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,

that he was tempted to take up the idea. His imagination was struck by the picture of fallen greatness as she sat in her official residence stripped suddenly of power and its appurtenances, without aides, or secretaries, or even furniture. Doubtless there was a wry attraction for Mrs Gandhi in the prospect of the son of a distinguished former editor of the Indian Express, the paper which did so much at the end of the Emergency to expose the abuses of the sterilisation campaign and to whip up opposition, being prepared to enter on the task of her rehabilitation. Frank Moraes had produced a dutifully respectful biography of her father: why should not his son do the same for her? In 1970, he had written flatteringly in the New York Times Sunday Magazine:

there is no adequate replacement for Mrs Gandhi as Prime Minister of the largest free nation in the world. She is the only politician in India with a thoroughly modern mind. Democracy in the Western sense does not really work in India, and this is provable from the past: it is too large a land, with too many corrupt people in positions of power, and too many illiterate and uninformed people controlled by them. The ruthlessness, the autocracy, for which Mrs Gandhi has been criticised seem to me, in the context of the country, essential to its Prime Minister. Without this ruthlessness, this autocratic touch, nothing would ever be done about anything in India.

Dom Moraes left India as a young man to go up to Oxford; he married an Englishwoman, and has spent a considerable part of his life as poet and writer in London with a British passport in his pocket. He was feasted on the heady wine of success at a tender age: Spender and Eliot received him and praised him for his poems before he had even unpacked his bags at Jesus College. On a return visit to India he was given audiences by Nehru and the lesser great, talked with the Dalai Lama, trespassed momentarily over the Sikkim border into Chinese-occupied Tibet, and counted himself king of infinite space. Autobiographical poems, articles and books flowed from his pen. Yet life could not be sustained at this level when experience made clear the yawning gap between talent and genius and between promise and greatness.

Moraes has drifted in and out of a number of assignments, including editing a magazine in Hong Kong and working for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. The expatriate’s lack of roots has haunted him. Even though he may owe to it much of his literary awareness and sensitivity, it formed an unstable and dangerous basis for embarking on Mrs Gandhi’s biography. He came to his subject with excessive commitment. This was not a matter of political allegiance shaped by a rough common-sense judgment that the Indian political process was in the ordinary way too destructive and corrupt to produce effective government. Nor was it that he himself was involved up to the hilt in the Emergency regime, acting as a UN scriptwriter to help the Indian Government make family-planning films and producing a report on the Singapore Government’s policy which he acknowledges may have inadvertently hardened official determination to use authoritarian means to step up the sterilisation programme. Late in 1976, when he found that his film scripts were mouldering unused and he was overtaken with a wave of revulsion against all things Indian, a direct appeal to Mrs Gandhi broke through the bureaucratic impasse. She did more; she gave him a purpose and a sense of belonging: ‘Mrs Gandhi, with a shift of her eyes, had indicated that I was, in some sense, useful to the country, or at least could be ... Whatever my allegiances and nationality, I suddenly looked ... into her totally uninterested eyes, and realised that she had given me back something which I had completely lost: she had given me roots.’ In December 1976, when as it turned out the Emergency was almost at an end, Moraes resigned his UN post in order to write a book on each of the Indian states with Indian Government money. The Prime Minister arranged the matter personally, although she fell from power before it could be given effect.

Moraes’s curious psychological dependence on Mrs Gandhi shapes the biography, which increasingly turns into a history of his relationships with her. Naturally, as a freelance journalist, he does not ignore his market. The book is directed to a Western readership and the airport bookstall. It is eminently readable. However incongruent with the seriousness and dignity of his subject, Moraes has no hesitation in providing a tawdry technicolour version of India’s history as background and spicing it with references to the sexual perversions of Mughal Delhi. When he wants to, he writes well, although the style is contrived, as in the description of Kerala: ‘The rivers and seas are alive with fish. Coconuts filled with a sweetish, faintly acrid water and a pulpy white meat hang like anthropoid skulls from the palm trees, and there are various and delicate fruit.’ But metaphors and similes, striking at first – ‘her eyes under their kestrel hoods were like ice and fire’ – get overused (and do kestrels’ eyes have hoods?). He is adept at popularising Indian politics for Western consumption, regarding them with bored cynicism and commanding no expert knowledge. He has not gone out to amass facts about Mrs Gandhi’s political career; the book is not a work of research in that sense. It does not possess the packed intensity and riot of detail of Janardan Thakur’s Indira Gandhi and her Power Game, a hostile author for whose exploitative journalism Moraes expresses open contempt.

