Book Extract: Indira Gandhi by Khushwant Singh

I watched Mrs Gandhi’s funeral on TV. I am pretty certain that, had she been alive, she would have gone round the city like her father, and stopped the carnage of thousands of innocent people. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, stayed by his mother’s body receiving VIPs….

(Excerpted with permission of Aleph Book Company from Extraordinary Indians: A Book of Profiles by Khushwant Singh, edited by Mala Dayal.)

Indira Gandhi (1917–1984)

Indira Gandhi has had more ups and downs in her sixty-three years than any other woman: her childhood and adolescence overshadowed by giants, her middle years blighted by insinuations that she had inherited a domain she did not deserve; then suddenly pedestalled to supreme heights, worshipped by the masses as a goddess reincarnated, execrated by the elite as the female incarnation of the devil and a fascist dictator. In a handful, she inspires dread, in the remaining millions she raises hope as the nation’s redeemer. These are different facets of this one woman. Age has not withered her nor did custom stale her infinite variety.

Friends who are under the impression that I know Indira Gandhi well often ask me: ‘What is she really like as a person?’ My answer, based on scraps of information picked up from people who see her every day and from my own observations, runs somewhat as follows: She is very likeable if you are on her right side. Icily aloof if you are not. For those on her right side she can produce a smile which will dissolve a stone statue. For those who have incurred her displeasure she can be the reincarnation of Durga: few people have developed the technique of snubbing into as fine an art as she. An Indira-snub will rankle for years. And woe betide anyone who tries to appear familiar or spreads canards about being close to her.

She is close to no one except herself. And next to herself she is closest to her younger son, Sanjay, only because they share a common interest in politics.

The elder, Rajiv, does not share this interest and therefore sees less of her than his brother. Almost as if to compensate for the uneven distribution of closeness between her sons, she is closer to Rajiv’s wife, Sonia, who has no interest in politics than to Sanjay’s wife, Maneka, who is totally absorbed in it. She is inordinately fond of her grandchildren. Her seven-person family (an eighth is on the way) is as closely-knit as any traditional Hindu joint family. Whatever tensions they have are resolved without a whisper being heard outside. She sets no store by friendship and has therefore never bothered to cultivate any. She suffers expressions of friendship for what they are worth and is little perturbed when those who had protested their friendship turn against her. Her circle of acquaintances embraces the entire world.

(From left) Rajiv, Indira and Sanjay Gandhi

Indira Gandhi has no set routine because she is hardly ever in the same place for more than a few days at a stretch. When she is in residence in Delhi, she rises well before dawn. Since she keeps her bedroom bolted from the inside, even members of the household do not know what she does in the first two hours of the morning. As her bedroom is crammed with books, it can be presumed she reads, writes letters and works on speeches she has to make that day. She is very punctilious about her health and spends fifteen to twenty minutes, morning and evening, doing yogic asanas. The secret of her physical vitality and freedom from tension in a tension-ridden life lies in the half-hour she spends in the care of her body. The newspapers are brought in with morning tea at 6 a.m. She does no more than scan the headlines. She has neither time nor patience to read magazines and has some kind of inhibition against reading anything about herself. She picks up news, comments and political gossip from the hundreds of people who see her every day. Very frequently she has one of her secretaries read out important clippings to her while she is working on her files. One thing she does not like to miss is arranging flowers brought in by the mali. Flower arrangement has always been her passion.

