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India/Pakistan

BOOK REVIEW
Skewed portrait of India's Iron Lady

A review of Katherine Frank's Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. Houghton Mifflin Publishers, New York 2002. ISBN0-395-73097-X. US price $35. 567 pages.

By Sreeram Sundar Chaulia

After Maneka Gandhi filed a libel suit in London against Katherine Frank for defaming the late Sanjay Gandhi in this book, media pundits wrote off as implausible the possibility that British courts would ever uphold calumny charges when the subject is not alive. Rukun Advani, with elemental comic savagery, advised Maneka in an article in The Hindu that she should "drop these unconvincing book cases and go back to loving the animal kingdom".

Against legal odds and coffee-table speculation, Indira Gandhi's much-abhorred daughter-in-law had the last laugh and was awarded damages for scurrility in November 2001 with the guarantee that future editions of the book would be suitably amended to delete the objectionable sections. The version under review is the uncensored American one.

Having elicited rave reviews in the Western press and won advance ballyhoos from the publishers as a "major new" biography of the original Iron Lady of Indian and world politics, the book lures the serious reader and historian into hoping that it offers much more than merely the sensational ingredients that fueled the Sanjay-Maneka controversy. Anticlimactically, Katherine Frank fails to deliver on multiple fronts.

Indira's insecure and lonesome childhood, domestic tussles, disharmony in the Nehru household (particularly Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit's abuse of Kamla Nehru), and Motilal and Jawaharlal's choice to pursue careers in nationalist politics and their subsequent neglect of little "Indu boy" are all well elaborated. However, no further psychoanalytical inferences are drawn about how this may have contributed to her notorious latter-day paranoia and siege mentality that everyone was "out to get her".

The epistolary relationship between jailbird Jawaharlal and Indira that plays out intermittently until independence day, is shown to be loaded with tension and unspoken gulfs, but although the author dwells at great length on the father-daughter correspondence, she is unable to pinpoint why exactly the two erected mental barriers before each other and whether this is in any way transformed after Nehru becomes prime minister and Indira dons his housekeeper's mantle in Teen Murti.

A whole chapter caters to Indira's one year spent in Switzerland undergoing treatment for tuberculosis (1939-40), and her frailty, sickliness and perpetually ill and peripatetic youth are constant themes throughout the first part of the book, but again no significant link is adduced between this unhappy early existence and Indira's fearlessness of death and suffering when at the helm of India for 15 years.

Despite chronologically tracing the evolution of her thought process, Frank has not attempted to decipher an eternal mystery: What was Indira Gandhi's core ideology? In 1937, struggling to pass the honors entrance exam in Oxford, she chides Nehru for accepting the invitation of a pro-fascist British politician belonging to the "Cliveden set". In 1940, when the USSR invades Finland and Nehru criticizes the action, she starkly disagrees with her father and places herself to the left of Nehru by terming Finland "repressive and totalitarian" (p 154). The influence of extreme leftist friends like Feroze Gandhi, P N Haksar and Krishna Menon certainly reddens Indira's radicalism in Europe, as the author notes, but then can her post-prime ministerial demarches of bank nationalization, abolition of privy purses, garibi hatao, "Ten Point Program" and pro-Soviet foreign policy be also viewed as continuums of her ideological convictions or pure populist posturing for garnering votes and public adulation? Frank suggests, "frequently in Indira's life, ideological and self-preserving initiatives overlapped" (p 311), but this is akin to unconvincingly arguing that in 1929, when Josef Stalin swerved the Soviet Union irrevocably to the left, it served both the consolidation of his dictatorship as well as his genuine communist vision.

As P V Narasimha Rao has revealed in The Insider, Indira failed, notwithstanding the rhetoric of inheriting Nehru's principles, to redress fundamental injustices in rural land ownership patterns. The Emergency (1975-77) is a classic case of her leftist hypocrisy unmasked, what with draconian measures pushed down the country's throat in the name of assaults on poverty, smuggling, tax evasion and land baronetcy. Frank notes the irony that "the most numerous victims of the Emergency were the poor whom she claimed the Emergency intended to help and protect" (p 401). Surely, there is an inveterate cynicism in Indira's pro-poor and "progressive" grandstanding that has for its engine a rabid conservative, totalitarian and pro-capitalist "rising son" like Sanjay Gandhi!

While Frank stalks Indira's youth like a shadow, rattling off in the manner of a diarist what she did every day of her life, she accords scanty treatment to some very significant and puzzling decisions taken in her later years. What prompts the U-turn of January 1977 when she flabbergasts the whole nation by announcing fresh elections? Why does she begin toying with state governments and dismiss them at will without realizing the disastrous consequences to the country's unity and to her own survival? What exactly drives her to defenestrate Farooq Abdullah in Kashmir, Darbara Singh in Punjab and N T Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, against all constitutional and moral proprieties?

Frank follows the hackneyed line of reasoning that Indira, the legendary savorer of challenges, had lost her superb political acumen and sense of timing after the shock of Sanjay's accidental death. But it is an unanswered riddle how the quintessential secular politician starts playing the "Hindu card" and believing in anchorites during the early '80s. "Decline" theory serves as an easy escape for the ex post facto analyst, but Frank disregards the tremendous mandate Indira receives on her comeback trail in 1980 and the buoyancy with which she resumes office after the Janata interlude. Desperate resort to the likes of Bhindranwale bespeaks not of an astute stateswoman who has lost track of the "art of the possible", but of a megalomaniac. Frank grossly understates by averring, "she was guilty of hubris but not megalomania" (p 410).

The only illuminative service Frank's voluminous biography renders is to deconstruct the myth of an invincible and Machiavellian Indira and instead posit an alternate vulnerable (even brittle) Iron Lady, whose whole life reads like that of the heroine of a grandiose Greek tragedy. In the author's estimate, Indira never experiences true happiness, private or public, and beneath her hankering for power is a soft feminine core that yearns to escape from the incarcerating duties history has imposed on her. Contrasted to numerous other portraits of Indira, Frank's Indira is cast not as a cold, revengeful, ruthless and manipulative operator but as a gentle soul who unsuccessfully struggles with destiny and circumstantially strays away from the ideals of her illustrious father.

Had less print been allotted to Sanjay Gandhi's countless criminal exploits (including the murder of his own father-in-law) or to salacious tidbits about the alleged amours of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (Nehru-Padmaja Naidu, Nehru-Edwina Mountbatten, Feroze-Kamla Nehru, Feroze- Lekha Pandit, Indira-M O Mathai, Indira-Dinesh Singh, Indira-Dhirendra Brahmachari), and adequate coverage given to the questions and conundrums mooted in this review, Frank's could have been a far more balanced and recommendable biography. One need not venture to the extent of concurring with the unlikeliest of reviewers, Maneka Gandhi, that "the book was absolute rubbish and didn't deserve to be given the kind of publicity it was given", but Katherine Frank has left too many loose ends untied and proves herself a poor organizer of information and an inept optimizer of publishing space.

The best and most readable sources for the Iron Lady's fascinating and turbulent life still remain Pupul Jayakar's Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography (1993) and Inder Malhotra's Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography (1991).








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