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Indira Gandhi

Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Graham

I just finished reading Katherine Frank’s biography of Indira Gandhi,  Indira Gandhi was undoubtedly popular for a long time. Spirited, courageous, cultured, artistic, she had many admirable qualities. But I wouldn’t want her back as a leader. Nor her father, Jawaharlal Nehru.

He might not have been authoritarian like his daughter. But they were both British-educated leftist patricians who smothered India in a protectionist cocoon in the name of nationalism and achieving self-sufficiency while they themselves travelled far and wide in pursuit of their own agendas. It is no surprise that they were drawn to the Soviet Union and the non-aligned movement whose leaders tended to dominate their countries.

Indira Gandhi had genuine grievances against America. She had to devalue the Indian rupee by more than 50 percent under American pressure when she visited President Johnson seeking aid after drought and famine ravaged the Indian economy. Later, she failed to persuade President Nixon to stop the Pakistani genocide in Bangladesh. Instead, he sent the US Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate her when she intervened in Bangladesh in 1971. Never mind that Pakistan struck first, bombing Indian air bases. Never mind that millions of Bangladeshi refugees were pouring into India to escape the genocide. Nixon remained hostile to India. It was only then that India sealed a military alliance with the Soviet Union. The US was already committed to Pakistan.

But the problem started with her father. Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policy was quixotic, to say the least. He preached solidarity with China, for which he was duly rewarded when China attacked India in the 1962 border war. He preached non-alignment but was friendly to China, Ho Chi Minh and the Soviet Union. It was President Roosevelt who urged the British to give up India. Yet, Nehru never built up a close relationship with any US president.

Both Nehru and Indira Gandhi felt more comfortable in London than in Washington. Blame it on their British education. Though Nehru had been beaten and jailed by the British during the Indian independence movement, yet he shared their prejudices. The Americans apparently were brash, crass, materialistic. Nehru was not even impressed by President Kennedy. Indira Gandhi later made fun of President Reagan. But she enjoyed a warm relationship with the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. It is telling that in her early days she sometimes thought of leaving politics and moving to England.

Katherine Frank relates all this in intimate detail in her biography of Indira Gandhi. It is balanced and well-written. The book gives a marvellous picture of the entire Nehru family starting from her grandfather’s time. We see her as a girl, a young woman in love, her conflicting feelings for her father and her husband, her fierce maternal instinct which would tarnish her final years.

I wouldn’t want her back as a leader, there is so much to admire about her. Beautiful and spirited, she was certainly not lacking in courage. Consider the manner of her death. She was shot dead by two of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. They said they wanted revenge because she had desecrated their holiest shrine. (She had ordered the army into the Golden Temple in Amritsar to deal with Sikh extremists fighting for an independent homeland.) Commentators wondered why she still employed Sikh bodyguards when their loyalty might be suspect. But that was Indira Gandhi. She couldn’t be seen discriminating against Sikhs. “I am India’s leader,” she said.


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