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States of Emergency

Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank (Houghton Mifflin, 448 pp., $35)


The glassy memorial that stands in the garden where Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards in 1984 is among the most visited secular sites in India. Morning and afternoon, busloads of Indians arrive from across the country, whole families together, young and old, noisy but respectful. Nearly twenty years dead, Mrs. Gandhi stays vivid in popular memory. In the view of most Indians, she was the best prime minister that they have ever had. She dominated India's public life from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s; and with the sole exception of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, no other Indian has put so deep an impress on their country's life. 

Yet she is a bogeywoman to India's political and intellectual classes. The Hindu- chauvinist-led government now in power contains several members who were imprisoned by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, the infamous period between 1975 and 1977 when she suspended democratic liberties, while the left and liberal intelligentsia blame her for India's current travails, for its corruption and nepotism, its sluggish economy, its fraying secularism. Writers from V.S. Naipaul to Salman Rushdie have stitched her up: she lives in the literary imagination as a malevolent, megalomaniacal leader who ended the innocence of Nehru's post-independence idyll, and was responsible (in Rushdie's telling) for "the smashing, the pulverizing, the irreversible discombobulation of the children of midnight." 

Indira Gandhi is independent India's most puzzling political figure. She was enigmatic and often opaque in person, and her political identity was no less elusive. In power, she seemed to be a woman of supreme self-assurance, exuding a haughty froideur; but privately she was diffident and self-doubting. "I was so sure I had nothing in me to be admired," she confided to one of her close friends days before her death. She never conformed to any one of the conventional idioms of Indian politics--the saintly, the traditional, or the modern--but moved adeptly between them. Indeed, much of her success was owed to her recognition of the historically dislocated character of India's politics, to its existence as a collision field of different historical timelines.

She was the daughter of a politician who wore his principles on his sleeve, but she seemed to personify a ruthless instinct for political survival. What, if anything at all, did Indira Gandhi actually stand for? It is also difficult to assess her responsibility for the drift of Indian politics. Was she the instigator of a coarser, more clamorous, increasingly fragmented society, or was she simply a mirror, reflecting what was already under way? What is now clear is the deeply paradoxical nature of her legacy. During her lifetime, she appeared as the greatest threat to democracy in India, and certainly she weakened the constitutional regularities that her father had tried to establish; but the enduring historical effect of her rule was to throw open the state to popular demands, to make it accessible to new groups, and to make Indian society still more political. She branded a certain idea of democracy on the Indian political imagination. She made democracy ordinary: not pretty, just ordinary, and that is what the thousands of Indians who file past her memorial know.

Indira Nehru Gandhi was born on November 19, 1917, the only child of Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. The Nehru house in Allahabad, the estate known as Anand Bhawan, was established by Jawaharlal's father Motilal Nehru, a formidably ambitious lawyer of Kashmiri ancestry. Indira's early years coincided with the house becoming the epicenter of the Congress-led national movement that opposed British rule, and she was raised in a relentlessly political household. Founded in 1885 (by, among others, a British ornithologist), the Indian National Congress was initially a genteel debating society; but by the 1920s it had come under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi, who transformed it into a mass nationalist party committed to achieving Indian self-rule through non-violent means. Motilal Nehru, after some hesitation, and under pressure from his son, decided to throw in his lot with the Gandhian Congress. It was a decision that was to transform the fate of his family.

The Nehru family was an atypical one: indeed, across several generations it helped to invent an idea of the modern Indian family, which moved away from the Hindu "joint family" and toward a more internally spacious model, in which deliberation and personal choice were (within limits, of course) encouraged, and in which women were expected to take an active role. The story of Indira Gandhi's life is the saga of her making herself into a full member of this extraordinary and deeply political family. For being a Nehru meant becoming a political being. "Politics is the center of everything," she told The New York Times in 1966, and she might have been enunciating the family motto.

