The tale of modern India’s mightiest matriarch and most controversial Prime Minister.
As Frank (A Passage to Egypt, 1994) notes, Indira Nehru Gandhi, daughter of independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was strongly influenced by family friend Mahatma Gandhi (no relation). Drawing on a variety of sources—including Jawaharlal’s memoirs and interviews with those who knew Indira—the author reveals how Indira’s professional and emotional relationships often intertwined, especially in regard to the men in her life: her influential father, her quarrelsome husband, and her two sons—Rajiv and hot-blooded Sanjay. The first half of the narrative provides some intimate details of Indira’s unconventional childhood in her paternal grandfather’s Westernized home: The only child of Kamala and Jawaharlal, Indira was nicknamed “Indu-boy” and (like her patrician father) educated abroad. Despite her privileged upbringing, Indira’s early life was far from happy. She anguished over Kamala’s chronic maladies and endured long separations from Jawaharlal, who was imprisoned several times for his participation in Gandhi’s civil-disobedience movement. After Kamala died, Indira defied her family by marrying Feroze Ghandhi (unrelated to Mahatma Ghandhi), who later humiliated her with his clashing politics and infidelities, until he died unexpectedly at the age of 48. Frank chronicles the triumphs and blunders of Indira’s career in a detached voice, but the scandals of her administration—including her Declaration of Emergency, in which she avoided resignation by censuring the media—provide a vivid portrait of the turbulence of Indian politics. The author also suggests that, at certain times during Indira’s leadership, the unscrupulous Sanjay was calling the shots. Although both sons blamed the strains of politics for their father’s death, Rajiv eventually followed in her footsteps, succeeding her after her assassination in 1984.
The intimacy established in Indira’s early years is washed away by snippets of journalism toward the end, leaving this account somewhat unbalanced. Still, this is a rewarding study for Westerners curious about the Nehru dynasty and independent India’s tumultuous political history.