A mediocre goddess. Indira Gandhi left behind a lonely and unremarkable adolescence to become India's only female prime minister, drawing support from the poor and dispossessed. But she was also a despot, writes Pankaj Mishra, who brought shame, violence

Indira: a life of Indira Nehru Gandhi

Katherine Frank <em>HarperCollins, 578pp, £19.99</em>

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In 1978, Bruce Chatwin accompanied Indira Gandhi for a month on her travels around India. A year before, the Indian electorate that had enthusiastically voted for her Congress Party in previous elections had not bought her excuses for the national emergency that she imposed in 1975. She was voted out of office. But the ageing opposition leaders who replaced her quickly disgraced themselves; already, a year after her defeat, Gandhi was on what the newspapers called her "comeback trail". In Kerala, southern India, she addressed a meeting from a balcony, her chair placed on top of a table. After dark fell, Gandhi held a torch between her knees and rotated it, aiming the beam at her face and arms. At some point during her strenuous efforts, she turned to Chatwin and said: "You have no idea how tiring it is to be a goddess."

It doesn't really sound like her. Indira Gandhi was not known for her irony and wit. Chatwin may have been guilty here, not for the first time, of a small invention. But the picture he provides is true in its essential detail: Gandhi was nothing less than a goddess for the great invisible masses whose unqualified adulation she sought and, for the most part, received.

I was eight years old at the time Chatwin met Indira Gandhi, and had only just begun to identify her as a living person, had only begun to distinguish her pictures, which were everywhere, from the equally ubiquitous images of Durga and Saraswati and Kali in the shops of the small-town bazaars. At our Christian-run schools, we bargained hard for possession of the metal badges with her ever-smiling image that the white-capped Congress workers distributed at roadside election rallies. To us, Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru were no more than names in the history textbooks. We knew of no other political leader. One of the sycophants Indira Gandhi gathered around herself claimed during the Emergency that "Indira is India, India is Indira"; and so it seemed at least to us, to people living very far from the centres of power.

The deeper sources of that power lay in the immense distance between the ruler and ruled. It was something that the British, serenely self-obsessed in their cantonments and civil lines, knew well during their rule over India. So did the Moghuls, presiding over a vast empire from Delhi and Agra. Indira Gandhi not only managed to resurrect this ancient imperial hierarchy, but also claimed (unlike the British and the Moghuls) a special intimacy with the subject masses, whom she repeatedly persuaded to vote for her, and against, as it often turned out, their own interest.

As Katherine Frank demonstrates in her admirably well-researched and balanced biography, very little in Indira Gandhi's early life hinted at her later power and influence. She was born into a disturbed household: her father, Pandit Nehru, was mostly away, in prison or busy with organising the freedom movement; her mother, neglected by her father's sisters, was perennially ill, often recuperating in European sanatoriums. The young Indira accompanied her mother and was frequently unwell herself.

She went through a series of schools in Switzerland, England and India, and the failure to distinguish herself at any one of them aggravated the personal insecurity that she took with her into old age: a few months before she died, she confessed to a close friend that she had been forever tormented by an aunt's throwaway remark, which she had heard as an adolescent - something about her being "so ugly and stupid". Nehru's connections took her to Somerville College, Oxford, but she preferred to mix with Indian expatriates in London, and failed to pass her Latin exams twice; after Nehru, no one in this Indian dynasty managed to get an Oxbridge degree.

The image that you get from Frank's account, of a sheltered girl tossed about by circumstances, grows stronger once Indira's mother dies and she decides to marry. The man she chose - or who, more simply, came into her line of vision - was Feroze Gandhi (no relation, it should be said for the last time, of the Mahatma). Feroze was a Parsee, one of the hangers-on at the Nehru family home in Allahabad - someone still, when Indira first came to know him, trying to find a vocation in life. Just about everyone among Indira's family and friends could sense that the marriage was not going to work. Nehru protested against her "absurd haste". Mahatma Gandhi characteristically proposed a "celibate marriage". But Indira remained firm.

To no one's surprise, the marriage was a disaster. That was mostly because Indira could not sever her connection with her father, even as Feroze unexpectedly found his own identity and developed into a vigorous parliamentarian in independent India. Indira turned into a butler of sorts for Nehru, an organiser of working breakfasts and dinner parties and banquets; the smiling, sari-clad companion of her father on his high-profile travels around the world.

