‘Narendra Modi is Indira Gandhi’s true heir,’ says Sagarika Ghose in new book

Gargi Gupta talks to Sagarika Ghose, whose book on Indira Gandhi is the latest examination of India’s first woman prime minister’s life

Indira Gandhi: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister

Sagarika Ghose

Juggernaut

344 pages

Rs 699

It’s been 33 years since she was assassinated, but the shadow of Indira Gandhi continues to loom over Indian politics — and not just because her family continues to head the Congress family. She retains a hold on the public imagination as India’s first woman prime minister who got us our biggest military victory, and yet, she’s as often remembered for being the architect of the Emergency and Operation Blue Star. Journalist Sagarika Ghose’s recently published biography of India’s Iron Lady, on the centenary of her birth, tries to shed light on some these paradoxes. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

There have been several biographies of Indira Gandhi already. How does your book differ from these? Did you look at any fresh material?

My book is an assessment of Indira Gandhi, her life and legacy from today’s standpoint, 2017. The Indira-fication of politics is a reality that looms large today and I thought it would be interesting to examine the woman who wrote the original playbook of Indian politics from the vantage point of today. The fresh material in the book are the many interviews I did with several people who knew her very closely and worked with her when she was PM, her close friends and her associates and aides who lived and travelled with her in Amethi and Rae Bareli.

You write that her “obsession with household order” overrode her “intellectual scruples over democratic norms”. Does this gendered reading explain her politics?

She was certainly obsessed with maintaining order both in the household and in India. Household management was a significant part of her personality which is why I mention it so often. (Am) Not sure this is “gendered”, or woman specific. Men could be equally concerned about an orderly household.

You compare the current prime minister, his way of functioning with, some of his policies with that of Indira Gandhi? In what ways is Modi like Indira?

He is very much her political heir. She was India’s first supremo, the first High Command leader, supreme in her party and in government. She was authoritarian, brooked no dissent, had an adversarial relationship with the media and reached out to the people in a direct populist embrace, over the head of the party. I think Modi’s style is very similar.

What is Indira’s legacy?

It’s a mixed one. It’s one which includes a war on institutions and a weakening of the Congress but also one of staunch patriotism, bolstering traditional arts and conservation, enhancing India’s image abroad and leaving behind a template for modern Indian women.

You attribute the Congress’s “confused secularism” to Indira’s dual attitude to religiosity. But wasn’t it also political expediency?

She set the trend for a public flaunting of religious rituals even as she professed to uphold secular values; and appointing Muslims as tokens to official positions without encouraging modernity within religion, as her father did. Vote bank politics was political expediency which further muddied the “secular” waters, as I write.

How would you describe her relationship with her father?

Complicated! She adored him yet rebelled at the same time. Their relationship was close but not particularly warm or intimate.

What explains her slide from the Durga figure of 1971 to the paranoid figure of 1977?

I believe the enormous success of the 1971 election victory and the Bangladesh war made her arrogant and isolated and hastened her descent into suspicion and anxiety.

Indira seems like a woman of many contradictions — she was a dutiful daughter but resentful of his neglect of her mother; she loved Feroze but did not stay with him; she professed to be a reluctant politician but was a shrewd operator. Who was real Indira?

A paradoxical, fascinating and multi-layered personality.

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