Looking for Indira Gandhi
THE glassy memorial that stands in the garden where Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards in 1984 is among the most visited secular sites in India. Morning and afternoon, busloads of Indians arrive from across the country – families, young and old, stream through the grounds, noisy but respectful.
Though nearly twenty years dead, Mrs. Gandhi stays vivid in popular memory – to most Indians she is the best prime minister they have ever had. She dominated India’s public life from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s: with the sole exception of father, Jawaharlal Nehru, no other Indian has put so deep an impress on their country’s independent life.
But she is a bogey to India’s present-day political and intellectual classes. The Hindu chauvinist-led coalition government, till recently in power, contained several members who were imprisoned by her during the Emergency (the period between 1975 and 1977 when she suspended democratic liberties), while the Left and liberal intelligentsia blame her for India’s current travails – corruption and nepotism, a retarded economy, fraying secularism. Writers too have stitched her up – from V.S. Naipaul to Salman Rushdie, she lives in the literary imagination as a malevolent, megalomaniac leader who ended the innocence of Nehru’s post-independence idyll, and was responsible for – in Rushdie’s phrase – ‘the smashing, the pulverizing, the irreversible discombobulation of the children of midnight.’
Mrs. Gandhi is independent India’s most puzzling politician. Enigmatic and often opaque in person, her political persona is also hard to fix on. In power, she seemed a woman of supreme self-assurance, exuding a haughty froideur; but in private, she spoke of self-doubt and diffidence – ‘I was so sure I had nothing in me to be admired,’ she confided to one of her close friends days before her death. She never conformed to any one of the supposed ‘idioms’ of Indian politics – the saintly, traditional or the modern – but moved adeptly between them. (Much of her success derived from her recognition of the historically dislocated character of India’s politics, its existence as a collision field for different historical time-lines).
She was the daughter of a politician who wore his principles on his sleeve, but herself seemed to personify a ruthless instinct for political survival. What, if anything at all, did she actually stand for? It is difficult too, to judge her own responsibility for the drift on Indian politics. Was she the instigator of a coarser, more clamorous, fragmented society, or was she simply a mirror, reflecting what was already underway?
What is now clear is the deeply paradoxical nature of her legacy. During her lifetime, she appeared invariably as the greatest threat to democracy in India, and certainly she weakened the constitutional regularities that her father had tried to establish. Yet the enduring historical effect of her rule was to throw open the state to popular demands, to make it accessible to new groups, and to make Indian society still more political. She branded a certain idea of democracy on the Indian political imagination. She made democracy ordinary – not pretty, just ordinary – and the thousands of Indians who file past her memorial know that.
Indira Nehru Gandhi was born in November 1917, the only child of Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. The Nehru house in Allahabad – Anand Bhawan – was established by Jawaharlal’s father, Motilal Nehru, a formidably ambitious lawyer of Kashmiri ancestry. Indira’s early years coincided with the house becoming the epicentre of the Congress-led national movement that opposed British rule, and she was raised in a relentlessly political household. The family itself was an untypical one: across several generations, the Nehrus helped to invent an idea of the modern Indian family – one which moved away from the Hindu ‘joint family’ and towards a more internally spacious model, where deliberation and personal choice were (within significant limits) encouraged, and where women were expected to take an active role. As a family, the Nehrus were able to find a novel way to connect the private world to the new professional world of politics.
The story of Indira’s own life is one of making herself a full member of this political family. Being a Nehru meant becoming a political being, to an extent where she could say, in an interview to the New York Times a few weeks after becoming prime minister in 1966, that ‘politics is the centre of everything.’ She might have been enunciating the family motto, and she was to discover that living up to it could be a strenuous and painful business. Linked to and sustaining that sense of politics as lying at the centre of everything was a belief, shared by all the Nehrus, in historical destiny, in an assigned role on the stage of history. Nehru himself was steeped in this historical self-regard – he perpetually invested his personal life with historical significance, and the rooms and corridors of Anand Bhawan must often have felt like a live tableaux of India’s present and future history, with Mahatma Gandhi, Annie Besant, Sardar Patel, all crowding its hallways (it is indeed today home to a museum).