A foreigner’s lack of expertise in the Indian political background has led Moraes to rely on a single talent: his belief that he has established a special relation with Mrs Gandhi which has given him an insight into her character. That insight has been deepened by a study of her personal history with the help of interviews with her relatives and friends. Yet he boldly claims a peculiar empathy on account of shared traits of character, particularly ‘an inbred shyness born of tumultuous childhoods’ and an infinite ennui with created things contradicted by periods of total absorption. He retraces her early upbringing by ill-assorted parents: a mother from a traditional Indian background who did not fit into the modernist, English-speaking idiom of the joint Nehru household in Allahabad, a father who withdrew into himself and politics, and an aunt (Mrs Pandit) who disliked her and her mother with varying degrees of intensity. She grew up with a reserved, watchful and brooding nature, too independent for an arranged marriage and yet too distrustful of people beyond the narrow domestic circle to marry outside it. When she was 16, she received a proposal from Feroze Gandhi, an impecunious aide who had attached himself to the Nehru household while still a student. It was not until she was 25, a comparatively late age for an Indian girl, that she finally agreed to marry him against her father’s inclination. Her lack of close attachment to persons and places was emphasised by her education, which was a thing of shreds and patches – a dame’s school in Allahabad where she stood out by her khadi homespun clothes, a period at Tagore’s Santiniketan, and then a finishing school in Switzerland where her mother lay slowly dying in a sanatorium.

Losing her mother at the age of 19, she went on to Oxford, where she read PPE in a desultory fashion before being recalled by her father in 1940 because of the war. Until she was 40 she dwelt in his shadow, observing a noble and irresolute mind which clung to stronger wills for support and which felt ultimately betrayed by their death or by his faulty judgment of their character. His vital props failed him gradually one by one: first his father, then Gandhi, then Krishna Menon, even Chou En-lai. Indira’s childhood had left her determined ‘never to let people hurt me’, and later experience served to confirm the wisdom of Philip II’s maxim to trust none but oneself. Marriage in 1942 gave her children but did not accomplish the normal displacement of emotional loyalties. She spent much of her time keeping house for her father. Her marriage did not, however, break down entirely. Indeed, she acknowledged to Moraes that of all the deaths in the family her husband’s had inflicted the greatest shock. With that astonishing candour often characteristic of Indians in intimate personal matters, she commented: ‘My whole mental and physical life changed suddenly, my bodily functions changed.’ In 1960 she was still only 43, almost the same age as Queen Victoria when she was widowed. Yet instead of withdrawal Feroze Gandhi’s death had the reverse effect. She was left with two sons and a father visibly failing. She watched at close quarters his humiliation over the military debacle with China in 1962, and saw the career of one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century close in gloom and exhaustion.

Her will and resolution had been tempered and hardened over the long years, and they made their sudden, breathtaking appearance when she felt she was cornered and fighting for the survival of the Nehru inheritance. The sense of paranoia was always acute in one who lacked deep personal attachments, but it supplied her spring of action and the secret of so much of her political success. The series of bold strokes – splitting the Congress Party when it threatened to oust her, calling the 1971 election over the party’s head, opting for a military solution to humiliate Pakistan over the liberation of Bangladesh despite the thunders of Nixon and the Chinese, and, above all, declaring the Emergency in 1975 without consultation with any of her Cabinet colleagues – all these evoked awed admiration and apprehension that here at last was an empress in the old imperial mould. They win little but praise from Dom Moraes, who appears heedless of the historic danger implicit in the progressive subversion of the institutional breakwaters of party, Parliament, the Supreme Court and provincial autonomy, and in the gathering of all power into a single hand at the centre. He leaves the fate of India to rest on Mrs Gandhi’s character, and it is this which in the end surprisingly fails him and shatters the image he has so carefully built up.

