Book: Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power
Author: Nayantara Sahgal
399 pp 412
The reissue of Nayantara Sahgal’s book on Indira Gandhi thirty years after it was first published, vindicates the author’s remark that,
“India is not done with Indira Gandhi.” Mrs. Gandhi has been gone for almost as long, yet our fascination with her (and her legacy) endures, and the 1975 Emergency remains a watershed in India’s political history. Indeed, the Emergency was the trigger, Sahgal says, for her book: her attempt was, one, to give voice to the thousands (including herself) who were silenced at the time, either by arrest or intimidation; and two, to offer an account of how one woman could reverse or negate the democratic values which post-Independence India had, by and large, upheld. In short, to show “the effect of personality on history”.
“I wrote against my cousin because she was my cousin,” Nayantara has said, and because she could not understand how Mrs. Gandhi could systematically dismantle the foundations and institutions of a freedom hard won. But there were other factors, too: Sahgal’s growing concern at the decline of the Congress as a national force, post-1969; Mrs Gandhi’s open alliance with the CPI, post-1971; and Nayantara’s own solidarity with the JP Movement as a counter to Mrs Gandhi’s authoritarianism. Not surprisingly, developments around these dates dominate in her telling, with the greatest attention paid to the pre-Emergency period and the Bihar Movement. The Allahabad High Court judgement of June 20, 1975, in her view, followed party reversals in Gujarat, Kerala and Tamil Nadu; while the massive support that JP was able to mobilise in a relatively short time was dangerously unsettling for the PM.
After Mrs Gandhi’s defeat in 1977, a rash of books on her and her political style appeared, but Nayantara Sahgal’s is one of the most clear-eyed and critical in its analysis. Her recounting of the lead-in to the Emergency is detailed and unrelenting, illustrating the impact of irresistible force meeting immovable object: two towering personalities – JP and Indira – and their effect on history. There is a third towering personality in this book, and that, of course, is Nehru, whose political legacy the author believes was unforgiveably subverted by his daughter. Non-alignment was abandoned by cosying up to the Soviet Union; decision-making by consensus was jettisoned; chief ministers were unseated, Congress cadres were demoralised, an all-encompassing quest for power replaced a visionary politics. Indira Gandhi substituted Nehru’s – and India’s – tryst with destiny with her individual tryst with power and this, in her cousin’s opinion, was her greatest – and gravest – betrayal. Yet, it can be argued that Mrs Gandhi, by nationalising banks, abolishing the princes’ privy purses and increasing state control of the economy was pursuing her version of a Nehruvian socialism, while simultaneously eroding his principles. Decades, and many assessments later, Mrs Gandhi remains something of a paradox, as Sahgal herself concludes in her epilogue – but this by no means cancels out the body blows she dealt to India’s political life.
Ritu Menon is the founder of feminist publishing house, Women Unlimited.
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