A new book on Indira Gandhi authored by her physician for nearly two decades till her assassination in 1984, provides interesting peeps into the former Prime Minister’s responses to challenges in her personal and political life.
Dr KP Mathur’s book titled The Unseen Indira Gandhi has a foreword by her granddaughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. It covers several milestone moments in Mrs Gandhi’s life: the 1971 Bangladesh War; Pokhran nuclear tests of 1974, imposition of Emergency; death of her younger son Sanjay and circumstances in which the latter’s widow Maneka walked out of the family.
“Doctor, hamara dahina haath kat gaya hai,” the physician recalls Mrs Gandhi having told him after Sanjay got killed in a plane crash in 1980. “She did appear pale and broken…but only for a few weeks. Later she regained her composure and her office and party work went on as usual,” he writes.
In the Emergency period when there were nagging questions about Sanjay’s style of functioning, Mrs Gandhi apparently was reprimanded by BK Nehru, a family elder for whom she had high regard. “She was virtually in tears and could not speak,” Dr Mathur says.
After the 1977 poll debacle, Mrs Gandhi was advised by ‘well-wishers’ to distance herself from her younger son who continued to be unpopular. But she had a different take: “Don’t you think that in such times of adversity, we should stay together and not appear to be a house divided?”
From Dr Mathur’s account, the former Premier appeared visibly tense in the hours leading to the May 18, 1974 Pokhran explosions: “I tried to make some small talk but she wasn’t attentive….She fixed her gaze on the telephone on her bedside table, lifted the receiver once and put it down. I looked in that direction and saw a notebook on which gayatri mantra was written in long hand….”
After Maneka broke away from the family, Mrs Gandhi and Sonia, her elder daughter-in-law, were “very upset” as they doted on Varun (now BJP MP). In the days following the breakup, he was brought to the house every evening for some time. “While they were in PM’s house, Varun used to sleep in PM’s room at night as Mrs Gandhi wanted to help the young mother (Maneka) as much as she could.”
There are several other vignettes in the largely anecdotal book that’s hagiographic in passages. Dr Mathur recalls how VK Krishna Menon — a confidant of Nehru who found himself marginalised in the new dispensation — insisted on calling him a “paediatrician” to make fun of Mrs Gandhi in the early days of her premiership. The book also reveals that Mrs Gandhi contracted ‘Herpes Zoster’ on her face in the middle of the 1977 election campaign. “It was a particularly painful condition and even her eyes were under threat…”