Moraes began writing his book during 1977 and the early part of 1978, drawing an essentially sympathetic portrait of her career and background down to the Emergency. Even then, he blames the subordinate organisation of government for its excesses, and to some extent the mishandling of public relations by Sanjay Gandhi. If any blame attaches to her, it was that which she afterwards accepted – a failure to keep in touch with the popular mood. He brushes aside the thousands kept in prison without trial, except typically for one person known to him, Snehalata Reddy, over whom he spoke to her. Moraes is indifferent to political morality, and saw Mrs Gandhi, not in terms of cold political calculation as an essential counterpoise to the centrifugal forces in India, but rather as a surrogate mother-figure to satisfy his own psychological cravings:

Then I reflected on my relationship with Mrs Gandhi, and why I felt, deep within myself, the need to present her with books and flowers: why when she issued crisp instructions, I felt, deep in myself, the need to follow them. I decided I was not unlike the political people who had followed her for years. The books and flowers were motivated by her smallness, her frailty, her apparent helplessness: when the orders came, one carried them out because they were so delicately delivered, by someone accustomed to power.

Moraes had observed with pain how, in the absence of political friends of substance, Mrs Gandhi surrounded herself with a shifting group of advisers and hangers-on, and how often the most sincere and independent-minded were sacrificed for sycophants. He never expected to be counted among the discarded. He enjoyed the entrée to her house, was addressed by his first name, entertained her to dinner at his own house and lunched Sanjay Gandhi and his wife à quatre. Then suddenly in the July heat of 1978 he was handed a letter from the Lady that severed relationships. She claimed to have learned of what he was writing and considered that she was being seriously misrepresented. He protested, but her house was shut against him.

Moraes was doubtless more indiscreet than he knew, for he seems to recognise no distinction between the public and the private person, and what can go on and what must stay off the record. But in joining the ranks of other former devotees who felt bitterly betrayed when the sun of favour was suddenly withdrawn, he strikes his own damaging blow. Moraes was cheated of an ordinary childhood because of a mother who was a deranged paranoiac and once came at him with a carving knife: he sets out the story with scandalous frankness in My Son’s Father (1968). When the surrogate mother-figure of Mrs Gandhi turned against him, he allowed his immediate anger and sorrow to cool, and then proceeded to take deliberate revenge. Lightly and cuttingly, he inflicts the most damaging wound of which he is capable. He does nothing to alter the favourable account he had written of her career until her fall from power in 1977. But then, when she was at her most human, and fighting off persecution, he deprives her of the essential attribute of ordinary humanity. A biographer who rests his whole study on a sympathetic understanding of character can bring no charge more fatal than brutal cruelty and callous indifference. On the strength of two quite trivial incidents, he fixes the charge by deliberate implication on his heroine, picturing her smiling on one occasion at her henchmen and on another at the police as they physically manhandled or beat into senselessness two helpless young women who had declared themselves against her. As a serious assessment of the political phenomenon of Indira Gandhi, Moraes’s book is worthless. As a work of higher journalism that gets under the ordinary reader’s skin, because the author takes his own personality in his hands in order to penetrate the personality of his subject, it is among the most disturbing and damaging to her reputation that has yet appeared. Lytton Strachey began his biography of Victoria by mocking at the public figure only to find in the end that he was led captive by her human warmth. Dom Moraes reaches out in sympathy to a small, lonely woman hurt and bruised since childhood, and discovers on closer approach a more than life-size statue of cold, adamantine marble.

Yet Moraes is unable to leave it there. Contemporaries cannot be frozen into the unalterable shapes of posterity at the biographer’s behest, and the triumphant return to power of Mrs Gandhi after his main text was completed brings out the courtier in Moraes once more. Even before her election victory in January 1980, Moraes was again leaving flowers at her house in Willingdon Crescent and declaring ‘all wounds healed’. Weakly he surrenders to his old conviction that such awesome power must wear a human face. Since the book was completed, the death of Sanjay Gandhi has resurrected in the public mind the simple image of the suffering widow-mother, and blotted out from memory the cruelty her power inflicted: by allowing the two discordant images to stand together unreconciled Moraes leaves his subject inscrutable. Perhaps M. F. Husain, the Indian painter, was more candid and more acceptable when he presented to Mrs Gandhi a portrait of herself in which she is depicted as Kali: ‘the goddess of death and also of renewal, riding bloodily across India’.