The family tries to be together at meals. This is not very easy as their daily schedules are as different as their culinary tastes. They manage to combine both at the breakfast table. Thereafter begin the day’s hectic activities. By the time Indira Gandhi emerges on to the front veranda, a couple of hundred people who have been let in are scattered about the lawns and under the flowing chorisia tree facing the house. Several hundred others await their turn outside the gates. She receives a few in her sparsely furnished sitting room. It has a couple of sofas and four armchairs. One of these in a corner is designated as ‘madam’s chair’—no one else might sit in it. Above her head on the wall is a photograph of her father by Yousuf Karsh. A long glass-topped table bears a bowl of flowers and an ash tray. Presiding over the room from above the fireplace is a long, rectangular green and white painting of a young boy playing the flute with a dove perched on his shoulders. This is by the Mexican artist, Rafael Navarro. There is a smaller painting of Gandhiji and Tagore by Jamini Roy; two etchings in sepia: one of Amber Fort and the other of the tomb of Muhammad Tughlaq by an unknown English artist. It is in the same drawing room that her inner Cabinet of advisers and small delegations meet her. Between these confabulations she comes out to greet the assembled crowd, to be garlanded and photographed with them.

On an average between 500 to 2,000 people have themselves photographed with her every day. She is said to have wistfully remarked: ‘I have become one of the sights of Delhi.’

In recent months, flower sellers, ice cream vendors and chaatwalas have established themselves outside 12, Willingdon Crescent, to cater to the crowds that come to see her.

‘I have never met anyone who has this enormous capacity for work as Indiraji,’ says R. K. Dhawan. ‘After retiring at 3 a.m. she is up by six and in the office at eight attending to her files and correspondence. None of the chief ministers and governors who accompanied her on her state visits could stand the pace she set and were exhausted in a couple of days. Madam…never. After her visit they needed a few days off to recover. In the eighteen years I have been with her, I have never known her to complain of overwork. She once told me “tiredness is a state of mind; if you think you are tired, you get tired. If you don’t think about it you never tire”.’

Indira Gandhi drives herself to the utmost of her capacity, often doing two things at the same time. While she is reading a file she will get one of her secretaries to read out the news or brief her on a totally unrelated topic; her eyes scan the print, her ears take in the speech, her mind comprehends both. She is a great stickler for detail. Not only does she dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s in her speeches, when she goes abroad she prepares all the menus for the banquets she has to give to return the hospitality of her hosts.

Everyone who has seen her is struck by the neatness of her appearance and her excellent taste in clothes. She obviously takes great pains over her appearance. Her hair is well-coiffured, the distinct swathe of white which runs upwards from the middle of her forehead gives her a touch of the regal. Without having to wear a crown she looks every inch the Empress of India. She is at once the most simply and most elegantly dressed woman one can see anywhere.

She wears no make-up or perfume and, apart from the rudraksha necklace, wears no jewellery of any kind. Her saris as well as her salwar kameez and shawls are made of coarse handspun cottons or silks available at the khadi bhandars.

She chooses her own clothes and has her shirts and blouses stitched under her own supervision. Most of her saris are of light pastel shades. In any party of women gaudily attired in brocades and chiffons, dripping with gold and diamonds, Indira Gandhi stands out as the one dressed simply but in impeccable taste.

Unlike the common run of Indian politicians, Indira Gandhi rarely talks about herself or indulges in gossip about others. But she is not averse to listening to gossip as long as she is not brought into it. I recall once making an adverse remark about B. D. Jatti and asking her what made her choose such a nondescript character to be vice president of India. Her answer was a frozen stare. I never again took the liberty of soliciting her views on anyone. Her favourite pastime is to recount anecdotes of her early days with her parents and the celebrities she has met. She has few other interests. She has no time to indulge in music or go to dance recitals. She never watches television and only once or twice in the year goes to see a movie—an English, never a Hindi, movie.

Indira Gandhi provides very poor copy to journalists but can be a most rewarding person to have as a guest.

Unlike most of her countrymen who see no discourtesy in keeping their hosts and other guests waiting for hours, Indira Gandhi will turn up on the expected minute.

And unlike other important Indians who are totally absorbed in their own importance, Indira Gandhi is observant, will discuss children and clothes with women, speak words of appreciation to the cook and take care to talk to everyone in the party. She honoured my home on a few occasions to meet foreign correspondents posted in Delhi.

