Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister by Sagarika Ghose – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Indira Gandhi is fondly remembered as the Durga who won India its first decisive military victory in centuries and the strong stateswoman who had the courage to look American bullying in the eye and not blink. Equally, she is remembered as the terrible dictator who imposed the Emergency and tried to destroy institutions ranging from her own party to the judiciary; she is seen as the source of many of the problems that afflict Indian democracy today. Even so, for politicians Indira is the very definition of a strong leader, and a role model on both sides of the aisle.’

Various thoughts come across minds of people across India when it comes to the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, among those who lived during the era of her premiership and even among those who were born much after their death, including myself and everyone knows the famous line back then – ‘India is Indira, Indira is India, the two are inseparable’. This is a biography of the former Prime Minister written by the veteran journalist Sagarika Ghose, thirty three years after the death of Indira Gandhi.

The book is focuses on the following aspects; Indira Gandhi growing up during a revolution for freedom in India, with her own house being a hub of political activity and the role her mother and father played in shaping some of her ideas and personality. It is then followed by Indira’s student days followed by her troubled marriage to Feroze Gandhi and her days in waiting to succeed her father as the Prime Minister of India. It then moves on to describing how she managed to consolidate her powers and challenging the Congress establishment comprising Morarji Desai and K Kamaraj, leading to a split in the party with Indira emerging as the leader of the dominant faction. It is then followed by Indira’s premiership, focusing on all her major decisions, such as devaluation of the Rupee, bank nationalisation, the victory in the war against Pakistan leading to liberation of Bangladesh, the emergency, the influence of her younger son Sanjay in all these decisions, her downfall in 1977 and re-emergence in 1980, the Operation Blue Star on Harmandir Sahib leading to her assassination.

I appreciate the author for having not attempted a hagiography, for she doesn’t go about defending every act of Indira. In fact, there were instances where she was bold enough to criticise some of her flagship policies such as bank nationalisation as being merely a populist measure and not driven by sound economics. Like most typical biographies, she has also provided for citations for most claims that she has made in the book, and thus, she has put in a lot of effort to compile a reasonably accurate biography. I don’t know whether the author intended it but she brought out how Indira didn’t have any sound political views (unlike her father) and merely did acts to retain her power – she criticised right wing Hindu politics but she pandered to them herself, claimed to be a staunch defender of democracy and institutions but she destroyed all of it herself, began the culture of ‘dynasty politics’, among various other things.

With that said, I would say that this is a very poorly structured biography – the book was temporally inconsistent, for instance, to display the arrogance of Indira, the author mentions the derogatory remarks Indira made during activist Jayaprakash Narayan’s death in 1979, but then goes on to describe how JP Narayan opposed her government during the emergency going back in time to 1975. This is not an isolated instance and there were several repetitions of the same. The next was the fact that she wrote the book with her similar journalist mentality, wherein, you mention a name and you are inclined to give every detail you know about the person. For instance, when she mentioned the name of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed as a loyalist in her cabinet (back in 1967) and she made it a point to include how he would go on to become the president in 1974 and continue with his loyalty signing the emergency declaration. There was no need to give so many details as and when you mention a name, instead, you could have mentioned how Indira nominated her loyalist cabinet minister while discussing her premiership in 1974 and his eventual signing of the emergency declaration in 1975.

It is always a disadvantage to write a biography of a person thirty three years after the death of the person, especially when a lot of updates have taken in the political scene that one keeps making references to the current environment to explain a point, which in most cases turned out as pointless deviations. I also felt that her prime focus was how she was a national phenomenon despite a lot her flaws and none of her opponents were of the calibre to face her than bring out why she became such a phenomenon – was it just the Bangladesh liberation or other populist schemes? There was a lack of focus on why she was a phenomenon than on what she was.

However, to the extent of my limited understanding of independent Indian political history, she has covered almost all major aspects of Indira Gandhi’s premiership. Additionally, it is also commendable that the author despite having very strong views on political subjects, she did not try to express her views through this book.

This is a good refresher for those who have lived through Indira Gandhi’s time, and can provide a good understanding of the political scenario in India back in 1960s and 1970s but at the end of the day, this was meant to be the biography of a person and on that count, I don’t rate this book very highly and as a result, I rate the book a four on ten.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,


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