democratic constitution—hence the Nehrus’ own family servant futilely expecting to be favored with a pension that was, after a lifetime of service, his by right.

The democracy Nehru wanted to create had barely thrown up any real challenges or successors to him. Indira’s own long proximity to power had made her ambitious, despite all her fantasies about becoming a London house owner; and as a minister in the cabinet of Nehru’s immediate successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, she quickly showed a talent for the constant petty intriguing of Indian politics. She publicly disparaged the dhoti-clad Shastri, also a native of Allahabad but from a much humbler family. Some Anglicized admirers of Nehru in Delhi, who became Indira’s advisers, strengthened her conviction that only someone from the Nehru family could provide enlightened leadership to India.8 As it happened, after Shastri’s unexpected death in 1966, the party bosses found themselves unable to trust each other as supreme leader, and ended up elevating a pliant-seeming Indira as the prime minister of India.

Indira quickly outgrew her patrons. She was offered a fresh start by the Congress Party’s dismal performance in the national elections in 1967; and she declared herself a socialist, committed to destroying the sinister influence she claimed big landlords and businessmen had over the Congress and the Indian government. She nationalized banks and insurance companies, stopped all government privileges and payments due to the royal families of India, and announced various programs for eradicating poverty. Garibi Hatao (“Remove Poverty”) was the obvious but effective slogan she used in the national elections in 1971 to win overwhelming support among traditionally poor low-caste Hindus and Muslims who, weary of the many middlemen and false promises since independence, saw the fair-skinned daughter of Nehru as their true savior.

Things briefly appeared to be working out for Indira. The introduction, during Nehru’s time, of high-yielding crops had finally made India self-sufficient in food production in the late Sixties; Indira encouraged this “Green Revolution,” and also made herself popular among the relatively well-off class of cultivators by offering them state-subsidized power, water, and fertilizers. Events outside India also helped Indira to marginalize the Congress power-brokers. In 1971, the Pakistani army responded to the disaffection among Pakistan’s eastern Bengali-speaking population with a near genocide. Millions of Bengali refugees arrived in India, straining an already shaky economy. Indira prepared India well for the war with Pakistan that began to seem imminent as the Indian army trained and armed Bengali insurgents. Indira swiftly secured military and diplomatic support from the Soviet Union after it became clear that Richard Nixon, who suspected her of being an intellectual, would “tilt” toward Pakistan.9 India eventually fought and won a short war with Pakistan and carved out a new nation. As the liberator of Bangladesh, Indira became, briefly, a universally celebrated figure. No longer the “dumb doll” that a particularly bitter critic of the Nehru dynasty had described her as at the beginning of her time as prime minister, she now embodied Shakti, the Hindu metaphysical concept for female energy and power.
Her speeches grew more confident, full of the references to her family’s prestige and self-sacrificing spirit that would become shrill over the next few years. She also used the opportunity to banish all remaining and potential rivals within the Congress and to reward her lackeys with important positions in the executive, legislative, and even the highest courts. The man she appointed as the president of the Congress Party soon came up with the slogan “Indira Is India, and India Indira.” The president of India during much of her tenure in the early 1980s was Zail Singh, famous for claiming that at Indira’s command he was ready to wield a broom and become a lowly sweeper. And the sycophancy wasn’t enough: most of the men Indira promoted were also required to put in a fixed amount of money into her coffers.

This new ruthless and amoral side of Indira was almost all that India saw of her for the next decade. It bewildered and alienated even the few friends she had made during her insecure early years; the relatively frank letters to Dorothy Norman became dull rituals before ceasing altogether around the time of the Emergency. Indira’s later years leave her biographer with little else besides the intricacies of Indian politics; and although Katherine Frank speculates boldly about Indira’s not very eventful love life—outraging Congress Party leaders who revere Indira as their “mother” and want Frank’s book banned in India—she manages to resist the temptation to see in her subject a great tantalizing mystery. She makes no special attempt to present Indira as secretly endowed, against all evidence, with the “depths” Nehru wanted her to have. Instead, her comprehensive and forthright book describes how a not particularly sensitive or intelligent woman was exalted by accident of birth and a callow political culture into the chieftancy of a continent-size nation; and how a drab inner life came to be filled with an exaggerated sense of self and mission and an all-consuming quest for personal power.

3.

