Mother India is the fascinating story of independent India’s most complex political figure: Indira
Gandhi, the enigmatic and solitary daughter of the country’s first prime minister, who rose to become
prime minister herself. From being the reticent Indu in the Nehru family she became one of the great
leaders of the twentieth century. Pranaty Gupte explores the life and times of ‘Mrs G’, who at the
height of her career was often compared to Bharat Mata-Mother India. Her ‘Garibi Hatao’ call and
her efforts at bringing about a Green Revolution endeared her to the electorate, but controversy and
criticism, too, marked her years in and out of office. From the time she engineered a split in the
Congress Party to emerge as its undisputed leader in the 1960s, through the triumphal aftermath of
the 1971 war, the infamous Emergency, right up to Operation Bluestar which led to h her brutal
assassination on 31 October 1984, Mrs Gandhi’s legacy is still being determined.
This comprehensive biography, reissued in a revised edition on Indira Gandhi’s
twenty-fifth death anniversary, not only explores her career and contradiction as a consummate
politician, but also her relationships as daughter, wife and mother. Packed with lively anecdotes and
cogent insights, this book is both a compelling portrait of Indira Gandhi and a trenchant analysis of
the politics of twentieth-centuries India.
PRANAY GUPTE is a veteran journalist, author and columnist. He has been a
correspondent for the New York Times in Africa, the Middle East and India, as well as an
investigative reporter for Forbes and a columnist for Newsweek International. His articles have
appeared in major publications globally, including the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic,
Reader’s Digest, Harvard International Review and the Washington Post Book Review. He is
frequently a guest commentatory on TV and radio programmes on CNN, National Public Radio and
the BBC and is an elected life member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Mr. Gupte, born in Mumbai, is a US national who lives in New York, Dubai and
THERE’S A MAJOR square in South Mumbai—a busy intersection, really—that mirrors the open,
secular and trusting society that India has always been.
In and around the square, there are small haberdasheries run by Hindus and groceries owned by
Muslims; there’s a Parsi fire temple; there’s a Catholic church; there’s a theatre that exhibits brash
foreign films, and another one that features Bollywood fare. There are tiny eateries that offer
everything from samosas to sandwiches. There are cobblers parked on pavements; there are tailors
perched on the patios of dilapidated but crowded tenements, and there are bookstores and magazine
This square, like many others across this metropolis of nearly 20 million people, is a microcosm of
Mumbai, India’s commercial capital and its most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse city. I like to
think that this square is Mumbai’s crossroads; I even like to think that this square is India’s
I like to think these things not only because the square—called ‘chowk’ in the Marathi language
that’s widely spoken in Mumbai——is named after my late mother, Professor Charusheela Gupte.
She was a Marathi and Sanskrit scholar, a writer and a social activist who championed the cause of
literacy and economic opportunities for the dispossessed. During her lifetime, she witnessed the
transformation of India from a colony of the British Raj to an independent democracy. She spoke up
for people who neither had the voice in public discourse, nor even the opportunity to advance
beyond subsistence. She spoke from her heart because she herself had risen from poverty to reach
the highest levels of intellectual and social attainment.
My mother is long gone now——she died in 1985, almost exactly a year after Indira Gandhi’s
assassination—but I like to think that the square named in her honour still resonates with the spirit
that animated her life—the spirit of openness, secularism and trust that resides in the hearts of most
Indians, regardless of their faith or ethnicity. This belief, however, has been tested severely in recent
The square that’s named after Charusheela Gupte is not very far from the parts of Mumbai where
Pakistan—trained terrorists killed innocent men and women and shut down the city in November
2008. My mother and my late father, Balkrishna Gupte, would have never anticipated that terrorism
would strike the old and hauntingly beautiful city they loved. But the world we live in is more
terrifying and more unforgiving than the one my parents inhabited. Since the early 1990s, Mumbai
and indeed India have been shaken repeatedly by terrorist attacks.