But the Nehru household was also marked by disruption, and could often be eerily vacant. Indira’s parents, aunts, relatives, family friends, all went in and out of prison, at the Raj’s pleasure. Her mother Kamala, when out of jail, was confined by illness and often in hospital. In the absence of adults, Indira found herself in charge and having to run things from an early age. Her upbringing amidst this debris of familial life invites psychological speculation about her loneliness, insecurities, fears, and a certain mythic portraiture of Indira’s youth has emerged – the distant father, the spiteful aunt, the invalid mother. A youthful acquaintance of hers, Urmila Haksar, remembered how ‘Everyone used to refer to her, though not within her hearing, as "poor Indu", "poor Kamala’s child", "what a sad life, poor girl has had".’ [sic]
Her youthful relationships were rarely direct or proximate, but were splayed by distances. We know most about her bond with her father. Nehru, himself often confined within those great British institutions of self-improvement – public school, Cambridge, His Majesty’s prisons – developed a talent which made him probably the greatest Indian letter writer of the twentieth century (certainly the greatest in the English language). His first book, a sweeping survey of world history in which he tried to adopt a non-European perspective, was written as letters to his daughter while he was in prison – a nationalist variant of the Victorian father’s advice-book to his daughter.
During the last decade of her life, Kamala suffered from tuberculosis. In age, mother and daughter were only seventeen years apart (they were often mistaken for sisters). But her illness made her seem like an older invalid, and she rarely had the energy or forcefulness of a young mother. Kamala came from a background worlds apart from the Nehrus, and her life was blighted too by the tortuous effort involved in becoming a Nehru – the strain broke her health, and cracked her confidence. Indira witnessed this happening, and came to detest the way her mother was treated by the family – especially by Nehru’s two younger sisters, Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesingh.
Illness was a difficult condition in the Nehru household: Nehru preened himself over his own fitness, and regarded illness almost as a moral failing, an abnegation of duties. The letters between husband and wife rarely strayed from discussions of health, to the point where an exasperated Nehru once wrote to Kamala that ‘there is a kind of sameness about you and illness.’ Indira, herself frail, outwardly diffident, given to silent moods, and often in indifferent health, accompanied and nursed Kamala through much of her final illness.
It was the memory of her mother’s isolation and physical decline that led Indira to the man she finally married, in what appears to have been a classic compensatory act. In her last years, Kamala had befriended and taken comfort in the attentions of a young man, a Parsi of lowly background and somewhat obscure pedigree, named Feroze Gandhy (the Parsi spelling was later amended, at Nehru’s suggestion, to blur his different belonging). He was a bold and in some ways engaging young man: swept up in the excitement of nationalist agitation, he was given to impulsive and romantic escapades. Nehru never liked his barrack-room style and when, just a couple of years after Kamala’s death, he learned from his daughter – then in England and studying at Oxford – of her desire to marry Feroze (in London at the time), Nehru did all he could to dissuade her.
Indira was now herself ill with tuberculosis, and Nehru used the argument of medical treatment to separate the two by bringing her back to India, in the hope that her head if not her heart might cool. The unpublished correspondence between father and daughter from these years radiates a searing, convulsive quality: it reveals a relationship that, in the wake of Kamala’s death, took on a frightening intensity, charged with accusation and guilt, with anger and a deep emotional interdependence. After this period the two never again communicated so rawly and openly – things become unspoken and subterranean.
For a few years, Indira tried not to be a Nehru. She defied her father, married Feroze in 1942, and aspired to create her own domestic life. She and Feroze set up home, had two sons – Rajiv in 1944, Sanjay in 1946 – and Feroze tried his hand at a career as a journalist (working for his father-in-law’s newspaper: Nehru was less than impressed, urging his daughter to edit Feroze’s ‘Biblical English’, and curb his excessive use of ‘verily’). But Feroze’s earnings were erratic, and as a family the newly married Gandhi’s depended on money from Nehru. The marriage was also uneasy: Feroze was easily distracted by his roving eye, and in 1946 Indira decided to move back with her boys to live with Nehru, now effectively the head of the Indian government in New Delhi.