She was to discover that living up to such a motto could be a strenuous and painful business. Sustaining this sense of the centrality of politics was a belief, shared by all the Nehrus, in historical destiny, in an assigned role on the stage of history. Nehru himself was steeped in this historical self-regard: he perpetually invested his personal life with historical significance, and Anand Bhawan must often have felt like a pageant of India's present and future history, with Mahatma Gandhi, Annie Besant, indeed the entire cast of India's twentieth-century political and intellectual life, all crowding its rooms and its corridors.

But the Nehru household was also marked by disruption, and often it could fall eerily vacant. Indira's parents, aunts, relatives, and family friends all went in and out of prison, at the pleasure of the Raj. Kamala, when out of jail, was confined by illness and often in the hospital. Indira frequently found herself in charge and having to run things from an early age. Her upbringing amid this debris of familial life invites psychological speculation about her loneliness, her insecurities, her fears; and a certain mythic portrait of her youth has emerged: the distant father, the spiteful aunt, the invalid mother. Katherine Frank reproduces the myth, but she complicates and enriches the picture in fascinating ways. 

Indira's youthful relationships were rarely direct or proximate, but were splayed by distances. We know most about her bond with her father, and Frank, drawing upon the recent appearance of two volumes containing the larger part of their correspondence, places this relationship at the center of her account of Indira's adolescence and young womanhood. It was, as Frank terms it, an "epistolary relationship," conducted in a correspondence stretching forty years, one that reveals a great deal about each of their characters. Often confined within those great British institutions of self-improvement--public school, Cambridge, His Majesty's Prisons--Nehru developed an epistolary talent that made him probably the greatest Indian letter writer of the twentieth century (certainly the greatest in the English language). His first book, a sweeping survey of world history in which he tried to adopt a non-European perspective, was written as letters to his daughter from prison: an anti-colonial nationalist's version of the Victorian father's advice-book to his daughter.

Aside from Indira's relationship with her father, Frank emphasizes her ties to her husband and her younger son as the decisive bonds of her life. These were important, it is true; but there was also another link--a more primary one, this one not with a man--that Frank underplays. Virginia Woolf once observed that women think back through their mothers, and in the case of Indira Gandhi this seems particularly true. It was a relationship lived for the most part in memory, since her mother died of tuberculosis in 1936, having barely reached the age of thirty-six.

Mother and daughter were only seventeen years apart in age, and they were often mistaken for sisters. But Kamala's illness made her seem older, and she rarely had the energy or the force of a young mother. She came from a background that was worlds away from the Nehrus (her family were unanglicized Kashmiris of modest means), and her life was also blighted by the torturous effort of becoming a Nehru. The strain broke her health and cracked her confidence. Indira came to detest the way her mother was treated by the family, especially by Nehru's two younger sisters, Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesingh. Illness was a difficult condition in the Nehru household: Nehru preened himself over his own fitness, and regarded illness almost as a moral failing, an abnegation of duties. The letters between husband and wife rarely strayed from discussions of health, to the point where an exasperated Nehru once wrote to Kamala that "there is a kind of sameness about you and illness."

Indira, herself frail, given to silent moods, and often in indifferent health, accompanied and nursed Kamala through much of her final illness. It was the memory of her mother's isolation and physical decline that led Indira to the man whom she finally married, in what appears to have been a compensatory act. In her last years, Kamala had befriended and taken comfort in the attentions of a young man, a Parsi of lowly background and somewhat obscure pedigree named Feroze Gandhy. (The Parsi spelling was later emended, it would seem at the Nehrus' suggestion, to blur his different origin.) He was a bold and engaging young man: swept up in the excitement of nationalist agitation, he was given to impulsive and romantic escapades. Nehru never liked his barracks-room style; and a few years after Kamala's death, when he learned from his daughter--who was then in England and studying at Oxford--of her desire to marry Gandhy, Nehru did all he could to dissuade her. Indira was herself ill with tuberculosis, and Nehru exploited her need for medical treatment to separate the two by bringing her back to India, in the hope that her head, if not her heart, might cool. The unpublished correspondence between father and daughter from these years has a searing, convulsive quality: it reveals a relationship that took on, in the wake of Kamala's death, a frightening intensity, charged with accusation and guilt, with anger and a profound emotional interdependence. After this period the two never again communicated so rawly and so openly. Things became unspoken and subterranean.

For a few years, Indira tried not to be a Nehru. She defied her father, married Feroze in 1942, and aspired to create her own domestic life. She and Feroze set up home, and they had two sons--Rajiv was born in 1944, Sanjay in 1946. Feroze tried his hand as a journalist at his father-in-law's newspaper. (Nehru was less than impressed, urging his daughter to edit Feroze's "Biblical English" and to curb his excessive use of "verily.") But Feroze's earnings were erratic, and the young family depended on money from Nehru. The marriage was also uneasy: Feroze was easily distracted by his roving eye, and in 1946 Indira decided to move with her sons back to live with Nehru, who was now effectively the head of the Indian government in New Delhi.

The maw of politics was closing in around her. At India's independence in 1947, Nehru became its first prime minister, and was installed in the grand former residence of the British commander-in-chief. Indira took over the management of the household, and stepped into the role of her father's social hostess. She came into contact with Indian and international leaders, and during the 1950s underwent a slow self-transformation into a political being. In Frank's account, this decade saw the crucial metamorphosis in her life. Indira began to accompany her father on official visits (she traveled overseas two dozen times between 1949 and 1959, including to the famous Bandung conference of "non-aligned nations" in 1955, where she exercised a calming influence on her father's spleen), and from this time on there were constant nudges to her from within the Congress Party to stand for parliament.

She resisted those promptings, but she did involve herself more deeply in internal party matters (a subject for which Nehru had little stomach), and she began to move up the hierarchy of the Congress Party. Frank is quite right to insist, though, that her father was scrupulous in not involving her in political matters, that he saw her more "as an assistant than a confidante or adviser." At this stage she too seemed restrained in her ambitions: as she wrote to her father in 1953, "I do want to reorganize my life and get out of all the silly committees. I am so sick of people doing social work as a step up the political and social set [sic] ladder, and equally sick of all the vague goodness of the so-called Gandhians." But that same year she made a visit to the Soviet Union, and this seemed to give her for the first time a sense of her own stature. She began to offer unsolicited advice to her father about appointments and other matters, often put up to it by Nehru's manipulative private secretary, M.O. Mathai.

Frank detects a major shift in Indira's life in 1957: a sudden improvement in her health. In a chapter that has the strongest claim of any in the book to having unearthed new material, Frank shows that Indira had been battling tuberculosis. This is a shrouded episode in her life: none among her family or friends spoke openly about it, haunted by the fearful memory of the illness that killed her mother. The truth is that in 1939-1940 Indira spent almost a year in a Swiss sanatorium; but it was not until the discovery of new antibiotic treatments for the illness in the 1950s, Frank suggests, that she was finally cured. Certainly her appearance changed: her figure filled out, her complexion became radiant. She gave evidence of her new vigor by campaigning strenuously on behalf of the party in the general elections in 1957, and in 1959 she became president of the party. But even that elevation did not convert her to the political life: she declined a second term, and from the evidence of her correspondence with friends such as Dorothy Norman in America, she was again contemplating a retreat into private life. Then things changed quickly and morbidly. 


The Nehrus are not only India's most political family: for many Indians they are also its ruling family, a modern "dynasty" rivaled only by the Kennedys, and like them enveloped in myth. That successive generations could have possessed such power in a democracy naturally raises troubling questions; and one of the most persistent of those questions is whether Nehru intended his daughter to succeed him and schemed to that end. The short answer is no. It was a series of chance events that took her into the prime minister's office.

