A peek into the mind of an iron lady

Updated: Oct 1 2012, 02:11am hrs
Nehru did not want Indira Gandhi to hold the partys highest office, but she rose to power fuelled by an ambition to continue her fathers legacy

Indias Third Prime Minister Is Chosen

Indira Gandhi was forty-six years old when her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, died on May 27, 1964. Since Independence she had been her fathers companion and hostess at New Delhi and had accompanied him on official visits abroad. In 1955 she had been appointed to the Congress Working Committee, the partys executive, with charge of the womens and youth wings, and had become a member of its two subsidiaries, the Central Parliamentary Board and the Central Election Committee, soon afterwards. These responsibilities placed her at the heart of election preparations for the second general election of 1957. Her emergence onto the scene of political and public endeavour took place during a period of marital strain and difficulty, and Nehru welcomed her increasing involvement in the party, both as the natural outcome of her background and as therapy for her troubled domestic life. The Congress partys and his own championship of womens rights had been instrumental in creating a climate of pride in womens opportunities and achievements. It was a special satisfaction to him that his daughter, whose health and unhappy marriage had been a continuing anxiety to him, should now find a way to fulfil herself through national activity. He wrote to his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who was Indias high commissioner in London, on March 12, 1957, from the family home at Anand Bhawan, Allahabad, where he had gone to cast his vote:

When voting finished today, large numbers of our Congress workers turned up at Anand Bhawan, including many women. Indu has specially shaken up the women, and even Muslim women came out. Indu has indeed grown and matured very greatly during the last year, and especially during these elections. She worked with effect all over India, but her special field was Allahabad City and District which she organized like a general preparing for battle. She is quite a heroine in Allahabad now and particularly with the women. Hardly eating and often carrying on with a handful of peanuts and a banana, she has been constantly on the move, returning at midnight, flushed, slightly gaunt but full of spirit and with flashing eyes.

In 1959, at the suggestion of its outgoing president, U.N. Dhebar, the Congress party accepted her as his successor. Nehru did not think it was time for this distinction. His reservations were rooted deep in his respect for the processpersonal, political, social or economicthat lays sound foundations. Work was the crucible of human personality or political strength, and there were no shortcuts to excellence, a philosophy reflected in seventeen years of power that rejected the dramatic and the extreme and relied on the building of institutions. He was averse to hustle and haste. Part of a generation well and truly tried through the struggle for freedom and the years of nation-building afterwards, he believed in time and trial. He was also concerned about his daughters health and the inappropriateness of her holding the partys highest office while he was prime minister. These considerations had to be balanced against his conviction that he should not stand in her way, a point of view pressed by Govind Ballabh Pant, home minister and close colleague. He decided not to intervene.

I gave a good deal of thought to this matter and I came to the conclusion that I should firmly keep apart from this business and try not to influence it in any way, except rather generally and broadly to say that it had disadvantages . . . normally speaking, it is not a good thing for my daughter to come in as Congress President when I am Prime Minister.

Mrs Gandhi accepted the office with tears in her eyes, and it was an emotional occasion for many present at the party meeting. Her father and grandfather were among the illustrious names in Congress annals who had held the distinction before her. Her elevation to the partys most prestigious post was its tribute to her family. After Independence, the Congress president was almost invariably chosen on the basis of his previous experience in government. All party presidents between 1951 and 1969 were chief ministers. Mrs Gandhi was the exception. Her earnestness was looked upon with favour and her inexperience with indulgence.

She occupied the office, normally a two-year term, for barely a year, though during this period she took two initiatives. She advised the division of Bombay state, convulsed at the time by agitations demanding its separation into Marathi- and Gujarati-speaking states. Bombay was divided, bringing Maharashtra and Gujarat into being on May 1, 1960. She also urged the Union governments interference in Kerala, where the communist government formed in 1957 was locked in a confrontation with the Roman Catholic and Nair communities over the issue of state control of schools and colleges. Presidents rule was established in Kerala, and fresh elections held in 1960, when an alliance of parties led by the Congress won a majority. There is a provision in the Indian Constitution that, if the President of India, on receipt of a report from the Governor of a state, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which government cannot be carried on in accordance with the Constitution, he can intervene and bring the state under Presidents, that is, the Union governments, rule. Governors of states are Union appointees and represent the President. Mrs Gandhi believed that such a situation had arisen in Kerala and, when she was president of the Congress, advised the Union government to intervene and declare Presidents rule in Kerala. The outcome vindicated Mrs Gandhis advice as immediately beneficial to the Congress. It also demonstrated her approach to action as the surgical gesture to forestall possible developments. In contrast, Nehrus temperament made use of the tentative in decision-making as an area of positive value in arriving at action. The overthrow of communist rule took note of the immediate situation, not of the meaning of the communist phenomenon in Kerala.

Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad later remarked on Nehrus reluctance to declare Presidents rule. Nehru had written to his sister, Mrs Pandit, on March 12, 1957:

In another three or four days time we shall have ninety percent of the results, and this will give a clear picture of the States as well as of Parliament . . . Kerala is heading for a Communist majority. If so, there would presumably be a Communist government there. This will be the first occasion anywhere in the world when a Communist Party wins an election through democratic means. . . . They have toned down very much, and the programme they have issued is quite moderate. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing development.

Mrs Gandhi was not, as her father knew, well enough to carry an arduous responsibility and had been under strain for a long time. Writing to his sister in London from New Delhi, on January 11, 1955, Nehru had said, Indira has been unwell for the last three weeks or so and mostly in bed. She has had rather a bad attack of anaemia brought on partly by too much work and rushing about. Behind that, of course, is worry and unhappiness. She gave up the Congress presidentship and, without defining her dissatisfaction, made it known she was not being allowed to do as she wished in the party. She was operated on for a kidney stone on February 17, 1960.

In 1964 she was still comparatively unnoticed in her own right, and not seriously considered a candidate for the succession to Nehru. She had had no training in a profession and no experience in government. Though her presence on 6 Indi ra Gandhi the Working Committee indicated high status in the party, she had worked for the organization behind the scenes and of choice remained in the background. A mother, occupied with caring for her two sons, she was devoted and imaginative about their upbringing, always torn between domestic and public responsibilities. She correctly described herself as a private person, so private indeed that no one knew her intimately. Her griefs were well sheltered, her joys restrained. There was almost a pathos about her personality for those who tried to break through to it. It was a personality that would not step out. Inevitably involved in politics, she had hung back from the ultimate political trialan election, declining at her fathers death to stand for the by-election to the Lok Sabha from his constituency, Phulpur, in Uttar Pradesh. It seemed right and proper, an act of rededication to the values he had represented, for a member of the family to contest Nehrus seat for the Congress in November 1964. Mrs Gandhis aunt, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, resigned as Governor of Maharashtra to contest and retain the constituency for her party, though not before she had made certain that her niece did not want the seat.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power by Nayantara Sahgal

Indira Gandhi : Tryst with Power

Nayantara Sahgal

Penguin Books

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