The maws of politics were closing in around her. At India’s independence in 1947 Nehru, now Prime Minister, was living in the grand former residence of the British Commander-in-Chief: Indira took over the management of the household, and stepped into the role of her father’s social hostess. She came into contact with Indian and international leaders, and during the 1950s underwent a slow self-transformation into a political being – the decade brought a crucial metamorphosis in her life.
Indira began to accompany her father on official visits (she travelled overseas two dozen times between 1949 and 1959, including to the famous Bandung Conference in 1955, where she exercised a calming influence on her father’s spleen), and from this time on there were constant nudges to her from within the Congress Party to stand for parliament. She resisted these, but did enter more deeply into internal party matters (a subject in which Nehru had little interest), and began to move up the hierarchy of the Congress Party.
Her father was scrupulous in not involving her in political matters – he saw her more ‘as an assistant than a confidante or adviser.’ She too at this stage seemed restrained in her ambitions. As she wrote to her father in 1953, ‘I do want to reorganize my life and get out of all the silly committees. I am so sick of people doing social work as a step up the political and social set [sic] ladder, and equally sick of all the vague goodness of the so-called Gandhians.’ But that same year she made a visit to the USSR and this seemed to boost her, giving her for the first time a sense of her own independent power. She began to offer unsolicited advice to her father about appointments and other matters – often put up to it by Nehru’s manipulative private secretary, M.O. Mathai.
From late 1939 Indira spent almost a year in a Swiss sanatorium (‘one of the ugliest places I have ever seen,’ she complained to her father) trying to shake off the illness. But it was not till 1957, and the discovery of new antibiotic treatments against the illness, that she was finally cured.
The Nehrus are not only India’s most political family: to many they are also its ruling family, a modern ‘dynasty’ rivalled only by the Kennedys, and like them enveloped in myth and tragedy. That successive generations could have possessed such power in a democracy naturally raises questions: one of the most persistent is whether Nehru intended his daughter to succeed him, and schemed to this end. The short answer is no. It was a series of chance events that took her into the prime minister’s office.
In September 1960 Feroze died suddenly of a heart attack. Despite their strained relations, his death affected Indira deeply, and further reinforced her desire for a domestic life away from politics (she even thought of moving to the English countryside). It seems also to have affected her younger son, Sanjay, in ways that left Indira prey to his manipulation. Pupul Jayakar, a friend and earlier biographer of Indira Gandhi, noted that Feroze’s death left Sanjay ‘bereft and resentful of his mother whom he held responsible for the neglect and death of his father.’ Sanjay Gandhi had fastened on his mother’s weakest spot (after all, she had herself accused her own father of exactly this neglect) and he was to play on this in later years to disastrous effect. Mrs. Gandhi’s thin skin on this matter can be gathered from the fact that, when years later Salman Rushdie repeated the story about her neglect of Feroze, she sued Rushdie for libel.
Her own father, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly dependent on her. Nehru was broken mentally and physically by India’s defeat at the hands of China in their 1962 war, and his failing health meant that more responsibilities were put upon her. Yet, rather than seizing this as an opportunity to thrust herself forward, she seemed to shrink from the political spotlight.
Nehru died in May 1964. He had named no successor but had indicated his preference for a man named Lal Bahadur Shastri, who duly took over. Loyal, softspoken, courteous, Shastri considered it right manners to take in his mentor’s daughter and offered Indira Gandhi a post in his Cabinet, the relatively unimportant portfolio of Information and Broadcasting. She accepted: partly out of a sense of duty, fulfilling her identity as a Nehru that previously she had tried to escape, and partly because she needed the income. She had no financial resources or inherited wealth, apart from the royalties from Nehru’s books; the family house, Anand Bhawan had been donated to the nation as a museum, and she could no longer live in the prime minister’s residence; Feroze had not left her any property.
