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Updated: March 3, 2012 16:46 IST

The Indira Wave

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My return from Oxford coincided with the denouement of India's political power struggle. The disunity of Indira Gandhi's opponents and her own capacity for shrewd populism was turning the tide decisively in her favour, though quite how dramatically we could not have imagined. Nor could we have anticipated then that the wave that swept her to absolute power would also shatter our own family life beyond repair.

I had returned to Delhi a loose cannon. I was by now politically well to the left of Father. I was also resentful of his attempts to press me into taking up a job. To be fair, he left the choice to me. Business, teaching, journalism, the foreign service, were all possibilities that were mooted. But what I really wanted was to return to Oxford as soon as I had the necessary funding to pursue a doctorate at St Antony's. At least as important as any academic motivation was the elusive holy grail of ‘the relationship' that seemed far more attainable in permissive Britain than in homophobic India.

Of course, Father knew nothing of my personal motives, since they were never discussed with him. He saw me as an idler who was trying to shirk my responsibilities and sponge on Mother's generosity. The spectre of her good-for-nothing brothers was an ever-present warning of the consequences. Mother, meanwhile, was torn between her own delight at having me back home and her desire to see me happy and fulfilled.

Her response was to be more indulgent than ever and to humour my every whim.

In the months that followed my return, these emotional and political ingredients proved an explosive mixture. I identified increasingly with Indira, whom Father by now saw as a pro-Communist, would-be dictator.

We argued heatedly, both at home and at dinner parties, and Mother usually took my side.

And then came Indira's coup de grâce, a snap mid-term election early in 1971, which put the Opposition on the defensive. In response to her election slogan, Garibi Hatao, all that her opponents could come up with was Indira Hatao. The opposition parties formed an electoral pact known as the Grand Alliance, but it lacked a common programme other than the purely negative aim of ousting ‘That Woman'. Father worked hard to knock heads together to produce a principled Opposition manifesto, but failed to overcome the opportunism of colleagues who wanted to try and outbid Mrs Gandhi's populism. At one point, he even walked out of the inter-party talks, provoking much press speculation.

Mother was delighted. ‘I can see the so-called “Grand Alliance” has become a complete farce,' she wrote to him from Delhi. ‘I am so glad you are having nothing to do with it.' And then, in the same letter, she dropped a bombshell. ‘Zareer has joined the Congress (R) [Indira's faction] and I wondered if you would mind my also doing so. I feel it is the only party that can give India a stable government. This will certainly not come in the way of my working for you in Rajkot [Father's constituency], as I also feel that leaders and worthwhile people from other democratic parties should be supported, as ultimately Indira will have to have a coalition government. Let us hope it will be a Cabinet of Talents, and I'm sure she would ask outstanding people to support her, provided they agree with her on certain basic principles. I certainly feel you, for instance, have more in common with her than with the Congress (O) [the opposing faction led by Morarji Desai].'

Mother may have been naïve to imagine that Mrs Gandhi really wanted to attract principled outsiders into her cabinet, or that Father might consider joining her; but she was not alone in thinking that the elections would produce a hung Parliament and a coalition government.

That was the feeling among most of the national press and also at the hustings, where I was now active. I had been drawn into the Congress election campaign through Romesh and Raj Thapar and their coterie of left-wing, pro-Indira intellectuals, whom Father had long reviled as ‘Commie fellow travellers'. I was helping to produce a mobile street play with music and dance, which travelled around Delhi on the back of a lorry, canvassing support for Indira and lampooning the Grand Alliance. I also addressed various Congress election meetings in the old city, where much political capital was made of my youthful rebellion against a misguided father.

Father's response to my political rebellion was tolerant, though he did remind me that, when he was my age, he had left his father's home to pursue socialist politics and that I might at least consider earning my own living. He was less tolerant about Mother's activities. She had retreated from the idea of joining the Congress, but spurred on by me she started canvassing in a personal capacity for Indira's candidate in Old Delhi. From Father's point of view, she could not have picked a worse candidate. Mrs Subhadra Joshi was closely linked with the pro-Moscow Communist Party, an ardent admirer of the Stalinist East German regime and the moving spirit behind the Indo-GDR Friendship Association. To have the wife of India's leading anti-Communist campaigning for her was too good a photo-opportunity to miss, and she leaked the story to the local press. Father was already fighting a tough election campaign in his own constituency, where the news from Delhi came as a shock to his supporters. ‘I hope you received my telegram regarding the press leakage,' Mother wrote to him. ‘I thought it best to make a statement clarifying the issue. I have made it clear that I do not belong to any party and that I am going to work for you in Rajkot as well. I have had quite a few phone calls from friends expressing their admiration for you for being so tolerant and democratic.'

But the die was cast. Father wired back declining her offer to come and canvass for him on the grounds that her presence would only attract further negative media attention and keep the issue alive.

(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from And All is Said: Memoir of a Home Divided by Zareer Masani, Penguin, Rs. 299.)

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