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  • Indira: Durga with a sense of humour

    Posted On August 13, 2017

    By Karan Thapar

    It’s a feliticious coincidence that this year marks both the seventieth anniversary of India’s independence as well as the centenary of Indira Gandhi’s birth. Polls suggest she is the prime minister most Indians regard as the best we’ve had. And certainly in the seven decades since independence her 16 years in office saw both the acme of India’s achievement – the Bangladesh victory – as well as the country’s nadir and shame – the Emergency. She was the critical factor in both.

    Today, when many believe that Narendra Modi’s strengths and weaknesses bear resemblance to those of Indira Gandhi, its worth recalling how different her public persona was to the private individual. This is why she can, with accuracy, be thought of as a political monster but also a delightful personality. It’s possible this could be true of our present Prime Minister.

    The Indira Gandhi most people remember is the political virago who decimated the syndicate, defeated Pakistan, stood up to America, appointed chief ministers at will, damaged institutions and imposed the Emergency. This was the forbidding side of her. It led Atal Bihari Vajpayee to call her Durga and the western media The Empress of India.

    The private Indira Gandhi was surprisingly different. She was petite, with delicate almost fragile hands. Her letters to Dorothy Noroman reveal a troubled personality struggling between the political demands on her life and her inner wish for solitude and quiet contemplation.

    In a recent fascinating book, Jairam Ramesh reveals her involvement with nature. She loved animals, was extremely knowledgeable about trees and felt most at ease holidaying in the mountains. The survival of the Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur and the Conservation of the Indian Tiger would probably never have happened without her.

    Indira Gandhi also had an impish sense of fun. In the 60s, when deference and formality still determined our lives, she would organize treasure hunts for her children’s friends’ parties. The clues were innocently naughty. They included fish bones from Alps, then a restaurant in Janpath, and a policeman’s helmet. No one at the time knew that the architect of this harmless mischief was Indira Gandhi.

    In 1976, at the height of the Emergency, when her power was unchallenged, I recall a breakfast at Safdarjung Road before she took me and my sisters to see one of the pink panther films at Rashtrapati Bhavan. When it was time for a quick pee before leaving for the cinema, my sister Premila asked her how she managed on her travels. I’ll never forget her reply.

    “It’s a dreadful problem for every woman politician. Unlike men, we can’t go behind a tree! So I drink all the water I need last thing at night in the hope it’s out of the system by the morning.”

    Indira Gandhi also had a dry and subtle sense of humour. Speaking to Peter Ustinov about the appalling state of the Indian telephone system she said: “They call it cross-bar but I think they mean cross-wire.” At the time, that said it all.

    Inevitably, Indira, the individual, is either not known or forgotten. The myth, on the other hand, lives on. I suspect something similar could be true of Narendra Modi.

    Of course, the private person doesn’t excuse the public politician and history will judge both people by their behaviour in office. But there’s always another side, even if only friends and relatives remember it. But then you could also say Caligula loved horses and Nero had a ear for music…


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