Barely two years in office, Shastri himself died in January 1966, having just concluded the Tashkent Treaty that ended the 1965 War with Pakistan. Faced with this unexpected succession crisis, senior Congress leaders were in confusion. They now turned to Mrs. Gandhi, but not because she promised to be a great leader in the line of her father – on the contrary, they fixed on her exactly because she seemed to personify antithetical qualities. It was her evident unsuitability that attracted them to her. She was without any power base in the party or country; female, a poor speaker, with no articulated political vision or ideological passion, she seemed a soft touch. How wrong they were. Once in office, power seemed to unleash a hormonal rush in her – aged almost 50, she was rejuvenated. The desultoriness of her earlier years was shaken off, and her life acquired a new keenness, as she discovered an appetite for power.
Her premiership opened with a flourish. A couple of months after taking office, she made her first overseas visit as prime minister to the United States. She took Washington and New York by storm: according to Robert Komer, she ‘vamped’ Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson was moved to declare that he wanted to make sure ‘no harm comes to this girl.’ He promised $9 million in aid to India; she, in return, offered understanding on the American adventure in Viet Nam. Relations between the two countries seemed set to blossom, in contrast to the general chill surrounding them during her father’s lifetime.
But, while she seemed to thrive personally, the broader situation facing her party and country was glum. Economic crisis – brought on by two wars and successive monsoon failures – forced her into moves that backfired. A condition of US aid had been a devaluation of the Indian currency: her announcement of a crashing 60% devaluation of the rupee was, however, met with unanimous criticism in India. It seemed to confirm the old fears – that had fed the national movement – about India’s vulnerability to international pressures, and built what ultimately grew into a paranoia about national sovereignty. The reactions to her move left a deep stain on her own economic thinking: it convinced her to stick with protectionist measures, to adopt populist policies, and to mistrust dependence on foreign assistance, however smilingly it might appear to be proffered.
In 1967 she had to face her first general election as prime minister; it was also the first time she had had to contest a parliamentary seat. She won her own seat with a huge majority, but the Congress Party turned in its worst performance ever, losing control of eight of India’s regional states (including the most populous ones), and it was left with a small parliamentary majority. Indira Gandhi seized this as an opportunity to strengthen her own position. Catching the party at its weakest, she remade it: she split it, changed its internal character, and pulled it leftwards. The Congress Party was the great historic symbol of national unity, functioning as a capacious umbrella-like structure. Its strong central command had always given a long leash to the leaders from the regional states, relying on the provincial ‘bosses’ to tend clients, and to deliver support and votes in return for benefits negotiated from the centre.
Mrs. Gandhi saw a need to break herself free from the grip of the old regional leaders who had put her in power. She sidelined them in two ways. After splitting the party – something that would have been unthinkable for her father – she changed the object of loyalty, from the party itself and its local leaders, to her own person. She did this by altering the forms of party finance. Previously such matters had been kept away from the central leadership. Nehru, prim about mechanics, had left the vulgar business of graft to his regional bosses – they hustled money from supporters and used this for electioneering in their own patches. Indira Gandhi abolished this system: henceforth, cash was delivered straight to her private secretaries – bypassing the regional bosses – and the distribution of election expenses to candidates was controlled directly from her office. The rupees came first in briefcases, then in suitcases – through this ‘suitcase politics’ she was able to create a material chain of loyalty between her chosen party men and herself.
She also set out to establish a direct relation with the electorate, again bypassing the party and its seasoned leaders. This she did by shifting her rhetoric to the Left, inventing a magical radicalism. Banks were nationalized, the princely families divested of privileges they had been constitutionally promised, and an electoral slogan at once supremely simple and blissfully hazy was devised: ‘Garibi Hatao’ or ‘Remove Poverty’ (as she confessed to a journalist, she spoke socialism because that was what the people wanted to hear). In 1971 she called a snap election, ran a personalized campaign that projected herself as the sole issue at stake – as the unique scourge of poverty – and appealed directly to the poorest and lowest in the social order, to India’s outcastes, Muslims, women. She achieved a landslide majority.
