May 25, 2020
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Objects In The Mirror Are Closer

Neither an ‘official’ history nor a party perspective. Just a hard lens on her rule.

Objects In The Mirror Are Closer
Raghu Rai/Magnum
Objects In The Mirror Are Closer

Five months after imposing the Emergency, Indira Gandhi did a strange thing: she summoned her trusted aide, B.N. Pande, to commission a history of the Indian National Congress from its inception to her own times. What was odd was not Mrs G’s natural anxiety to ensure her place in history, but that she, famous for her intolerance of criticism, insisted it should be no puff job by a party hack. She wanted “an objective and scholarly” history of the party by the country’s leading experts. Neither Indira nor Rajiv Gandhi, who inherited the ambitious history project after her assassination, spared funds and resources to complete the five volumes in time for the Congress centenary in 1985. But it took 36 years before her party finally mustered the courage to finish what she had begun: get the experts to give their verdict on her.

And the verdict is just out—in the party-sponsored A Centenary History of the Indian National Congress, Volume V: 1964-1984, which hit the bookshops last week. Few of the 18 experts commissioned by the party’s editorial board, headed by its seniormost leader, Pranab Mukherjee, have spared the Congress’s leading icon. And it’s not just the three cataclysmic events—the Emergency, Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots that followed her assassination—that the academicians and veteran journalists focus on.

While granting Indira her due, each expert examines a particular aspect of the party or nation’s development where she had a lasting impact. Her failures are certainly not glossed over, but scrutinised with all the scientific rigour Indira herself demanded of her historians: how she ruthlessly cut down her political rivals, thereby weakening the party organisation; how she demolished the party, especially in north India, by centralising and personalising power; how her insecurities led her to not only establish dynastic politics but to demolish institutions and even hamper economic development; how she became a shield for the corrupt; the dubious role her coterie played in fomenting trouble in Punjab; how she crassly encouraged sycophants.

It’s not as if all this is ground-breaking stuff. “It’s academically well-known and has been well-documented,” the volume’s editor, historian Aditya Mukherjee, points out. But for Congressmen who have taught themselves to skirt gingerly around the subject of Indira’s impact on the party—the “three scars”, as Congress leader and convenor of the editorial board, Anand Sharma, delicately puts it—it’s nothing short of heresy. There may be thousands of articles criticising and analysing Indira’s role in historical events, but why give legitimacy to such views by lending the party’s name to the whole exercise, irate partymen demanded to know.

What they didn’t know, however, was that it was Sonia Gandhi’s idea to complete the historical series that her mother-in-law had set in motion. As editorial board chairman Pranab Mukherjee explains in his Preface: “To cover the period of the last 46 years, Congress president Sonia Gandhi thought it appropriate to bring the Congress narrative up to date with the publication of two more volumes covering the period 1964 to 1984 (Volume V) and from then on to 2010 (Volume VI).” And then, with his usual caution, Pranab warns the unprepared reader: “It’s not an official history. Nor is it “a party perspective”. Its aim, he writes, is “to generate an objective and scholarly perspective for the period”.

Family Portrait The book hasn’t spared Sanjay or Indira’s blindness to his faults

In her own Foreword to the volume, Sonia Gandhi explains why she felt this volume on Indira’s years in power needed to be commissioned and published. According to her, it’s not only “our collective tribute to Indira Gandhi”, but also a chance to clear the air and set the record straight. “It was not an easy time nor was it an easy task to step into Nehru’s shoes,” she writes. “Many decisions taken during that period were enveloped in partisan political debate and it is now time to ponder and reflect and to recall the same and preserve it for posterity.”

Unwilling to either read the book or understand its aims, leader after leader in the Congress party began to take potshots at the two senior Congress leaders who lent their name to the volume: Pranab Mukherjee and Anand Sharma. Days after the row within the party was finally quelled by Sonia Gandhi’s statement of approval, one can still see the lively apprehension of trouble in Sharma’s face. He draws my attention to the two disclaimers in the book saying this is not an “official” party history but a work by independent scholars. Further, he points out, all the statements attributed to academic Sudha Pai in the sensational news stories that followed were not really hers, but of others she had quoted.

That said, he’s torn between anxiety and a certain sense of pride. “Is there any other party, even the Left parties, which would agree to get independent historians to write its history?” Sharma asks, answering his own question by saying, “Congress is not a censor board.”

The job of editing such a volume was originally assigned to P.V. Narasimha Rao. The then series editor, B.N. Pande, even laid the ground for the line he probably expected Rao to take. In his 1989 Introduction, which was meant to be common to all the five volumes, Pande dismissed the Emergency in one line: Reacting to her opponents’ attack, “which was simultaneously an attack of the rich and powerful upon the poor and the weak”, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency “whereby the government could invigorate the administration and economy”. Pande also paid due obeisance to Sanjay Gandhi, describing his vibrant role in revitalising the Congress. Not surprisingly, PV balked at the task set to him. He died without a single chapter being commissioned.

