June 25th marks the 40th anniversary of the Emergency. Veteran journalist Coomi Kapoor weaves together the personal and the political in her timely book on a bleak period in the nation's recent history.
But there was a quiet sympathy. People were too scared to come out. After the elections were called, the dam burst and then people were able to show their true colours. By that time, of course, the Emergency had become much more unpopular. In the beginning, it was all about: "They are doing something; they are pulling down unauthorized buildings" and all that. Then, the ruthlessness of Sanjay's programmes…
What was it about Sanjay Gandhi?
He was spoilt and arrogant but he also knew very firmly what he wanted to do. There was no wishy-washyness in what his concepts were. In fact, his mother was far more uncertain than he was and that's why she didn't take him into confidence when she finally decided to call elections; because he was bitterly opposed to that. He was thinking in terms of a constituent assembly and continued Emergency for a long time.
Do you think he really slapped his mother six times as reported?
I doubt it, but the story spread like wildfire and that a reputed newspaper like Washington Times would carry it… It was a very good morale boost in the underground. There are enough incidents in the book to show he had a grip over his mother.
That he did. He wouldn't have gotten so far if he didn't.
But all the same, eventually, he was trying to save her throne and she realised she could rely on him more than on anybody else so. But he was also the one who got her into trouble because Maruti was seen as such a nepotistic effort by the government.
One of the most interesting things about the book is reading about people who were not well known then but are now political stars.
Emergency threw up a whole generation of leaders: Laloo Prasad Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Arun Jaitley, Nitish Kumar, Sushma Swaraj. They were all jailed during the Emergency. Now they are old but we used to call them the Young Guard (laughs).
Narendra Modi is the first PM after Indira Gandhi who's as strong; who's got such a mandate...
No, the mandate was with Rajiv but he was a softie. He was not temperamentally inclined that way. He actually rewarded some of the people who turned against his mother. He didn't hold that against them. The most prominent example was Siddhartha Shankar Ray. The mother never talked to Siddhartha again but Rajiv Gandhi made him the governor of Punjab; sent him to the US.
Why do you think Indira Gandhi was so attentive to her younger son?
In the chapter on Indira Gandhi, you see it in those letters which I had got hold of by chance…
What do you mean by chance?
I can't explain… but they were authentic letters which had appeared earlier when I was a reporter and I had quoted from them. I had got the reports that I had written earlier on the letters. It's very clear that she was obsessed with her younger son; at least, she relied on him much more. Her elder son was seen as apolitical. Also perhaps she wanted to compensate for the neglect of…
Someone should write a book on Feroze Gandhi!
Yes, he's an interesting character to write about. It should have been written a little earlier because a lot of the people who knew him have passed away but he was quite a remarkable person in his own way. Nehru dismissed him but Nehru was to realize when he died how popular he was and what a good parliamentarian he was.
The Parsis you've fleshed out in the book are fantastic, especially Pipsy Wadia.
That was such a small part! She was quite a character in Bombay society. What was amazing was that she saw her position as so secure that she was the only person who was not rattled when the police came and knocked on the doors of the people who had been receiving letters on behalf of my sister.
Why was she so secure?
Because she was the cream of society and in Bombay, she was away from it. Nothing could be done to her. She was very close to Homi Bhabha.
You write that she thought Indira Gandhi had 'set her cap at Homi Bhabha'.
Yes, that's what she told my mother.
Your family comes across as very close knit.
During the Emergency, my family certainly came to my support. In fact, it really touched me because my father was a very apolitical person but he was totally supportive despite his illness. My parents moved in a circle that didn't want to get involved in politics of any sort. It must have been very difficult but it shows the character of my parents that they managed. My father was suffering from cancer at that time. He was an ICS officer and being raided by the police and having his house turned upside down… It was humiliating for him.
And what's it like to be Subramanian Swamy's sister-in-law?
I better not say anything. He's one of a kind; let's put it like that.
The Emergency; A Personal History; Coomi Kapoor
Penguin; Rs 599; 389pp
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