She missed nothing about my little apartment. I had lit oil lamps around the stone Ganapati at the entrance. She sensed this had been done in her honour. She examined it, asked how old it was and pronounced it beautiful. She went round the shelves looking at the books. She examined old maps on the walls (I have a collection of sixteenth-century maps of India) and all the paintings. A large photograph of the interior of the Madurai temple taken by my friend T. S. Nagarajan attracted her attention. ‘That’s a very good photograph,’ she remarked. ‘If you like good photographs I’ll show you a better one in my study,’ I said. In my study was the framed cover of an issue of the Illustrated Weekly of India with three faces of Indira Gandhi in different moods. A faint blush of a compliment accepted spread on her face. She made no comment but it obviously put her in a happy mood. Even when Peter Niesewand of The Guardian and Mark Tully of the BBC (who reminded her that she had had him expelled from India during the Emergency) tried to bait her, she refused to rise to their baits and remained cool and smiling.

I had gone to some trouble in getting a bottle of sherry as I had been told by a retired ambassador with whom she had stayed in Tokyo on an official visit that it was the only alcoholic drink that she took. ‘Where on earth did you get the idea that I take sherry?’ she demanded. I told her. ‘Absolute rubbish! I have never touched any alcohol in my life. Since everyone offers it abroad at every party and if you say “I don’t drink” they want to know why, I usually take a glass of sherry and keep it beside me throughout the party. It saves me from having to argue about it.’

The evening passed very pleasantly. Some of the correspondents were pretty rough with Sanjay. ‘Do you want to become prime minister of India?’ I heard someone ask him. He kept his cool and replied, ‘I haven’t given the prospect much thought.’

After Indira Gandhi and Sanjay had left, the other guests stayed on, discussing the mother and son over coffee and cognac. ‘She’s charming! She’s gracious! You can hardly believe she can cope with these ruffianly politicians she has to deal with!’ were some of the comments they made. Even Sanjay came in for many compliments: ‘He’s all there! Heard so much against him, I couldn’t believe this polite young fellow was the same man! But he has a hard streak in him…like someone who’s been hurt.’ And so on.

I also had occasion to see Indira Gandhi at several embassy receptions. She was invariably the greatest draw wherever she went. No sooner had the president or vice president been ushered in with the fanfare of national anthems, they were left to themselves and the guests swarmed around Indira Gandhi. Even if the ambassadors maintained diplomatic aloofness, their wives and children clustered round her to be photographed with her. At an iftar party at the Kuwait Embassy, the ambassador’s young son insisted on shaking her by the hand. ‘I want you to be prime minister of India again,’ he said, gushing with enthusiasm.

‘And why do you want me to be prime minister?’ asked Indira Gandhi.

‘Because I want to have my Coca Cola again!’

Another trait that marks Indira Gandhi as very different from other Indian politicians is that she measures every word she speaks. Experience has taught her never to commit herself in words which might be misconstrued when repeated. Even to a direct question her answer is never a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Very often the answer is a blank stare that leaves one guessing. It is often alleged that she who is so astute in judging political situations, is a poor judge of people and is kaan ki kacchi—soft in the ear and influenced by gossip.

There is little doubt that although she has the gift of passionate intuition about situations, it does not extend to an insight into human character.

She is known to extend her patronage generously to people of little substance. She has often no better reason for doing so than a woman’s reason: ‘I think him so, because I think him so.’