But when the project was unexpectedly revived by Sonia, the party decided to approach modern Indian historian Aditya Mukherjee. Unlike PV, he jumped at it. Like others of his generation, Mukherjee, one of the three editors—Bipan Chandra and Mridula Mukherjee are the other two—considers it one of the most prestigious and important history projects of the century. He explains why: “The earlier four volumes have become a part of our historical text—we’ve all used them for research or for teaching. There’s no better or more comprehensive books for anyone interested in the history of the Congress party over the last century. To be part of that series is an honour you can’t turn down.”

The only condition that the historian editors laid down when approached by Pranab Mukherjee to do the project was to have full editorial control of the 650-page volume, including choosing their own contributors. The Congress leader agreed; and kept his word. “Our contributors are no hack historians that they’ll write according to the Congress party’s brief,” explains Aditya Mukherjee. “Each of the 18 contributors in this volume has been chosen for their particular expertise, having published several books already on their subjects.” Aditya himself is the author or co-author of five books on modern Indian history, besides editing Nehru’s Selected Works and the Sage Series in Modern Indian History.

Assassination Aftermath The 1984 riots

Agrees Inder Malhotra, veteran journalist and well-known Indira biographer, who was approached by the editors to write an overview on her. “My views on her are well-known, so the editors knew what they would get.” But Malhotra took the precaution of setting his terms: “No twiddling with the copy—either accept it as it is or drop it.” Malhotra’s long familiarity with his subject hasn’t made him blind to Indira’s flaws. Her cult of personality, the rampant sycophancy she blatantly encouraged, her paranoia and cutting down of potential rivals, her eroding of the democratic institutions her father had so carefully nurtured, her shielding of the corrupt—nothing is glossed over. Perhaps a little to his surprise, his 10,000-word essay was published without a word changed.

Similarly with political studies professor Sudha Pai’s contribution. Pai is regarded in academic circles as the leading scholar on politics in Uttar Pradesh, and has published several books in her field. For her, the invitation to contribute to the Congress history volume was a challenge she couldn’t turn down. She went at it like any other academic paper she has done before: with an academician’s rigour and a researcher’s objectivity. Mrs G’s “autocratic control over the party” and the impact it had in the states, especially UP: the collapse of state party machinery, the hacking down of party leaders and foisting her own candidates as party functionaries and chief ministers, the constant intervention in state politics and the disasters it caused, including Operation Blue Star in Punjab, and the space she inadvertently created by her ‘sense of personal insecurity’ for other parties to rise.

It was hardly original stuff; and Pai makes no claims to originality, citing in her essay countless political studies that had documented the decay of the Congress over the two decades and the reasons behind it. As far as she was concerned, this was just another academic exercise, passed for publication after being critiqued by her peers, in the best scholarly tradition. Her editors had no problem with it, nor apparently the Congress leaders whose job it was to clear it for publication in a volume that not even the editors dreamt would ever break out of obscurity. But to Pai’s acute surprise and even embarrassment, her essay instantly created a controversy, fuelled by incensed Congressmen in Uttar Pradesh who saw a plot to malign their beloved leader.

So does this mean that the next and final volume, which is to bring the party’s history up to current times, will proceed as scheduled? “Yes, we are committed to it,” Sharma responds bravely. Never before has a party-commissioned history been so eagerly awaited—and dreaded.


“After her rise to supremacy ...a courtier culture grew fast and spawned rampant sycophancy.... It was a surprise that someone of her sophistication...could tolerate the crudest flattery as each of the competing courtiers tried to outdo each other to catch the benign attention of the sole dispenser of patronage. Backbiting, backstabbing and intrigue became the order of the day.”

Inder Malhotra

“The High Command felt that a robust party machine in UP would be more difficult to manipulate and consequently made no effort to resurrect the apparatus after it was repeatedly damaged in the late 1960s due to the split and then the Emergency in 1975-1977. Mrs Gandhi seemed to believe that her control over the party units in the states was more important than a healthy state party that could reach down, absorb, and be responsive to the people.”

Sudha Pai

“Having emasculated the Congress...and having no other organisation to rely upon, Mrs Gandhi and the central and state governments depended almost entirely on the bureaucracy and the police ...for routine administration of the 20-Point and family planning programmes.”

Bipan Chandra

“Her inclination to constantly intervene in state politics...was responsible to a great extent for Operation Blue Star.”

Sudha Pai

“Both the JP Movement and Mrs Gandhi were at fault.... JP made an attempt, however well-intentioned, to change the government through an extra-parliamentary and extra-constitutional movement. Mrs Gandhi, faced with the Hobson’s choice of total surrender or fight to the finish, responded with an authoritarian regime....

Sanjay wielded immense extra-constitutional power, both in government and the party, through a coterie that came up around him. Mrs Gandhi had no worthwhile political organisation to implement the Emergency and its programmes—the Congress was neither equipped to perform the task nor did she and Sanjay trust the average Congressman who remained a mere spectator...the Youth Congress began to be built up as a rival centre of power.... Sanjay was right-wing, anti-communist and authoritarian in outlook....

What is why someone as sensitive, imaginative and politically shrewd as Mrs Gandhi failed to perceive the gravity of the situation and did not provide a healing touch, especially when the poor, her major political power base, were being alienated the Sanjay factor.”

Bipan Chandra

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