On top at home, international triumph now followed. The military leadership of West Pakistan was at this time pursuing a genocidal policy against the Bengalis of East Pakistan, and thousands of refugees were flowing into India. There was universal international condemnation, except from the US government, which sided with Pakistan: a product of the game of Chinese cat’s-cradle being played by Nixon and Kissinger. It became apparent to Mrs. Gandhi that military action against Pakistan was inevitable; she was given cause when a trigger-happy General Yahya Khan, the Pakistani leader, launched an attack on India in December 1971. The war was short, and a total victory for Mrs. Gandhi. Her nerve and decisiveness during the campaign was formidable.
In five fast years, she had been transformed: in 1966 old colleagues of her father had referred to her as a ‘dumb doll’, a ‘chit of a girl’. Now, at the peak of her career, she was named the most admired woman in the world by an American Gallup poll, had become one of the very few non-western leaders accorded respect in the citadels of world power, and seemed to her own people to have acquired semi-divine powers.
She used her new power to strike a deal with Pakistan at the ensuing peace summit held at Simla. Over the perennial thorn of Kashmir, she established with her counterpart Zulfikar Ali Bhutto an informal agreement to observe as the de facto border between the two countries the Line of Control (this was the ceasefire line established after the Pakistan-instigated invasion of Kashmir in 1948). She followed this two years later by announcing that India had conducted a nuclear test explosion for, as she described it,‘peaceful purposes’. It was a coy admission of India’s nuclear abilities, which in time developed into an effective ‘nuclear option’ strategy. Her own role in deciding to take India down the nuclear path remains as ambiguous as her larger strategy: according to a leading historian of India’s nuclear programme, in the secret debate leading up to the decision, ‘she listened… and said, "Let’s have it".’
In India’s domestic politics, though, her political career was unfolding in democratic hubris. She had become so sure of her legitimacy, based on her electoral endorsement, that she convinced herself of the dispensability of constitutional constraints and procedures over the exercise of power. She had embraced a Jacobin conception of political power, an unfiltered view of democracy as direct and popular. Her acts had altered the meaning of democracy in the popular imagination – reducing it to signify quite simply the winning of power through elections, neglecting altogether the sense in which it was also a way of regulating the exercise of power. This demotic sense spread over the Indian political imagination, both elite and popular.
She centralized power, draining it away from the regional state governments and channelling it towards New Delhi. With the old arenas of debate and decision within the party eliminated, she surrounded herself with a group of highly intelligent and sophisticated men, leftist and technocratic in bent, and most of Kashmiri origin: P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, P.N. Dhar, T.N. Kaul. Simultaneously, her younger son, Sanjay, was now elbowing his way onto the political stage. An ambitious gadfly with a marked capacity to attract distasteful young men on the make, after various abortive efforts to establish himself as the Indian Henry Ford by developing a cheap ‘peoples’ car’ (he had trained, rather ineffectually at the Rolls Royce works as a teenager), he plumped for a political career. He established a ‘Youth Congress’, a thuggish motley of scented young men with bad shoes, ruthless in their methods. This now began to fill the vacuum in the party created by Mrs. Gandhi’s destruction of its organization and old leadership.
Indira Gandhi’s centralization and legislative free-handedness – she appealed to her parliamentary majorities to introduce sweeping legislative changes and constitutional amendments – provoked two waves of dissent, whose consequences still reverberate: the first resulted in the Emergency, the second in her own assassination. In 1974-75, severe economic conditions sparked a series of agitations in the west and east of the country, as well as a nationwide railway strike; in June 1975, a court judgment overturned Mrs. Gandhi’s election to parliament on the basis of a tiny infringement of electoral procedure. She became convinced that there was a large-scale conspiracy to overthrow her, possibly with international backing (a not entirely deluded hunch: Salvador Allende had been deposed shortly before, Mujibur Rahman was assassinated shortly after, both with the involvement of the CIA). Confronted with having to resign as prime minister, she decided to declare an Emergency, drawing upon state powers inherited intact from the Raj.