In September, 1960 Feroze died suddenly of a heart attack. Despite their strained relations, his death affected Indira deeply, and further reinforced her desire for a domestic life away from politics (she even thought of moving to the English countryside). It seems also to have affected her younger son Sanjay, in ways that left Indira prey to his manipulation. Pupul Jayakar, a friend and earlier biographer of Indira Gandhi, noted that Feroze's death left Sanjay "bereft and resentful of his mother whom he held responsible for the neglect and death of his father." Sanjay Gandhi had fastened on his mother's weakest spot (after all, she had herself accused her own father of exactly such neglect), and he was to play on this in later years to disastrous effect. Indira's thin-skinnedness on this matter can be gathered from the fact that years later, when Salman Rushdie repeated the story about her neglect of Feroze, she sued Rushdie for libel.

Meanwhile her father was becoming increasingly dependent on her. Nehru was broken mentally and physically by India's defeat at the hands of China in the 1962 war, and his failing health meant that more responsibilities were put upon her. Rather than seizing this opportunity to thrust herself forward, she seemed to shrink from the political spotlight. In Frank's account, Indira, at the age of forty-six, found herself going through what "was actually an adolescent identity crisis [rather] than a mid-life one," trying to puzzle out who and what she should be.

Nehru died in May, 1964. He had named no successor, but he had indicated his preference for a man named Lal Bahadur Shastri, who duly took over. Loyal, tactful, and politically skilled, Shastri considered it a matter of propriety to take in his mentor's daughter, and he offered Indira Gandhi a post in his cabinet, the relatively unimportant portfolio of Information and Broadcasting. Frank's explanation of why Indira accepted rings true: her guilt at having been something of a hesitant Nehru during her father's lifetime was now transformed into a sense of duty. Also, she needed the income. She had inherited no wealth, apart from the royalties from Nehru's books; the family mansion had been donated to the nation as a museum, and she could no longer live in the prime minister's residence. Feroze too had not left her any property.

Barely two years in office, Shastri died in January, 1966, having just concluded the Tashkent Treaty that ended the 1965 war with Pakistan. Faced with this unexpected succession crisis, senior Congress leaders were in confusion. They turned to Indira Gandhi, not because she promised to be a great leader in the line of her father-quite the contrary, it was her evident unsuitability for political power that attracted them to her. She was without any power base in the party or in the country; she was a woman, and a poor speaker, with no articulated political vision or ideological passion--a soft touch. How wrong they were. Once in office, power seemed to unleash a hormonal rush in her. At the age of fifty, she was rejuvenated. The desultoriness of her earlier years was shaken off and her life acquired a new keenness, as she discovered her appetite for power.

Her premiership opened with a flourish. A couple of months after taking office, she made her first overseas visit as prime minister. It was to the United States, and she took Washington and New York by storm. President Johnson promised nine million dollars in aid to India; and Mrs. Gandhi offered in return her understanding of the American adventure in Vietnam. Relations between the two countries seemed set to blossom, in contrast to the general chill surrounding them during her father's lifetime.

While she seemed to thrive personally, the broader situation facing her party and her country was grim. Economic crisis--brought on by two wars and successive monsoons--forced her into moves that backfired. A condition of American aid had been a devaluation of the Indian currency; but her announcement of a crashing sixty-percent devaluation of the rupee met with unanimous criticism in India. It seemed to confirm the old nationalist fear about India's vulnerability to international pressures, and eventually the fear was stoked into a paranoia about national sovereignty. The hostile reaction to Mrs. Gandhi's move left a mark on her economic thinking: it convinced her to stick with protectionist measures, to adopt populist policies, and to mistrust dependence on foreign assistance, however smilingly it might be proffered. 

In 1967 she had to face her first general election as prime minister; and it was also the first time she had to contest a parliamentary seat (until then she had been an appointed member of the Upper House). She won her own seat with a huge majority, but the Congress Party turned in its worst performance ever, losing control of eight of India's regional states (including the most populous ones), and it was left with a small parliamentary majority. Indira Gandhi seized this as an opportunity to strengthen her own position. Catching the party at its weakest, she remade it: she split it, changed its internal character, and pulled it leftward. 