But chaperoning her ageing father could not amount to what she called her "metier". The truth was that there was not much else she could do in India. Her semi-European upbringing had alienated her from her own country (it later helped her endear herself to many western leaders and journalists, who thought her a very good thing for India). She had acquired a contempt, so easy in India, for the uncultivated, inefficient and inarticulate men around her. In letter after letter to Dorothy Norman, an American socialite she befriended on one of her trips with her father, she spoke of her loneliness in India, her desire to find a small house in England. This is what makes her subsequent transformation into a demagogue so remarkable.

The strange culture of Indian politics in the 1950s and 1960s had much to do with Indira Gandhi's elevation from insecure escort to Nehru to president of the Congress Party and, eventually, two years after Nehru's death, to the prime minister's office. The Indian mutineers of 1857 had looked towards a long-defunct Moghul emperor to lead them into battle against the British; and, several years after independence, India still appeared to require the leadership of a semi-foreigner such as Indira Gandhi. The power-brokers within Congress - who were powerful regional leaders themselves - could not trust anyone among their own people: the leader had to be someone at least superficially aloof from the rivalries of region and caste and religion. Gandhi appeared an apposite choice in the beginning: she seemed timid and pliant enough to pose no threat to the regional satraps of the Congress Party.

It is a matter of debate whether Nehru wanted his daughter to succeed him. Indira shared little of his intellectual curiosity and vision, despite his best efforts to educate her. For several years, she did not bother reading the book of letters about world history that Nehru composed for her in prison. "She is extraordinarily self-centred," he wrote to his sister. Later, he confessed to Indira herself that he was "hurt" by the vast difference between "our sense of values". From Frank's account, it seems more likely that he had a modest role in mind for her.

And she would have ended up in that much-longed-for small house in London after Nehru's death, had she not been encouraged by a few members of the feudal-colonial elite who feared their great power would be taken away by the "men of the soil" who were then emerging within the Congress Party. It has happened again and again in postcolonial countries: a group of semi-westernised people trying to allay their fears of rootlessness and anomie by propping up one of their own as the supreme leader. A minor prince, a journalist, a bureaucrat, a painter - these became Indira Gandhi's intellectual guides in the world of realpolitik.

In 1966, when Nehru's successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, unexpectedly died and Indira Gandhi became prime minister, India was already restive. Inflation and unemployment threatened to undermine the economy; the hopes generated at independence had turned sour. Gandhi's pet intellectuals armed her with a few ideas, and she promptly became "socialist" and "anti-imperialist", even as she struck humiliating food-import deals with the US. She nationalised the banks, stopped the payment of privy purses to former princes. Her marginalised opponents said: "Indira Hatao" ("Remove Indira"). She answered them with "Garibi Hatao" ("Remove Poverty") - the kind of populist slogan she used to tap into what became her greatest source of power: the great Indian majority of the poor and the dispossessed, who thought of the fair-skinned daughter of Nehru as their saviour.

In a matter of years, Indira Gandhi outdistanced both her supporters and opponents. However, each important step towards the absolute power she wished to wield brought its own dissatisfactions; in a political system more feudal than democratic, loyalties have to be unqualified, and any victory over your opponents must be total. You do not live to fight another day, for there may not be another. (In Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sought the same kind of power, and first socialism, then Islam, came in handy for him. Incidentally, Bhutto idolised Nehru and considered his daughter to be "a mediocre woman with a mediocre intelligence". Indira Gandhi thought Bhutto was "slightly unbalanced". In retrospect, both appear to have been right.)

The search for total loyalty in a society with malfunctioning institutions usually ends within one's own family. Sanjay Gandhi, Indira's pampered younger son, had, like many other scions of third-world ruling classes, a weakness for gadgets. He said he wanted to make cars: he probably only liked driving them. But he was in India, he was the son of the prime minister, and the nationalised banks competed to advance him generous sums of money. No cars emerged from his factory, but Sanjay cruised easily from failure to failure, growing in strength until he reached the moment, early during the Emergency, when he was practically running the country.

Leaders of the opposition were thrown in jail. Chief ministers of the states were appointed and dismissed at whim. All appointees had to come up with a fixed amount of money for Congress's election coffers: thus the plundering of the state's resources became, under orders from Gandhi and her son, a compulsion for the people's elected representatives. The daily content of the press and television was often personally scrutinised by Sanjay Gandhi, whose reading was otherwise confined to Archie comics. Anyone who dared to oppose him was banished from public life - or even, as many people once close to Sanjay now claim, murdered.

