0f the dozen prime ministers who have ruled India, the world’s most populous democracy, since independence from Britain in 1947, none evokes the extremes of adulation and hatred that Indira Gandhi does. Katherine Frank’s monumental biography is really two books in one: a superb study of the young Indira Nehru, meticulously researched and compellingly written, followed by a disappointingly pedestrian account of the older Indira Gandhi, politician, prime minister and autocrat.
As a story of the events in a remarkable life, Indira is an impressive, even gripping read. Frank revisists all of the amazing transformations that Gandhi went through: the frail, sickly young woman who emerged from the shadow of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, to political prominence in her own right; the conflicted bride of the mercurial Feroze Gandhi, whose early death left her a widow with a fortuitously famous name (Feroze was no relation to the Mahatma); the risé to the prime ministry upon the sudden death of the incumbent, her father’s successor Lal Bahadur Shastri. Her careen in office, as Frank describes it, was no less eventful: There were Gandhi’s first tentative, uncertain missteps as India’s leader, followed by electoral setbacks and then a ferocious reassertion, in which she defenestrated the old guard who had put her in office, split the ruling party and assumed unchallenged power; the “annus mirabilis” of 1971, when she followed a sweeping electoral victory on the slogan “Garibi Hatao” (”Remove Poverty”) with a thumping military triumph against Pakistan in the war that created Bangladesh; the years of stagnation afterward, leading to mounting popular protests, and again her fierce retaliation with a proclamation of emergency rule in 1975 that suspended India’s democracy for 22 months while a pliant Congress Party president meretriciously proclaimed, “Indina is India and India is Indina°; electoral defeat thereafter, nearly three years in opposition, then another comeback in 1980; and finally her assassination in 1984 by the forces of Sikh extremism, forces she had herself primed for petty partisan purposes, the demon devoured by the monster it had spawned.
Frank, who has outstanding biographies of Emily Bronté and Lucie Duff Gordon to her credit, has all of the essential details right, and she weaves them into a compelling narrative, told with understanding and sympathy. But what did Indira Gandhi stand for. Frank disappointingly fails to analyze her subject’s beliefs. As Nehru’s daughter and political heir, Gandhi had acquired much of his vision, but she also distorted it to conform to her own proclivities. She took great pride in having been born in November 1917, at the time of the Russian Revolution. From her father she had learned to be skeptical of Western claims to stand for freedom and democracy when India’s historical experience of colonial oppression and exploitation appeared to bear out the opposite. These convictions fitted in with her domestic left-wing political strategy; her need for Soviet support on the subcontinent against a United States-backed Pakistan-China axis; and her dark suspicion, born more of personal insecurity than of any hard evidence, that the CIA was out to destabilize her government as it had done Allende’s in Chile.
Nonetheless, Gandhi once memorably confessed (in a quote that does not appear in Frank’s book): “I don’t really have a political philosophy. I can’t say I believe in any ism. I wouldn’t say I’m interested in socialism as socialism. To me it’s just a tool.” But tools are used for well-defined purposes, and it was never clear that she had any, beyond the politically expedient. The 1971 electoral and military triumphs-the first over a sclerotic and discredited political establishment at home, the second over a sclerotic and discredited martiallaw establishment next door-saw her at her pinnacle. India’s leading modern painter, the Muslim M.F. Husain, depicted her as a Hindu Mother Goddess. The imagery was appropriate: Indeed, at her peak, Indira Gandhi was both worshiped and maternalized. But it was not to last. She was skilled at the acquisition and maintenance of power, inept at wielding it for larger purposes. She had no real vision or program beyond campaign slogans; “remove poverty” was a mantra without a method. Her only ideology was somewhere to the left of opportunism.
Frank makes no real effort to analyze Gandhi’s deep mistrust of everyone but her own sons, her blindness to ,their limitations, her promotion of mediocrity and sycophancy, and her intolerante of dissent. Frank is silent on the cynicism with which Gandhi encouraged (and initially financed) the fanaticism of a Sikh fundamentalist preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, in orden to undercut her
Source: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi By Katherine Frank