The Congress Party was the great historic symbol of national unity, functioning as a capacious umbrella-like structure. Its strong central command had always given a long leash to the leaders from the regional states, relying on the provincial bosses to tend to clients, and to deliver support and votes in return for benefits negotiated from the center. Mrs. Gandhi resolved to break free from the grip of the old regional leaders who had put her in power. She sidelined them in two ways. After splitting the party--which would have been unthinkable for her father--she changed the object of political loyalty from the party and its local leadership to her own person. She did this by altering the forms of party finance. Nehru, always prim about the mechanics of power, had left the vulgar business of graft to his regional bosses: they hustled money from supporters, and used it for electioneering in their own patches. Indira Gandhi abolished this system. Henceforth, cash was delivered straight to her private secretaries, and the distribution of election expenses to candidates was controlled directly from her office. The rupees came first in briefcases, then in suitcases; and by means of "suitcase politics" she was able to create a material chain of fidelity between her chosen party men and herself.

She also set out to establish a direct relation with the electorate, again bypassing the party and its seasoned leaders. She accomplished this by shifting her rhetoric to the left, inventing a magical radicalism. Banks were nationalized, the princely families were divested of privileges that they had been constitutionally promised, and an electoral slogan at once supremely simple and blissfully hazy was devised: Garibi Hatao, or "Remove Poverty." An unimpeachable sentiment; but as Indira confessed to a journalist, she spoke the language of socialism because it was what the people wanted to hear. In 1971 she called a snap election and ran a cult-of-personality campaign that projected herself as the sole issue at stake--as the unique scourge of poverty--and appealed directly to the poorest and lowest in the social order, to India's outcastes, Muslims, and women. She achieved a landslide majority.

International triumph soon followed. The military leadership of West Pakistan was at this time pursuing a genocidal policy against the Bengalis of East Pakistan, and thousands of refugees were flowing into India. There was international condemnation, except from the American government, which sided with Pakistan--a consequence of the game of cat's cradle being played by Nixon and Kissinger. It became apparent to Mrs. Gandhi that military action against Pakistan was inevitable, and she was given the pretext that she sought when the trigger-happy General Yahya Khan, the Pakistani leader, launched an attack on India in December, 1971. The war was short, and it ended in a total victory for Mrs. Gandhi. Her audacity and her decisiveness during the campaign were formidable.

In five fast years, then, Indira Gandhi had been transformed. In 1966, her father's old colleagues had referred to her as a "dumb doll," a "chit of a girl." Now, at the peak of her career, she was named the most admired woman in the world by a Gallup poll in the United States, and had become one of the very few non-Western leaders accorded respect in the citadels of world power. To her own people, she seemed to have become quasi-divine.

She used her new power to strike a deal with Pakistan at the ensuing peace summit held at Simla. About the perennial thorn of Kashmir, she established with her counterpart Zulfikar Ali Bhutto an informal agreement to observe as the de facto border between the two countries the Line of Control (the cease-fire line established after the Pakistan-instigated invasion of Kashmir in 1947-1948). She followed this two years later by announcing that India had conducted a nuclear test, for "peaceful purposes." It was a coy admission of India's nuclear abilities, which in time developed into an effective "nuclear option" strategy. Her own role in deciding to take India down the nuclear path remains as ambiguous as her larger strategy: according to a leading historian of India's nuclear program, in the secret debate leading up to the decision "she listened and said, 'Let's have it.'"

In India's domestic politics, though, Indira Gandhi's political career was unfolding as a cautionary tale of democratic hubris. She had become so sure of her legitimacy, based on her electoral success, that she convinced herself of the dispensability of constitutional constraints and procedures regarding the exercise of power. She had embraced a Jacobin conception of political power, an unfiltered view of democracy as direct and popular. Her actions had altered the meaning of democracy in the popular imagination, reducing it to signify quite simply the winning of power through elections, and neglecting altogether the sense in which it was also a way of regulating the exercise of power. This demotic sense of democracy spread over the Indian political imagination, both elite and popular.

