Empress of India

Eric Stokes

  • Mrs Gandhi by Dom Moraes
    Cape, 326 pp, £9.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 224 01601 6

A century ago, Alfred Lyall, the notable Anglo-Indian administrator, sociologist and man of letters, speculated in his Asiatic Studies on the remarkable stability of India in the later 16th century onwards and its collapse into seeming anarchy in the 18th. For explanation he pointed to a succession of four strong and long-lived rulers – Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb – and to the constant centralising tendency of Mughal rule. While creating and sustaining an empire of unparalleled strength and size, this centralising tendency steadily destroyed all autonomous sources of resistance and hence ultimately deprived the ruler of all independent means of support. When the line of succession of strong men failed, there was nothing to break the fall. The top-heavy empire came down in a ruinous crash that left India in a state of complete political dissolution. Lyall saw the British Raj as falling into the same error of over-centralisation, so exposing the citadel of authority to direct attack from the democratic centralism of a modern nationalist movement. Whatever the half-truths implicit in his analysis, he grasped the historic importance of the tension between the centripetal and centrifugal forces in the sub-continent. It proved impossible, however, to alter the character of the Raj. British efforts from the 1880s to build up political outworks by decentralising and devolving power on princely states and provincial governments were too half-hearted and too tardy. The nationalist movement seized on the truth that to defeat a centralised foreign dominion it had to model itself on similar lines. This meant not only centralisation but autocracy.

Given the variety and fissiparousness of Indian political life, and the fact that the Congress Party had grown out of an annual jamboree of provincial associations, the degree of autocratic control imposed on the nationalist movement seems little short of miraculous. Even the splitting-off of the separatist Muslim League did not impair this characteristic. It meant that when the British came to leave in 1947 the matter could be settled by half a dozen men in a small room. The achievement was above all one of personality, of Gandhi and Jinnah each in their separate ways establishing a personal ascendancy over vast multitudes. Significantly, they held aloof from the ranks of ordinary professional politicians. After the Congress victory won in his name, in the provincial polls of 1937, Gandhi found himself almost swept aside by the rush for office and place and by the vicious factionalism which since independence has been one of the hallmarks of Indian politics. Yet he alone retained popular universal appeal, and the power to control the central leadership. Like a medieval pope, he broke Subhas Chandra Bose and elevated the diffident son of the veteran nationalist, Motilal Nehru, to head the Congress. The ruling dynasty of independent India was established in advance.

Jawaharlal Nehru disdained the arts and the motives of ordinary politicians. It was indeed his separation from them and his flair for what seemed of secondary importance to those hungry for power and spoils, his interest in foreign affairs, that commended him to the hard-headed men of the Congress high command. So long as Gandhi lived, Nehru had little need to exert himself to maintain his position, but after the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948 he faced a sharp if short-lived challenge from the strong-willed Vallabhbhai Patel who bridled at Nehru’s lack of decisiveness. Fortunately death removed Patel in 1950. By then, Nehru had learned enough of the political arts to outwit rival bids for authority and to reign unchallenged until his death in 1964.

He had two important attributes: the magic of a name, and an actor’s gift of popular oratory. These enabled him to outflank abler and more dedicated professional politicians. His rule was not strong but it was long-lived, and he gave India the priceless legacy of two decades of stability after independence. His final years were clouded with the humiliating defeat inflicted on Indian arms in 1962 by the contemptuous Chinese thrust through the Himalayan passes. Yet fear of China and fear of a resurgent Pakistan helped to check the centrifugal tendencies of linguistic sub-nationalism and the other fissiparous manifestations of the politics of immiseration. Nehru’s short-lived successor, Shastri, drew strength from the crisis of fresh hostilities with Pakistan in 1965. When he collapsed from a heart attack after completing the peace negotiations at Tashkent, it was to Nehru’s daughter that the equally-matched rivals turned for an amenable compromise premier to preside over their struggle for the mastery.

Indira Gandhi remains an enigma whose decipherment gives point to Dom Moraes’s biographical sketch. Moraes finds the clue less in the laws of motion of the Indian political system than in the family background and personal character of la femme au masque de fer. He accepts that the autocratic tradition was sufficient to raise up the Nehru dynasty and of its own momentum place Indira Gandhi in titular authority: but her revolutionary reinforcement of autocracy has owed everything to the remarkable inner resources of a bruised personality. In 1971, Dom Moraes was approached by an American publisher to undertake a biography of ‘the most powerful woman in the world’, but it was not until March 1977, when it appeared that she had been

Hurled headlong flaming from th’Ethereal Skie

With hideous ruine and combustion down

To bottomless perdition,

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