By Sagarika Ghose
“My fascination with Indira Gandhi’s persona and the similarities between today’s times and the Emergency era tempted me to write this book”
The initial idea for a new book on Indira Gandhi, I guess, was Chiki’s. And Nandini’s. The two graces of Juggernaut Publishers, the ever-enthusiastic Chiki Sarkar and the perceptive Nandini Mehta called me one afternoon early last year to ask: would I be interested in writing a book on Indira Gandhi?
They had, they said, over the years noticed and liked my writing and thought this book would be up my street. “It’s her centenary year next year,” came Nandini’s persuasive voice on the phone, “and it makes sense to try and bring Indira alive for a new generation of readers and maybe even for those readers who would like to once again be reminded of Indira Gandhi.”
We all met for a coffee at the sunlit, green-fringed Juggernaut office on a bright April morning. Also at the meeting was the bespectacled intense-eyed Parth Mehrotra, coolly unflappable among us chattering viragos, who would be my brilliant editor on the book. Chiki smiled and asked me,“So, Ms G, shall we do Mrs G?”
“Of course, we will!” I exulted without a moment’s hesitation. I had always been deeply fascinated by the Indira Gandhi persona. In our times, when sparks fly in all directions as the flint of women’s’ freedom clashes against the rock of violent prejudice, the image of Indira Gandhi has for me always soared as the great hope.
She was the woman who in spite of nasty patriarchal injustices ruled at the top as Shakti and Durga. The idea of Indira is a vindication of the patchy equality that women can strive for, she’s a symbol- perhaps only a symbol but a powerful one- of what Indian women can achieve if they’re dogged enough. To be offered a chance to delve into the life and the mind of Indira Gandhi was one I simply could not refuse. I signed up with Juggernaut with great eagerness.
I had always been an avid Indira-watcher. After all, she was the Venus at the prow of India’s ship all through my growing up years, the woman who was the conqueror of men, the embodiment of political leaders who rose to the heights of the Bangladesh victory and then fell into the dark depths of dictatorial rule. Even the word ‘Indira’ had always evoked for me a picture of lofty regality and grim authority.
Her assassination on October 1984 and its bloody aftermath was the moment when my generation – the teenagers of the 1970s, collectively lost our innocence and were born into a fiery adulthood. Her personal style had dazzled and her near-total dominance over India and its public life has cowed us into silent awe. How could I dream of saying no to attempting a book on Indira Gandhi?
There was another reason why I was tempted. Democratic freedoms today are contested like never before; a powerful majority government bears down on India’s fragile institutions and the writer, the activist, the student or the dissenter faces unprecedented state hostility. Long before Narendra Modi, there was Indira Gandhi, who similarly dominated her party and government and reached out to the public in a direct populist connect, bypassing many constitutional norms in the process.
In fact, Modi’s strongman one-man-show doer politician image is very similar to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. The crucial difference, of course, is that she remained consistently secular at least in outward expressions, generally steered away from religious majoritarianism and regarded the RSS and Jana Sangh as her mortal enemies. Her personal grace and aristocratic refined charm were also a sharp contrast with the rough personal manners of today’s netas (politicians).
Yet the hallmarks of the Emergency-the assault on individual freedom, a massive executive towering over the legislature and judiciary, the war on the press, the belief emanating from the PMO of l’etat c’est moi, (I am the state) are all strikingly in evidence today. The almost uncanny similarity between Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi, Indian politics’ original ‘supremo’, was thus another reason why I was so keen to work on this book and re-examine, from the standpoint of today, Indira’s rule, its ruinous economics and its bludgeoning centralization.
But in the end it was Indira’s bewildering, paradoxical persona that seduced me: the woman of grace and refinement who was trapped in the castle of her ambition and her craving for power, a stylish beautifully dressed figure standing at the window of a fortress looking out towards her people with great love but also paranoia.
There is so much to learn from this extraordinary and formidable woman, so much drama in her tumultuous life, so many life lessons of tenacious survival. At the end of fifteen months of being immersed in Indira- as I typed out the last words of this book, the realization dawned that my love-hate, bitter-sweet romance with Indira Gandhi had only become deeper than before.