The Emergency lasted till 1977. Its history is extremely difficult to write, given the absence of definitive sources, the number of conflicting memories and views, and a generalized self-induced Alzheimer’s condition among all who played a role in its events.
Although the powers absorbed by the government in the wake of the Emergency’s declaration were sweeping, and seemed to be the prelude to an era of authoritarian rebuilding, in fact very little was actually done. There was plenty of concentrated nastiness, in which Sanjay Gandhi and his acquaintances played a leading role: the press was muzzled, political dissenters and opponents imprisoned, sterilizations were enforced, slums were razed in the name of ‘city beautiful’ schemes. But no major social or economic reforms were set in motion, nor even any Ceaucescuan mausoleums built; the main victim was the Constitution, and the liberal compass of India’s democratic life.
Explanations of the Emergency tend to veer between labelling it the product of the biographical quirks of mother and son, and seeing it as a lapse of Indian society back in its cultural fate: dynasticism, despotism, and other oriental vices. In fact, it was neither. It was a critical episode in the history of the conflict between the two ideas – the state, and of democracy – that have defined modern India’s history. The Emergency is best seen as a parodic rendition of desire to return the Indian state to the hands of a Platonic do-good elite – at the very time when (as a result of Mrs. Gandhi’s own electoral style) the democratic idea was achieving an unprecedented diffusion across Indian society.
In effect, she was stepping on the brake pedal and accelerator at the same time. By suppressing democratic freedoms, Mrs. Gandhi hoped to de-politicize India, and to entrust political decisions to a supposedly benevolent technocratic elite, to a ‘committed’ bureaucracy and judiciary. In fact, the effects were opposite, and succeeded in politicizing India still more profoundly. Deprived of their rights, people began to sense just how significant these might be. When she called elections in 1977, they exercised their rights resoundingly and voted out her and her party.
By 1980, though, she was back in power. The new government that had hoped to replace her – a ragtag of the disgruntled, the unprincipled, and the merely hopeful – collapsed in internal bickering. Within a few months of her return to power, Sanjay Gandhi was killed in a plane crash while performing acrobatics over the capital. It marked the beginning of her final, catastrophic phase in power. She had now to face the dissent provoked by her centralizing urges, and by the breakdown of structures that might have moderated these forms of dissent. Across the country, regionalist movements – always a potential form of political protest in India – escalated their demands and actions: some actually pressed for secession, all were prepared to use violence. In Punjab to the west, Assam to the east, Kashmir to the north, the federal routines that gave democracy a local, tangible presence were effaced, as Mrs. Gandhi tried to exercise direct control over these regions.
In Punjab, during the post-Emergency years when Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress were out of power, Sanjay Gandhi had set in motion a process that was to result in the Indian Army’s attack on the Sikh Golden Temple in June 1984, and in Mrs. Gandhi’s death a few months later. In order to break the power of the Sikh political party, the faction-ridden Akali Dal (which in the late 1970s was supporting the anti-Indira Gandhi government in New Delhi), Sanjay – with Mrs. Gandhi’s connivance – cultivated a lithe young Sikh sant or religious preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Having helped to build him up for her own purposes, Mrs. Gandhi on her return to power sought to sweep him away. But Bhindranwale would not go so gently. His militant sermons had attracted followers across the Sikh diaspora who were willing to die for him, and he committed them to an armed struggle for the creation of a Sikh homeland, Khalistan. Barricaded into the Golden Temple at Amritsar, he directed his men in a brutal campaign of terror. Finally, the Indian Army launched a massive assault on the temple. Whether or not Mrs. Gandhi personally commanded the use of force against this holiest of Sikh shrines remains unclear. But when her bodyguards took aim at her a few months later, they believed themselves to be very directly avenging their religion and community.