The autocrat’s search for unqualified loyalty usually ends within his own family. Indira’s closest colleague in the Seventies was her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, who, while holding no official position, had become, by the time the Emergency was declared in 1975, the de facto ruler of India. Like many other undereducated scions of third-world dynasties, Sanjay had a weakness for cars. In the late Sixties, he abandoned his apprenticeship at the Rolls Royce factory in England, where he was regularly arrested for speeding, and came back to India with the ambition to make small cars for Indian consumers. Indira’s government awarded his new company a license despite competitive applications from Toyota, Renault, and Citroën. The nationalized banks advanced him generous loans; government officials bullied car dealers into placing large cash orders. No usable cars ever emerged from Sanjay’s factory. Nevertheless, banks and industrialists continued to fund his company and Sanjay diversified into equally bogus “consultancy services” in order to channel the incoming money into his personal accounts.

His little racket was one of the many instances of the crony capitalism that flourished alongside the rhetoric of socialism. Such brazen corruption, which had become commonplace in India by the early Seventies, was made more intolerable for the poor by rising inflation. Successive droughts and an inefficient and venal public distribution system had made food scarce. The Congress started doing badly in local elections. Large-scale protests by students and workers erupted across India in the run-up to the declaration of the Emergency in June 1975. Jayaprakash Narayan, an old Gandhian idealist, emerged from retirement to lead the growing opposition to Indira.
Indira, in turn, denounced the agitation for her removal as part of a broad CIA-backed conspiracy. She had already used the military and the police to crush a Mao-inspired insurgency in Bengal; and when a delayed court judgment invalidated her election to the Indian parliament and made it imperative upon her to resign, she decided to do away altogether with the fast-unraveling façade of democracy.
In the anonymous self-analysis he published in 1937, Nehru had seen himself as “too much of an aristocrat for the crudity and vulgarity of fascism.” Sanjay Gandhi, an admirer of Ferdinand Marcos and a devoted reader of Archie Comics, had no such aesthetic inhibitions. On the day before the declaration of the Emergency, he went about cutting off the power supply to newspaper offices in Delhi and drawing up lists of opposition leaders to be arrested. Later, Sanjay personally vetted the daily content of the media, which quickly turned to highlighting his speeches, and passed over in silence—what V.S. Naipaul described in these pages as the “great silence” of the eighteen-month-long Emergency—the detention without trial of more than 110,000 people and the deaths of hundreds of protesters in police shootings all across India.

Young lumpen men gathered around Sanjay. Katherine Frank describes them as “hit men” who extorted money from small and big businessmen and apparently also dabbled in murders and kidnappings. But Sanjay had larger aspirations: “I firmly believe,” he claimed, “that the best ideology for the people is my ideology.” He wanted to “beautify” India’s cities; make the country “ultra modern”; he wanted India to be a first-world player, not just a backward third-world country; and his aggressive nostrums—overpopulation? forcibly sterilize and give the poor vasectomies; ugly cities? bulldoze the slums—had much support among middle-class Indians, who were as impatient as Sanjay with the stubbornly destitute majority of India’s population.

With her son unofficially if fully in charge, Indira retreated into her own world; the extraordinary self-centeredness Nehru had noticed now kept all reality at bay. “There is no show of force whatsoever anywhere in the country,” she kept on saying. “My family has been very much maligned,” she told a British journalist, “and of course my son is not in politics at all.” Nayantara Sahgal attributes the falsehoods to Indira’s profound craving to be seen as the truest and most principled leader of the Indian masses. This explains why she expected to win, and therefore held, the national elections in 1977, in which the unprotected poor who suffered most from the violent evictions and the terroristic “family planning” schemes of the Emergency voted her out of office.

Difficult times might have then seemed to begin for Indira. But the coalition of opposition parties began collapsing soon after it ended one-party rule over India. Its leaders, greedy after their long exclusion from the perks of high office, squabbled among themselves. They tried intermittently to arraign Indira for her various excesses during the Emergency, but their clumsiness only made her seem a victim—a role that she took to passionately as she toured around the poorer parts of country, asking for forgiveness and sympathy.

Soon after she was voted back to power in 1980, Sanjay Gandhi died while attempting some stunts in a light airplane above Delhi. The freak accident—“the best thing that could happen to India,” as one of Indira’s own cousins tactlessly but truthfully remarked—seems to have deepened Indira’s delusions. All through her remaining four years in office, she kept traveling, on government helicopters and planes, from one Hindu guru and temple to another, pleading for divine protection from her “enemies”—the CIA, Sikh militants, the leaders of the opposition, and even Sanjay’s widow, Maneka—who seemed to her to be everywhere, undermining her person as much as the “national interest.”

