"Indira" by Katherine Frank

Indira Gandhi led the most populous democracy in the world, but finally, ruthless and paranoid, she couldn't resist the temptation of tyranny.

By Paul Festa

Published March 26, 2002 6:45PM (EST)

Just before assuming the highest office of the world's most populous democracy, Indira Gandhi entertained a fantasy of escaping public service by moving to London and becoming an anonymous landlady. After reading Katherine Frank's new biography of Gandhi, "Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi," one rather wishes that she had, despite the hardship this would have imposed on Bloomsbury renters.

Gandhi assumed power reluctantly at first, rebuffing those who sought to draft her into various public roles in favor of serving quietly in the shadow of her father, the prime minister. But like the teetotaler who, once alcohol passes his lips for the first time, never draws another sober breath, Gandhi fought to retain power once she had it -- and with enough zeal and ruthlessness to reduce the Indian constitution to a pile of saffron-dyed confetti.

It may help to explain her later antipathy to democratic institutions that she was born in the cradle of Indian democracy, because Gandhi had to compete with it for her parents' time and attention. For the most part, she lost.

She was born in 1917, the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, the revolutionary agitator who would become India's first democratically elected leader when the country gained its independence from Britain in 1947, and his consumptive but politically active wife, Kamala. (Indira Gandhi was no relation to Mohandas, a close friend and mentor of the Nehru family.)

Life in the Nehru household ran on an erratic schedule, with Jawaharlal being carted off to jail every so often by the British authorities for his pro-independence activities, and Kamala (in addition to serving a politically valuable jail stint of her own) trekking off to quack healers and European health spas in her protracted march toward death from tuberculosis at the age of 37.

Indira Nehru, despite being a tubercular basket case herself (she's seriously ill or monumentally depressed about once every 20 pages for the first third of the book, until the TB cure reaches New Delhi in the late 1950s), married one of her mother's acolytes, Feroze Gandhi. In terms of both personal and political comity, their marriage compared with other historically significant events in Indian history, including three wars with Pakistan and any number of domestic Hindu-Sikh conflagrations.

After years of infidelity, illness and intranuptial political discord, the charismatic husband and his ambitious wife were for the most part estranged. However, before Feroze's death from a heart attack at the age of 47, they managed to produce two sons: Rajiv (who would follow in his mother's footsteps to serve as India's prime minister, from her assassination in 1984 until his own in 1991) and Sanjay.

It was Nehru's death in 1964 that knocked Gandhi from the sidelines of power to its pinnacle. She had yet to be popularly elected to any post, but she had become a force to be reckoned with. She was president of the Indian National Congress (a political party) and, as a result of traveling frequently with her father, had become a world-famous personality on a first-name basis with monarchs, presidents and prime ministers around the globe. Following the brief and undistinguished interregnum of Lal Bahadur Shastri -- whom Indira repeatedly upstaged from the vantage point of his cabinet and her newly appointed seat in the upper house of the Indian legislature, potentially contributing to his death by heart failure not two years into his term -- Gandhi was the clear choice to assume power.

The vile, crushing marriage of Gandhi and Indian democracy had a decent enough honeymoon. In 1971 she led the military victory over U.S.-backed Pakistan that resulted in the independence of the wracked nation of Bangladesh. Emerging from this triumph, Gandhi found herself virtually deified by the Indian people and became, according to a Gallup poll, the world's most admired person. Considering its geopolitical consequences on the Indian subcontinent today, her detonation three years later of India's first nuclear device may or may not qualify to Western readers as a highlight of her 18 years in office, but the underground explosion certainly played well in the Punjab.

Gandhi followed up those victories with electoral landslides in which her markedly socialist policies helped rally the poor -- her natural constituency -- to the polls in large numbers. But trouble loomed on the horizon in the form of what today might be called a vast right-wing conspiracy against her. Capitalizing on some minor elections infractions she committed, Gandhi's political and judicial enemies nearly succeeded in wresting power from her.

But they might as well have tried to part a lit pipe from an armed crack whore. The picture that emerges most vividly of Gandhi at this juncture, and for the rest of her political life, is one of an addict yearning for the more serene life that awaits her if she can only quit her drug but frantic -- and ruthless -- the moment its withdrawal is threatened.

Alternatively, and more kindly, you could view her as a classic tragic hero out of Shakespeare or Sophocles. Proud, paranoid and perpetually wounded (like her nemesis Richard Nixon), Gandhi clung to power so tenaciously and with so few scruples that she laid the groundwork for her most precipitous falls -- including her final one into the murderous hands of her own bodyguards.

Her favored son, Sanjay, plotted out the Machiavellian schemes executed in her name. Gandhi's closest and most corrupt advisor, he plays a composite of Goneril, Iago and Lady Macbeth to Gandhi's increasingly myopic and manipulated crypto-monarch. (As one participant in the events reflected, his death in a 1980 plane crash was as lucky for India as it was unlucky for Indira.) But even setting aside Sanjay's criminal associations and tactics, his fraudulent business enterprises and dictatorial leanings, his mother's political character emerges as one increasingly hostile to the democratic values that inspired the men and women who brought her, and an independent India, into the world.

Consider the dismal two years of Gandhi's Emergency, her end-run around the enemies who nearly ousted her on the elections charges: Hundreds of thousands were jailed for dissent, with nearly two dozen deaths from desperate conditions in overcrowded prisons. Some were tortured. As many as 23 million Indian men were sterilized under Sanjay's coercive population-control scheme, and many thousands were rendered homeless by his "beautification" program of bulldozing slums. Meanwhile the domestic press was muzzled, the foreign press was expelled, the world's largest democracy went without elections and the courts and the constitution were all but disemboweled.

Or consider her cynical practice, late in her life as her paranoia intensified, of playing her enemies off one another for her own political advantage -- even at the cost of letting bloody religious conflicts, including the one that inspired her assassination, play out until they had spiraled out of control.

With friends like Gandhi, India's democratic institutions, its impoverished masses and victims of religious intolerance hardly needed enemies.

Without delving too deeply in the shadowy realm of psychobiography, Katherine Frank identifies formative experiences and childhood wounds that help explain the paranoia and near-megalomania that would characterize Gandhi at crucial junctures in her career.

But she is too forgiving by half in analyzing Gandhi's thirst for power. Gandhi's problem, Frank writes, is that the Indian prime minister believed that only she was capable of leading her nation. That is a charitable view, suggesting that Gandhi had a high opinion of her own capabilities and a low one of her opponents'.

A more illuminating analysis of Gandhi's relationship to power might suggest that her proximity to it gradually stripped her of everything else in her life. She devoted everything to her father and his career, and he only grew away from her. With her parents' deaths, her husband's abandonment and death, her son's death, a creeping alienation from her few close friends and finally a permanent estrangement from her daughter-in-law and grandson, Gandhi (her left eye twitching furiously) ultimately wound up with one fix, one rush, one companion. She didn't even drink. All that was left to her was power -- that, and the adulation of multitudes, the greatest multitude a democratically elected leader had ever served.

Even as she ached for the normality and peace of private life, the woman dubbed Empress Indira by admirers and critics alike could not bear to be parted from her crown. India suffered for it no less than did Indira. To the extent that Gandhi failed to produce lasting solutions to India's chronic woes -- religious tensions and the now-nuclear-charged conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir -- and to the degree that she sought to preserve her own power by playing politics with those incendiary situations, India, along with the rest of us, is still suffering for her shortcomings.

Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of disciplineandpublish.com and a frequent Salon contributor.

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