It had so often mystified me how so many men and women, picked out of nowhere and put on the national stage, disowned her in times of crisis. The answer often given is that Indira Gandhi does not have the human warmth of the kind her father had; she is also said to be unusually suspicious of people’s motives and therefore unable to command the sort of loyalty that held colleagues to Pandit Nehru despite his quick and explosive temper. R. K. Dhawan who has served both the father and the daughter has a different view: ‘Nehru took the PM’s chair when he was already a national hero. He could provide all the ambitious politicians and civil servants with jobs vacated by the British. Nehru also had no occasion to test the loyalties of these people because he never faced a real challenge to his leadership. It was different for Indira. By the time she took her father’s place all the posts had been filled: the ambitions of ambitious men and women serving under her could not be fully realized. The sense of patriotism that had fired Nehru’s generation had also vanished. Many of those that Indiraji raised to situations of importance either became frustrated because they could go no further or succumbed to temptations and had much to hide. Whenever Indiraji’s position as a leader was questioned and they felt she might lose, they went over to what they felt was the winning side either to realize their unfulfilled ambitions or to get away with their misdeeds.’ Dhawan is right. If you go over the list of ditchers and examine the circumstances in which they deserted her you will see that one of the two caps—unfulfilled ambition or corruption—fits their skulls.

They say Nehru was quick to temper and was sometimes unable to control his fits of rage. But these fits went as soon as they came and he never bore a grudge for too long. They say that Indira seldom loses her temper but once she is put off by a person she never forgives him or her. There is little truth to this. She seldom loses her cool and never raises her voice. What her father did with angry words she does with a deftly administered snub. But, like her father, she also does not harbour a grievance for too long. In her political work, which includes collections of funds for her party, she has always had to trust people with the job to act on her behalf. Many have in the process lined their own pockets. She has borne with them patiently and when convinced of their corruption, quietly relieved them of the task without any fanfare.

My hour of trial came when in May 1975 Mrs Gandhi imposed an Emergency on the country and arrested, among others, Jayaprakash Narayan, whom I admired. I had spent a few days with him and his wife during the famine in Bihar in 1967. However, I felt that his call for a Total Revolution, which involved gheraos of legislatures to prevent members elected by the people from discharging their duties, was a violation of a basic rule of democracy. I wrote to him saying so. He sent me a long reply defending his position. I published his letter in full. Conditions of anarchy had come to prevail. Every day there was a bandh of some kind; schools and colleges were closed for weeks in the affected parts of the country. Large processions marched through streets, smashing up shop windows and wrecking cars parked on the roads. Mrs Gandhi was driven to despair. Her position became vulnerable when the Allahabad High Court held her guilty of electoral malpractices and disqualified her from membership of Parliament. She was persuaded by her son Sanjay and advisers like Siddhartha Shankar Roy to suspend the Constitution, arrest members of the Opposition and muzzle the press.

I was at the time in Mexico and arrived back in Bombay on the morning after the declaration of the Emergency. I was dismayed. I was with members of the Times of India group who resolved not to give in to censorship imposed on us. Among those who refused to protest was Sham Lal, editor of the Times of India; among those who avoided making any commitment either way was Inder Malhotra. That evening my friend Rajni Patel, member of the board of directors of the Times of India and a confidante of Mrs Gandhi, rang me up and told me bluntly: ‘My friend, if you are looking for martyrdom by going to jail, we will be happy to oblige you.’ The chairman of the board, Justice K. T. Desai, counselled patience: ‘Take your time. But if you refuse to publish we have to look for another editor,’ he said.

My attitude to the Emergency was ambivalent. I supported the move to clamp down on law breakers (including Jayaprakash Narayan), but felt that censorship of the press would prove counter-productive as it would deprive editors like me, who supported Mrs Gandhi, of credibility. For three weeks I did not publish The Weekly, and when forced to resume publication gave instructions that no photographs of Mrs Gandhi or her ministers were to be used. I was treated gently, as I was regarded by Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay as a friend. I was summoned to Delhi to meet Mrs Gandhi. I protested against censorship imposed on people like me. I had my say. Before leaving I told her, ‘My father was sure that if I spoke my mind, you would have me locked up.’ She smiled and bade me goodbye. The Weekly was treated as a special case. I published articles by critics of the Emergency and pleaded for the release of political prisoners.