Indira Gandhi centralized power, draining it away from the regional state governments and channeling it toward New Delhi. With the old arenas of parleying and decision-making within the party eliminated, she surrounded herself with a group of highly intelligent and sophisticated men, leftist and technocratic in bent, and mostly of Kashmiri origin: P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, P.N. Dhar, T.N. Kaul. And her younger son Sanjay was now elbowing his way onto the political stage. He was an ambitious gadfly with a marked capacity to attract distasteful young men on the make. After various failed efforts to establish himself as the Henry Ford of India by developing a cheap "people's car" (he had trained, rather ineffectually, at the Rolls Royce works as a teenager), he plumped for a political career. He established a Youth Congress, a thuggish motley of scented young men with bad shoes, ruthless in their methods. This dubious body now began to fill the vacuum in the party created by Mrs. Gandhi's destruction of its organization and its leadership. 

Indira Gandhi's haughty centralization and legislative abandon--she appealed to her parliamentary majorities to introduce sweeping legislative changes and constitutional amendments--provoked two waves of dissent, whose consequences still reverberate in India: the first resulted in the Emergency, the second in her own assassination. In 1974-1975, severe economic conditions sparked a series of popular agitations in the west and the east of the country, as well as a nationwide railway strike, led by the former Gandhian and socialist Jayaprakash Narayan. In June, 1975, a court judgment overturned Mrs. Gandhi's election to parliament on the basis of a tiny infringement of electoral procedure. She became convinced that there was a large-scale conspiracy to overthrow her, possibly with international backing. (It was not an altogether crazy idea: Salvador Allende had been deposed not long before, and Mujibur Rahman was assassinated not long after, both with the involvement of the CIA.) Confronted with the prospect of resigning as prime minister, she decided to declare an Emergency, drawing upon state powers inherited intact from the Raj.

The Emergency lasted until 1977. Its history is extremely difficult to write, given the absence of definitive sources, the number of conflicting memories and views, and a generalized self-induced Alzheimer's among all who played a role in its events. (If the current Indian government contains some individuals who were imprisoned during the Emergency, it also contains some individuals who did the imprisoning.) Although the powers absorbed by the government in the wake of the Emergency's declaration were sweeping, and seemed to be the prelude to an era of authoritarianism, very little was actually done. There was plenty of concentrated nastiness, in which Sanjay Gandhi and his acquaintances played a leading role: the press was muzzled, political dissenters and opponents were imprisoned, sterilizations were enforced, slums were razed in the name of "city beautiful" schemes. But no major social or economic reforms were set in motion, nor were any Ceausescuan mausoleums built. The main victim of the Emergency was the constitution, and the liberal compass of India's democratic life.

Explanations of the Emergency tend to veer between labeling it the product of the biographical quirks of mother and son and seeing it as a lapse of Indian society once again ensconced in its ancient destiny: dynasticism, despotism, and the other Oriental vices. In fact, the Emergency was neither one nor the other. It was a critical episode in the history of the conflict between the two ideas--the idea of the state and the idea of democracy--that have defined, and competed for, the modern history of India. The Emergency is best regarded as a parodic version of the desire to return the Indian state to the hands of a do-good elite--at the very time when (as a result of Mrs. Gandhi's own electoral style) the democratic idea was achieving an unprecedented diffusion across Indian society.

In effect, she was stepping on the brake and the accelerator at the same time. By suppressing democratic freedoms, Mrs. Gandhi hoped to de-politicize India, and to entrust political decisions to a supposedly benevolent technocratic elite, to a "committed" bureaucracy and judiciary. In fact, the effects were the opposite, and she succeeded only in politicizing India still more profoundly. Deprived of their rights, people began to sense just how significant these might be. When she called elections in 1977, they exercised their rights resoundingly and voted her and her party right out of office.

By 1980, though, she was back in power. The new government that had hoped to replace her--a ragtag of the disgruntled, the unprincipled, and the merely hopeful--collapsed in internal bickering. Within a few months of his mother's return to power, Sanjay Gandhi was killed in a plane crash while performing aerial acrobatics over the capital. It marked the beginning of Indira Gandhi's final, catastrophic phase in power. She now had to face the dissent provoked by her centralizing urges, and by the breakdown of structures that might have moderated these forms of dissent. Across the country, regionalist movements--always a potential form of political protest in India--escalated their demands and actions: some actually pressed for secession, all were prepared to use violence. In Punjab to the west, Assam to the east, and Kashmir to the north, the federal routines that gave democracy a local and tangible presence were effaced, as Mrs. Gandhi tried to exercise direct control over these regions.

In Punjab, during the post-Emergency years when Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress were out of power, Sanjay Gandhi had set in motion a process that was to result in the Indian army's attack on the Sikh Golden Temple in June, 1984, and in Mrs. Gandhi's death a few months later. In order to break the power of the Sikh political party, the faction-ridden Akali Dal (which in the late 1970s was supporting the anti-Indira Gandhi government in New Delhi), Sanjay--with his mother's connivance--cultivated a lithe young Sikh sant, or religious preacher, named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Having helped to build him up for her own purposes, Mrs. Gandhi on her return to power sought to sweep him away.

But Bhindranwale would not go gently. His militant sermons had attracted followers across the Sikh diaspora who were willing to die for him, and he committed them to an armed struggle for the creation of a Sikh homeland called Khalistan. Barricaded into the Golden Temple at Amritsar, he directed his men in a brutal campaign of terror. Finally the Indian army launched a massive assault on the temple. Whether or not Mrs. Gandhi personally commanded the use of force against this holiest of Sikh shrines remains unclear. But when her bodyguards took aim at her a few months later, they believed themselves to be very directly avenging their religion and community.

If Punjab was to prove lethal to her own person, the handling of Kashmir was to leave the country a truly poisoned legacy. Kashmir had enjoyed distinct treatment ever since its troubled accession to India in 1947: constitutionally, the state was guaranteed a standing not available to any other states in the Indian Union. Its politics had long been dominated by Nehru's friend-turned-sparringpartner Sheik Abdullah--with whom Mrs. Gandhi had made a deal, in the mid-1970s, that seemed to balance Kashmir's special autonomy with its integral place in the Indian Union. At Sheik Abdullah's death in 1982, his son Farooq Abdullah succeeded him, but Mrs. Gandhi never trusted Farooq. Farooq was an unlikely leader (he was known as the "Disco Chief Minister"), but he struck out on his own, refused an alliance with the Congress, and--playing on Muslim sentiment--won the elections in his state. 

For Mrs. Gandhi, a Kashmir ruled by a leader actively resistant to her was both a personal affront and a national danger. She was determined to oust him, and she urged the governor of the state--who happened to be her cousin--to dismiss Farooq on the grounds that the elections had been rigged (which they were, slightly; but not nearly as rigged as they would be under Congress governments later in the 1980s). Her cousin refused and advised her against this action, so she replaced him with a more craven governor, who did the deed. The result was the buildup, during the 1980s, of a tinder pile of resentment, ready to be sparked at the very moment when de-mobbed mercenaries from the Afghan campaigns were flooding into a crisis-ridden Pakistan, and when the messages of radical Islam were radiating out from Tehran and elsewhere. 


Nirad Chaudhuri, in his inimitably Indo-phobic way, once declared that "not one worthy biography of a great Indian or a worthy account of Indian life or civilization has come from an Indian. That is the true trahison des clercs in India." About biography, at least, he has a point. India's modern history is overpopulated with remarkable personalities, and it is a biographer's treasure trove; but the intellectual impact made by Indian biographical writing is trivial. In most cases, Indian biography is little better than hagiography or chronicle: the doings of the great, in modern recensions of the Namas of the Mughal emperors.