If Punjab was to prove lethal to her own person, the handling of Kashmir was to leave the country a truly poisoned legacy. Kashmir had enjoyed distinct treatment ever since its troubled accession to India in 1947: constitutionally, the state was guaranteed a standing not available to any other state in the Indian Union. Its politics had long been dominated by Nehru’s friend-turned-sparring partner, Sheikh Abdullah – with whom Mrs. Gandhi had made a deal, in the mid-1970s, that seemed to balance Kashmir’s special autonomy with its integral place in the Indian Union.
At Sheikh Abdullah’s death in 1982, his son Farooq Abdullah succeeded his father; but Mrs. Gandhi never trusted him. Farooq was an unlikely leader (he was known as the ‘Disco chief minister’), but he struck out on his own, refused an alliance with the Congress, and – playing on Muslim sentiment – won the elections in his state. For Mrs. Gandhi, a Kashmir ruled by a leader actively resistant to her was both a personal affront and a national danger.
She was determined to oust him, and urged the governor of the state – who happened to be her cousin – to dismiss Farooq on the basis that the elections had been rigged (they were, slightly; but nothing like how they would be under Congress governments later in the 1980s). Her cousin refused and advised her against this action, so she replaced him with a more craven governor, who did the deed. The result was the build-up, during the 1980s, of a tinder pile of resentment, ready to be sparked at the very moment when de-mobbed mercenaries from the Afghan campaigns were flooding into a crisis-ridden Pakistan, and when the messages of radical Islam was radiating out from Tehran and elsewhere.
Nirad Chaudhuri, in his inimitably Indo-phobic way, once declared that, ‘Not one worthy biography of a great Indian or a worthy account of Indian life or civilization has come from an Indian. That is the true trahison des clercs in India.’ In this case, he does have a point, at least when it comes to biography. India’s modern history is overpopulated with remarkable personalities, and it is a biographer’s treasure trove; yet the intellectual impact made by Indian biographical writing is puny. In most cases, it is little better than hagiography or chronicle – the doings of the great, in modern recensions of the Namas of the Mughal emperors.
It is always hard to identify exactly what a politician has actually done: the precise nature of their responsibility for certain actions, let alone for the consequences of these actions, is maddeningly difficult to determine. The relationship between an individual politician and their deeds or acts is much less clear than that between, say, a writer and his or her literary output – a symptom of what P.N. Furbank has called ‘the profound inauthenticity of the political life.’ In the face of this, political biography can often fall off into a form of gossip and decorated rumour, a higher journalism. It tries to guard against this by recurring to ‘sources’ – documentary evidence, written or oral, that seek to clinch the link between the biographical subject and a particular act, event, or policy.
But even when available in full-text form, sources cannot really solve the problem. A biographer certainly needs to be able to determine the intentions behind a particular action or policy; but he or she needs also to grasp the relationship between the intention and the action, as well as to judge the nature of the consequences produced by the action. Only when this circuit is complete, can we get some sense of the responsibility or otherwise that a politician may bear for a particular situation. To achieve this, beyond access to sources, the biographer needs a sure interpretative grip over the political and historical field about which they are writing – a sense of the broader causalities that surround their chosen subject.
There is little doubt that Mrs. Gandhi believed sincerely in what she was doing. In this utter self-conviction, she was akin to Mrs. Thatcher. Both shared an obsession with national sovereignty (for Mrs. Thatcher, Europe was a threat, for Mrs. Gandhi, it was the world); both, in their ability to create material bases of political support, showed a consummate understanding of their political worlds (Mrs. Gandhi drew the low and poor by giving them material protections, Mrs. Thatcher created an electoral base for herself by creating a new class of petty property owners); and both had an outstanding ability to project their image. But sincerity and self-conviction do not explain why politicians do what they do: they precisely are part of what needs explanation.