In 1982, Indira expelled Maneka from the prime ministerial residence in New Delhi; her assistant tried to search Maneka’s luggage as she left and Indira herself tried to hold on to Sanjay’s young son, Varun. In Kashmir, in 1984, she engineered, through bribes paid to legislators, the collapse of a democratically elected government: it was the first of a series of events that forced Kashmiri Muslims into a full-scale anti-India insurgency in 1990. In Punjab, Sanjay and the Congress Party had promoted an extremist Sikh preacher called Bhindranwale in order to undermine the principal Sikh party, the Akali. In the early Eighties, Bhindranwale turned against his sponsors and declared war on India. The random killings of Hindus by Bhindranwale’s men in Punjab came as an opportunity for Mrs. Gandhi to stoke up a nationwide hysteria about the various threats to India’s “unity and integrity.”

Much of the media echoed her in-sinuations about the “anti-national” tendencies of the Sikhs and Kashmiri Muslims. I remember from my own small-town childhood the abruptness with which many lower-middle-class Hindus began to distrust and scorn the Sikh neighbors they had lived with in perfect amity for decades. The present Hindu nationalist rulers of India owe their rapid blood-strewn progress partly to this anti-minority frenzy Indira worked up during her last years in office.

In June 1984, Indira ordered the army to force Bhindranwale and other Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The ill-conceived assault upon the Mecca of Sikhism resulted in the massacre of hundreds of innocent pilgrims as well as the desecration of many sacred sites. Barely four months later, on October 31, 1984, Indira was assassinated by two of her own bodyguards; both men were Sikhs seeking revenge for the brutalities in Amritsar.

But the bigger outrage occurred during the next three days, when mobs led by the Congress “hit men” that Sanjay had once nurtured went around Delhi with electoral rolls that listed Sikh-owned houses. The police stood idly by as over three thousand Sikhs were murdered in Delhi. Altogether five thousand Sikhs were killed across India and as a whole generation of enraged young Sikhs took up arms against the Indian state; thousands more died in Punjab during the next decade.

4.

I do not want to be remembered for anything,” Indira told an interviewer in one of those fits of imperial pique that became more common toward her death. It is not a desire that posterity can honor. The hard-edged realpolitik with which Indira and her son replaced Nehru’s impatient but benign patriarchy seems tailor-made for India’s new Hindu nationalist rulers and their middle-class constituency. In a recent poll in India Today, India’s highest-circulation newsmagazine, a majority of the middle-class respondents made plain their yearning for a “strong leader” like Indira Gandhi.10

The fascistic undertones are unsettling. But this is also what Indira helped create: a widely shared mood among the Indian middle class, compounded equally of fear, aggressiveness, contempt, and apathy; a climate of opinion in which India’s various encircling cruelties—the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of tribal families by big dam projects, the suicides of hundreds of farmers victimized by the economic policies of the last decade—feel far away, in which the deaths of more than 35,000 people in Kashmir in the last decade incite little debate beyond the narrow parameters of “national interest,” and the pogroms against the minorities can go unpunished (no Congress leader has been convicted for the murder of Sikhs in 1984, and the Hindu extremist leaders who organized the killing of hundreds of Muslims in Bombay after the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 are still at large)—a national mood, Indira’s truest legacy, that now seems almost crucial to the building of a new Indian identity, of which Hinduism, nuclear bombs, beauty queens, and information technology tycoons have, in recent years, become essential, if conflicting, components.

  1. 1

    See my essay “The Other India,” The New York Review, December 16, 1999.

  2. 2

    Dom Moraes, Indira Gandhi (Little, Brown, 1980), pp. 56–57.

  3. 3

    V.S. Naipaul, The Overcrowded Barracoon (Knopf, 1973), p. 94.

  4. 4

    See Before Freedom: Nehru’s Letters to His Sister, edited by Nayantara Sahgal (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2000).

  5. 5

    Quoted in Rajmohan Gandhi, The Good Boatman (Delhi: Penguin India, 1995).

  6. 6

    See Pupul Jayakar, Indira Gandhi (Delhi: Penguin India, 1992), pp. 44–45.

  7. 7

    See Nayantara Sahgal, Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power (Ungar, 1982).

  8. 8

    This millstone is still being carried around by the Congress Party, which is currently led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian widow of Indira’s eldest son, Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister of India from 1984 to 1989, who in 1991 was assassinated by the Tamil militants that Indira had originally supported in Sri Lanka.

  9. 9

    For an account of Nixon’s animosity toward Indira Gandhi, see Henry Kissinger, White House Years (Little, Brown, 1979), pp. 848, 880–882.

  10. 10

    Her approval rating was 41 percent, three times more than the rating for Nehru. See “Missing the Leader,” India Today, August 20, 2001.

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