Sunday, January 16, 2011

Remember, Remember...

The last week, I've been doing some heavy-duty reading. I picked up Indira Gandhi: A Biography by Pupul Jayakar, hoping to discover something new, perhaps even change my rather negative opinion of a woman who could be described as a hero and a villain in the same breath.

Sadly, I hardly discovered anything new in the book. Perhaps it just goes to show what a legend Indira Gandhi has come to be, the fact that she was right when she said that she was making history as she went along.Her well-known friendship with Lyndon Johnson and her infamously hateful relationship with Nixon and his NSA are well-known.

The real treasure of information came from her relationship with two men: her husband and her son. Indira's terrible relationship with her husband, that even reached a point where the two considered divorce, represents the first of Indira's great failures in her life. The constant rumours of Feroze Gandhi's relationship with other women and his criticism of her father all went into the long separation between the two, a separation that was only bridged in Feroze's death.

But her even greater folly was her dependence on her younger son Sanjay. Sanjay Gandhi can be confirmed as the villain of the Emergency. The hatred he created among the masses was the reason why Indira Gandhi was so summarily defeated in the 1977 elections. But while the Emergency had cast a dark cloud on her life, Sanjay's political astuteness kept growing until he was re-elected and Indira eventually re-gained her throne in South Block. Sanjay's death was a mortal blow to her, one that she never truly recovered from. Her deteriorating relationship with Maneka was balanced to some extent by a growing love for Sonia, Rajiv's wife.

From the heady days of the Bangladesh War (or the Indo-Pakistan War in the Eastern Theatre) to the excesses of the Emergency years, from the humiliation of being tried for stealing four chickens and two eggs to the dark days of the Khalistan movement and her eventual assassination: Indira saw it all with a determination possessed by few world leaders. Her understanding of the need to protect nature and maintain the unity and integrity of India were well before her time.

Looking back, the Indira years never seemed to point ahead to what was to come. Never, I think, did she imagine that her elder son would be wiped out brutally by a terrorist force, or that her quiet daughter-in-law Sonia would rise to take the reigns of the Congress (I), or even that her adored grandson Varun would one day fight against that very party. Indra Gandhi lived in her day, she was not concerned about creating a legacy. All that mattered to her was the unity of the nation. Had she not been so sure of India's secularism as to prevent the IB from removing Sikhs from her protection force, perhaps she would have lived on. But then, to even imagine Indira Gandhi questioning India's secularism is a great leap of mind.

Had Indira lived, things might have been different. Rajiv Gandhi was a good man, but he never had the political instincts of his mother or brother. Perhaps India would have been different today, or perhaps not. But certainly her years as Prime Minister (just short of two decades) had a profound impact on India, one that generations beyond will never forget.

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