It would be easy to think of him now as an aberration, as a semi-literate upstart who, by sheer accident of birth, came to possess a frightening amount of power. But that would be to suppress the truth that he was supported, even loved, by many educated Indians. Sanjay Gandhi wanted to "beautify" India's cities, make the country "ultra modern". He wanted India to be a first-world player, not just a poor third-world country; and, in all these ambitions, he articulated a growing middle-class impatience with India's poor - an impatience bordering on contempt, which lay behind such typically Sanjay-ite solutions to the nation's problems. Overpopulation? Sterilise the men. Slums? Demolish them.

By the time his bluff was called in the elections of 1977, largely by the unprotected poor, who suffered most from illegal evictions and forced sterilisations, it was too late: Indira Gandhi was voted out, but the Indian institutions - the judiciary, the press, parliament - undermined by her son were never to recover fully, and many among the Hindu middle classes were never to give up the scorn for the processes of democracy that they learnt from Sanjay Gandhi.

Soon after Indira assumed office again in 1980, Sanjay died, while attempting stunts in a light airplane above Delhi. But her son's death did not prevent Indira's second term in office from being a disaster - even before her assassination in October 1984. She engineered, through bribes paid to legislators, the collapse of a democratically elected government in Kashmir. It was the first of a series of events that would force the Kashmiris into a full-scale anti-India insurgency in 1990. In the state of Punjab, an illiterate Sikh preacher called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, whom Sanjay Gandhi had promoted in order to undermine the anti-Congress, Sikh ruling party there, turned against his sponsors and declared war on India. All this time, Indira Gandhi was travelling, at government expense, from one Hindu "godman" to another, pleading for divine protection from her "enemies" - the CIA, Sikh militants, the leaders of the opposition - who were now everywhere.

The random killings by Bhindranwale's men in the Punjab came as an opportunity for Indira Gandhi to stoke up Hindu xenophobia. In June 1984, she ordered the army into the Golden Temple in Amritsar; their orders were to flush out the Sikh militants holed up in there. Instead of besieging the Golden Temple and waiting for the militants to come out - a strategy that proved successful only two years later - the army stormed the temple in tanks, massacring hundreds of innocent pilgrims trapped inside. Imagine those tanks in the holy capital of another monotheistic faith, say, Mecca, or even the Vatican, and you will perhaps come close to understanding the depth of Sikh rage and despair.

Barely four months later, Indira Gandhi was murdered by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The assassination was inevitable on the day the army entered the Golden Temple; but the dreadful brutalities that followed it could have been prevented. The police stood and watched, and the army was called in only after a full three days of chaos, during which time mobs of Congress hooligans once nurtured by Sanjay went around Delhi with voting lists, systematically murdering Sikhs. More than 3,000 Sikhs were killed and, as a whole young generation of enraged Sikhs took up arms against the state of India, thousands more died in the Punjab in the course of the next decade.

"I don't want to be remembered for anything," Indira Gandhi told an interviewer in a fit of pique, at a time when public opinion was turning against her; and it seems her wish may have come true. The well-stocked bookshops in New Delhi yielded just one recent book about her. People are not much interested in Indira Gandhi, I was told more than once. India has moved on.

But that is too simple. It is true that Indian politics is a more complex affair now, after the decline of Congress and the rise of region- and caste-based parties - so much so that to think about Indira now is to wonder how a despot could manage to suppress all of India's great urgencies of poverty, public health and sectarian violence, with the help of a few cronies and slogans; how fragile India's imported democratic institutions could prove to be, under the slightest pressure. The press, for instance, were particularly craven (when told to bend during the Emergency, as one of the imprisoned leaders of the opposition bitterly remarked later, they crawled).

But it is also true that too much of what Indira Gandhi set in motion is still being played out in India. The middle-class Hindu constituency, brought up on a diet of her neonationalism, has grown more ravenous. The flaunting of nuclear weapons; the undeclared war on the poor under the regime of the IMF and WTO; the brutal suppression of the insurgency in Kashmir; the craving for superpower status - in all of these and more aspects of middle-class India today, you can sense the malign spirit of Indira Gandhi and her son that overwhelmed India, and destroyed much of the good work of Nehru. That is why the books aren't available in New Delhi: more time will have to pass, and many things would have to change, before we have the distance necessary for assessing a historical legacy so inescapably a part of us. In the meantime, for Indians everywhere, Frank's book should help initiate that important process of understanding how we have become who we are.

Pankaj Mishra, a writer based in New Delhi and Simla, is the author of The Romantics: a novel (Picador, £6.99)

This article first appeared in Duel for the Tube

2001-04-09