My meeting with Mrs Gandhi was meant to be secret. I arrived back in Bombay to find a letter on my table reading, ‘How did your meeting with Madam Dictator go? George.’ It was from George Fernandes who was then underground. A few days later four senior members of the RSS, against whom warrants of arrest had been issued, coolly walked into my office, had coffee with me, and asked me what had transpired at my meeting with the Prime Minister. I got the impression that the RSS was not against the Emergency and would be willing to cooperate with the government if its leaders were set at liberty.

For some weeks every article of The Weekly had to be cleared by the censor. They only bothered with politics and there wasn’t much of that in my journal.

The editor of Debonair, the Indian version of Playboy, told me that whenever he took his material for clearance, the censor would skip over stories and girlie pictures saying, ‘Porn theek hai, politics nahin—pornography is okay, politics is not.’

I was still a Member of Parliament when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated on the morning of 31 October 1984. Despite my differences with her I was deeply distressed to hear of her dastardly murder at the hands of her own security guards, both Sikhs. If circumstances had allowed, I would most certainly have gone to condole with the family and pay my last tribute to her when her body was cremated. I had no great admiration for her as prime minister and am convinced that all that has gone wrong with the country emanated from her. She could be petty and vindictive, as she showed herself to be in her dealings with her widowed daughter-in-law, Maneka. She could be very discourteous to senior officials like Kewal Singh (retired ambassador to the United States), and Jagat Mehta (retired foreign secretary, whom she suspected of having let her down). She particularly enjoyed snubbing people who assumed she was their friend.

She was nasty to Dom Moraes after he had written her biography; she accused Akbar Ahmed (Dumpy), a regular visitor to her house, of plotting her murder and issued orders that he was not to be allowed in.

There were several occasions when I could have met her, as on the release of Sanjay Gandhi’s biography by his wife Maneka, which I had helped edit. She expected me to be present on the occasion. I sensed she would be rude to me. I did not attend the function. She did not spare Maneka. It was the same at the release of the translation of her autobiography from French to English, to which I had written a preface. Mrs Gandhi had agreed with the publishers, Vision Books, to release it in her home. She expected me to be there. Again I sensed she was waiting for an opportunity to be nasty to me. I did not go for the release. She had to vent her spleen on the publisher. She told him before the assembled crowd that she would have nothing whatsoever to do with the book. It bore her name on the jacket.

When she died, I was unable to pay homage to Indira Gandhi in person because anti-Sikh violence, instigated by local leaders of her party, broke out all over the city. They spread false stories of Sikhs celebrating Mrs Gandhi’s murder and distributing sweets and lighting up their houses; of Sikhs having poisoned Delhi’s water supply, and of trainloads of Hindu corpses massacred by Sikhs coming to Delhi. Gangs of hired hoodlums were armed with iron rods and cans of gasoline to burn down gurdwaras, Sikh homes, shops and taxis, and to burn Sikhs alive. I was a marked man. The next morning I was warned that a mob was on its way to get me. In the nick of time Rolf Gauffin of the Swedish Embassy, whom I had never met before but who was a close friend of Romesh Thapar, came in his embassy car and took my wife and me away to his home in the embassy compound.

I watched Mrs Gandhi’s funeral on TV. I am pretty certain that, had she been alive, she would have gone round the city like her father, and stopped the carnage of thousands of innocent people. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, stayed by his mother’s body receiving VIPs.

If he was not the author of the order to ‘teach the Sikhs a lesson’, he did nothing to countermand it.

It is no exaggeration to say that Indira’s moods have often made and unmade the careers of people about her. Shibli wrote about this kind of awesome power to mould the destinies of the state in his lines to Noor Jehan, wife of Emperor Jehangir:

Us ki peyshani-i-nazuk peh jo parhti thi girah

Ja ke ban jati thi avraq-i-hakoomat peh shikan

When, in displeasure, wrinkles appeared on her forehead,

They were translated into commandments in documents of state.

(Photos courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

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