We have “ruling families” all over the country, so why single out Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, asks Nayantara Sahgal.
Just released, Indira Gandhi: Tryst With Power by Nayantara Sahgal is an in-depth study of Indira Gandhi‘s style of functioning and political leadership which, according to the author, “marked a drastic break with the democratic tradition of her family and Indian politics.” As a member of the Nehru-Gandhi extended family, Nayantara Sahgal had observed her cousin Indira at close quarters and had access to the kinds of documents which an outsider can’t think of laying their hands on. That is why this beautifully written book gives its readers an opportunity to have a peek in to the mind of enigmatic Indira Gandhi. In this interview, Sahgal talks about Indira, India and dynastic succession in politics.
Tryst with Power is different from the other biographies of Indira Gandhi because it gives an insight into her inner life. Please tell us how this book was conceptualised. Do you think it would have been possible for anybody else to write such an intimate biography?
It is not a biography but a study of her political style. It interested me because her style was a definite departure from that of her two predecessors and from the way the Congress party had functioned until then. The book started as a paper I was asked to contribute to a conference on "Leadership in South Asia" at SOAS (School of Oriental & African Studies), London University, in 1974. When my conclusion that we were heading toward authoritarian rule proved to be correct, I expanded it into a book. As a close relative I was able to give it a personal dimension.
What do you think about Indira Gandhi’s decision to intervene in the Bangladesh liberation war? Who benefited from its outcome, India, Indira Gandhi or both?
It was an act of statesmanship and great courage to support East Bengal’s fight to restore its elected government. The whole region benefited by the result, Bangladesh most of all.
How do you look at the stunning defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977 and then her miraculous rise, like a proverbial phoenix, three years later?
Indians rejected authoritarian rule in 1977 when they defeated the Congress. Equally they showed their good sense in re-electing Indira Gandhi and the Congress party three years later, because the quarrelling coalition of the Janata Party had let them down so badly, failing to punish those who had been responsible for the Emergency’s excesses.
How do you compare Indira Gandhi’s leadership style vis-à-vis the Nehruvian style of leadership?
The entire book deals with this subject so I will not deal with it here. When it comes to the question of dynastic rule, all the criticisms are generally directed towards the Gandhi-Nehru family. Nobody talks about the Thackeray family, the Karunanidhi family or the Yadav families. Is it not unfair to single out Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi for the dynastic debate?
Why bring Nehru’s name into this at all? He never even named a successor, much less any member of his family. Dynastic succession began with Indira Gandhi’s choice of her sons as her successors. Now we have "ruling families" all over the country, a huge setback to healthy democratic development.
What if Indira Gandhi had not declared Emergency?
Who can say?
Last question. What is going to be the next literary project of Nayantara Sahgal?
Fiction, I hope