Katherine Frank's biography follows a number of earlier ones on Indira Gandhi, including two important studies by people who might be called "insiders," a highly critical but insightful book by Mrs. Gandhi's cousin Nayantara Sahgal, and a sympathetic and rather dark biography by Mrs. Gandhi's onetime confidante Pupul Jayakar. What these and other studies make clear is that it is virtually impossible for anybody who already has an interest in Indian politics to write dispassionately about Indira Gandhi and her rule. Frank therefore comes to her task with a distinct advantage: her earlier biographies were on Lucy Duff Gordon, Mary Kingsley, and Emily Bronte, and prior to this book no one could have mistaken her for an "India hand."

The first part of Frank's book, dealing with Mrs. Gandhi's life before she became prime minister, is a good deal more successful than the second part. Frank writes sensitively about what it must have felt like to be a child of the Nehrus, and she manages to rehabilitate Mrs. Gandhi as a person. There are problems, though, with Frank's account of her subject's political life. It is always hard to identify exactly what a politician has actually done: the precise nature of his or her responsibility for certain actions, let alone for the consequences of these actions, is maddeningly difficult to determine. The relationship between an individual politician and his or her deeds or acts is much less clear than that between, say, a writer and his or her literary output--a symptom of what P.N. Furbank has called "the profound inauthenticity of the political life." For this reason, political biography can often fall off into a form of gossip and historically decorated rumor, into an elaborate variety of journalism. It tries to guard against this by referring to "sources," to documentary evidence, written or oral, that seeks to clinch the link between the biographical subject and a particular action or event.

And yet sources cannot really solve the political biographer's problem. A biographer needs to be able to grasp also the relationship between the intention and the action, as well as to judge the nature of the consequences produced by the action. Only when this circuit is complete can we get some sense of the responsibility or otherwise that a politician may bear for a particular situation. To achieve this, the biographer needs a sure interpretative grasp of the political and historical field about which he or she is writing--a sense of the broader causalities that surround his or her subject.

Here the difficulties crowd in for Frank. Take sources first. For the duration of Mrs. Gandhi's pre-political life, we are able to get a fairly rich picture of the balance of her thoughts and emotions, the necessities and the contingencies that she faced. Frank draws upon published sources unavailable to previous writers, and she has resourcefully unearthed Mrs. Gandhi's medical history. But when it comes to the second part of the life, the truly consequential part, Frank has much less to offer. It is a problem that faces all who try to write about India's recent history: quite simply, an absence of sources, both private and public, which makes it difficult in some cases to know what actually happened, let alone to make sense of it.

The Emergency is a classic instance: there are virtually no government papers available for this period. Frank has worked hard to piece things together, using interviews and whatever other material there is. But anyone who has tried to write about the Emergency knows that it is a Hall of Mirrors, where accusation and counter-accusation, information and disinformation, trip over one another's heels; and Frank indeed emerges bruised. Her generally sober and serious book has provoked something of a scandal in India, largely because of the pages given over to discussing the rumors surrounding Mrs. Gandhi's sexual life, but also because of its account of the roles played by Sanjay Gandhi and his wife Maneka during the Emergency. A paragraph in which Frank gives currency to an allegation that the two had arranged the murder of a well-known underworld boss drew the threat of a libel action by Sanjay's widow, and it has been deleted from subsequent editions.

Faced with these difficulties, and with her own uncertain sense of the driving energies of modern India's political history, Frank's biographical preferences turn scattershot. She ends up drifting between several possible idioms of explanation, variously invoking psychological quirks and scars, the compulsions of politics, and even, at a push, values and ideas. The paradoxical effect of Frank's final chapters, which rehearse the narrative of Mrs. Gandhi's political life and death, is to undo the portrait that she has built up, to collapse it into different elements. The inner complexity set out earlier is replaced by an image of Mrs. Gandhi as a weathervane, as someone who had become a vehicle to be "filled" by others who "invested her with their ideology and values." The point of personality seems to have been only to become a mask. Frank opens her book with an epigraph from Eliot's Four Quartets, but by its end we are left with a sense of Eliot's hollow men, of the nihilism of power. I doubt that this was the story that Katherine Frank set out to tell. 

This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001, issue of the magazine.