After canvassing vigorously for Congress in the 1957 election and taking over as the party president two years later, Indira Gandhi wrote to her friends about her plans to quit public life
By Sameer Arshad Khatlani
When India’s second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri offered Indira Gandhi the insignificant information and broadcasting portfolio in his Cabinet in June 1964, she accepted it partly for financial security. She was hard up with royalties from her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s books being her only source of income. Indira Gandhi’s estranged husband, Feroze Gandhi, died four years. He left no property for his widow and their two sons. Indira Gandhi did not have a house of her own to move to when she had to leave the bungalow allotted to Nehru as prime minister upon his death the same year. The Nehru family mansion in Allahabad had earlier been donated.
The circumstances following Nehru’s death scotched Indira Gandhi’s plans to quit public life. After canvassing vigorously for Congress in the 1957 election and taking over as the party president two years later, she began writing to her friends about her plans to quit public life. She would step down as the Congress president in 1960 instead of serving a second term.
In his book Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, academic Sunil Khilnani writes a series of deaths would create political and personal conditions that brought Indira Gandhi to power. Nehru died at 74 in May 1964 two years after India’s demoralizing loss in the war with China devastated him. His successor, Shastri, died two years later. Congress leaders chose Indira Gandhi at 52 to replace Shastri hoping the chhokari (a chit of a girl) or gungi godiya (a dumb doll) that some described her would be easy for them to manipulate.
Indira Gandhi would prove them wrong—and how! She would go on to dominate Indian politics for the next two decades and emerge as the most powerful woman of the 20th century after British leader Margaret Thatcher, overcoming the trauma of a difficult childhood and ill health.
Indira Gandhi was still in her teens when her mother, Kamala, died of tuberculosis. She would never really forgive her anglicized father and her two aunts for belittling her mother, who came from a modest background and felt strained among the highbrowed Nehrus. Indira married Feroze, a Parsi who cared for her mother when she was ill, defying Nehru.
Indira Gandhi’s relationship with Nehru in her early years was mostly epistolary as he would be in and out of jail as a key leader of India’s national movement. Nehru’s first book on world history was based on letters he wrote to Indira from prison.
Khilnani has cited Nehru and Indira’s unpublished correspondence from these years and noted it ‘is charged with accusation and guilt, as well as an intense emotional interdependence.’ He writes Indira Gandhi wrote to her father with ‘the clarity of someone trying to set the historical record straight about his neglect – the Nehru household not being deficient in a sense of its own historical significance. When she ultimately married Feroze, in 1942, after years of her father’s resistance, she seemed to be trying, pointedly, not to be a Nehru.’
The marriage was short-lived. Indira Gandhi was back with her father along with her sons as Feroze Gandhi proved unfaithful and erratic. She would soon get busy as a leading female face of independent India as the daughter of the country’s first prime minister. Indira Gandhi was initially content with entertaining world leaders and managing home before her interest in politics deepened as she accompanied Nehru on his frequent overseas trips for a decade.
Khilnani writes Nehru’s letters make clear he initially saw his daughter as more of a calming influence than an adviser. But she soon began taking interest in Congress’s organizational work that Nehru had little interest in. Indira Gandhi moved up the party’s hierarchy as she grew in confidence with an improvement in her health after secretly battling tuberculosis (TB) for close to two decades. She spent nearly a year at a Swiss sanatorium before she was cured after the discovery of new antibiotic treatments for TB. She became stronger, campaigned in the 1957 polls, and become the Congress chief in 1959 before losing interest in politics.
Circumstances catapulted Indira Gandhi to power and once she got it she sought to ensure it remained in her family, which her father would not really have approved of. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi succeeded her as the Prime Minister after her assassination in 1984. The Gandhis remained away from politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination less than a decade later.
Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, a reluctant politician, was convinced to lead an adrift Congress in the late 1990s. She led the faltering party to power for 10 years until 2014 and has since become the longest-serving Congress chief. Her son, Rahul Gandhi, stepped down as the Congress president following the party’s rout for the second time in a row in national elections in 2019. He is said to be reluctant to run for the top Congress post as the party is due to hold elections for it.
Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to return as the party’s interim chief. Her daughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, too, has refuted speculation that she will eventually lead the party, which may now have a non-Gandhi as the leader for the first time in over two decades though Indira Gandhi’s legacy of entrenching her family’s hold over Congress is unlikely to change anytime sooner.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan