In 1970, in the warm glow that followed the glorious bank nationalisation, my college friend Vaidyanathan and I declared ourselves as the voice of the youth Congress in college. We became aggressive fellow-travellers and ardent followers. Both of us were disappointed that while we were allowed to get close, another friend Krishnamani was chosen to garland Indira when she landed at Meenambakkam Airport, Madras, as it was then known. I still have with me a photograph signed by her which I conveniently lost for many years and which I have now resurrected and placed prominently in my office.
When Frank Moraes wrote his famous Myth and Reality columns, we dismissed him as an irrelevant, frustrated rightist critic. Over the years, as I grew out of my undergraduate leftism, Indira rapidly moved away from the realms of the positive and the dharmic to the regions dominated by the a-dharmic and the asuric in each of our private mental galleries. The Emergency, the imposition of Sanjay on the country, the repeated attempts at self-aggrandisement at the cost of all values, the growth of the vulture state, which sucked out freedom and enterprise while breeding frustration and cynicism, could all be laid squarely at Indiras door. Her supreme act of realpolitik in liberating Bangladesh can be legitimately criticised from the same amoral perspective. Maybe we should have let Pakistan continue undivided with East Bengal as a continuing ulcer debilitating Pakistan for years on end. In her last years, her cynical manipulation of events in the Punjabfirst propping up the unsavoury Bhindranwale and then confronting him in a ham-handed mannerhas to leave us with a sick feeling. The Indian state under her leadership had attacked the Golden Temple, something that even the British had not done. The last person to do it was Ahmad Shah Abdali a couple of hundred years ago. Frank Moraess position that she was lacking in integrity and intelligence started acquiring a new-found credibility.
And after having said all of this, when I am asked to write about her today, there is no anger that she might have blighted the lives of a couple of generations of Indians. Instead, there is a palpable sense of nostalgia and a feeling of admiration. Of all our leaders, she is the only one who literally had a bond with the soil and the stubble of our land. She intervened decisively to end shikaar, to save our forests and its inhabitants. At one stage, she became the female embodiment of our country. And that is more or less the way we see her now. In her interview with Oriana Fallaci, Indira casually slips in a thought that her destiny and Indias are interwoven. Intellectually, that might seem an unacceptable conceit. And yet, between her being our first and perhaps only environmentalist prime minister, our first leader in a long time to lead us to a military victory and probably our first leader since Tipu Sultan to stand up to overbearing foreignersNixon and Kissinger being comparable to Cornwallis and WellesleyIndira does come across as a unique Yuga-amsa, a child and the mistress of our national destiny causing even understated persons like myself to indulge in hyperbole. Intentions are key to ethical disputations. But history is also concerned about outcomes. She, unlike leaders in Indias past, was successful. Even the insufferably patronising Kissinger has admitted that India was safe in Indiras hands.
Her father had credibility across the country. But he always contested his elections from Uttar Pradesh. She proved the truly national nature of her leadership by standing for elections not only in Uttar Pradesh, but also in Karnataka, far away from imperial Delhi. She mingled with women in public and in a country where symbolism means so much, laid the foundations of a feminist movement, which is slowly and unsteadily gaining ground. Somehow, she seemed one of us, quite unlike the remoteness associated with the westernised Nehru clan. Could it be that as the daughter of the simple Kamala Nehru (nee Kaul) from old Delhi, she acquired traits that made her relate to us with a mixture of charisma and proximity, a little like a neighbourhood devi or a pir who gives us barkat
I came across a book by an eminent astrologer who has analysed the horoscopes of the members of the Nehru family. Apparently, the family astrologer predicted to Motilal Nehru that the girl Kamalawho Jawaharlal was going to marrywould be the mother and the grandmother of great leaders who would lead all of India with distinction. Motilal believed it. Indias desacralised intellectuals may not believe it. But most of us can easily believe it because we do see the hand of destiny. And on a mundane level it explains why the Cambridge-educated, westernised Jawaharlal was arm-twisted by his father (who almost certainly believed the predictions) to marry the shy Kashmiri Pandit girl from old Delhi who spoke very little English at the time of her marriage.
We love Indira, we miss Indira, because she resembles us. We vacillate between moments of faith in liberty and times when we seek a ruthless efficiency, which is always missing in our society. As we vacillate, we agonise, we throw tantrums, we make grand gestures of love and affection, we simultaneously feel insecure and on top of the world. And all along, rightly or wrongly, we have faith in our stars. She was one of them. In more ways than we care to admit, Indira was indeed India.