It is not that communalism, ethnic friction and violence were nonexistent during my parents’ lifetime.
But the global clash of civilizations, the politics of hate and the cynicism and venom that are
concomitant today simply didn’t exist in the world that they knew. The age of confrontation is here
now, perhaps irreversibly so.
My parents, like many idealists and leaders of their time, believed that while people may have been
born to different cultures, they were joined by the bonds of the soul, and that there was space in our
world for everyone. Indira Gandhi belonged to a dynasty that subscribed to such a belief. But,
ironically, her own reign as India’s leading political figure was also the time when the old certainties
and idealism began to fade. She died before the age of terrorism as we know it now had really
bloomed—as though that were the word to use—but there are those who argue that her
rule—by—diktat and her political intolerance spawned terrorism in India.
Be that as it may, when I first set out to write a political biography of Indira, roughly two decades
ago, the sort of terrorism that afflicts so much of the world was still nascent. I wanted to write an
unconventional book about Indira Gandhi—part biography, part personal history of the author and
part political assessment of contemporary India as it lurched into the next century.
That new century has arrived, and 31 October 2009 will mark the twenty—fifth anniversary of the
assassination of Indira Gandhi. In this revised edition that will be released on the occasion, I have
introduced dozens of Indians whose lives were directly touched by Indira Gandhi, for better or for
worse, people in leadership positions as well as from everyday walks of life. Rajiv Gandhi, who
succeeded his mother as India’s prime minister in 1984 and who was assassinated on 21 May 1991,
appears here, too. Although Rajiv was nowhere near the major figure that Indira was, his death
removed from the Indian political scene a genuine national leader who could have sustained the
Nehru—Gandhi political dynasty well into the twenty-first century.
That dynasty has dominated India’s national life—and consciousness— for much of an extraordinary
century, almost from the start of the twentieth century. Now the standard bearers of the
Nehru—Gandhi dynasty are Rajiv’s Italian-born widow, Sonia, and her son Rahul and daughter
Priyanka, arguably the most powerful triumvirate in contemporary India. Both Rahul and Priyanka
were very young when Indira was killed, but Sonia was close to Indira—far closer than the other
daughter-in—law in the family, Maneka Gandhi, who was married to Indira’s younger son Sanjay.
Maneka had a falling out with Indira after Sanjay’s death in a flying accident, and she and Sonia are
barely on speaking terms. There’s always drama in India, in families and in the polity.
This book is based partly on my reportage for previous works relating to India, where I was born
and raised. It owes its provenance to those earlier books, of course, and therefore represents a
continuum. Much of the material here, however, draws on fresh reporting and analysis in India, the
United States and the West, and the Third World at large. The story of India is one of continuity yet
change, and I have tried to record this in the book. I might add that recent developments in the
subcontinent—such as the emergence of India as an economic superpower—have been so dramatic
that any author attempting to keep abreast of these changes is left dazed, dazzled, and sometimes
This book is intended for general readers who wish to learn something of the contemporary history
of the Indian subcontinent. It will be obvious to India specialists that a lot of what I have to say on
Indira Gandhi and on India is based on the research of others. I have tried to relay the key facts, and
to interpret them, often in the light of what others have written. Indira Gandhi’s life covered such a
huge span of modern Indian history that any biographer is forced to be highly selective about which
events to include and highlight. Beyond the story of Indira Gandhi’s life, I have dealt extensively with
topics such as population growth and non-alignment, because Mrs. Gandhi took great interest in
them (although her policies were not necessarily successful). And I deal with the political acrobatics
of her son and successor, Rajiv. Much popular hope was invested in him following Indira’s death,
but he botched an unprecedented opportunity to get India moving again by not following through
with sufficient vigour on his pledges of rapid economic development and clean government. And now
that he is gone, the victim of a bomb blast during an election rally, we will never know what sort of
prime minister Rajiv Gandhi would have made had Indians returned the Congress Party to power
under his stewardship.
The Congress, of course, has held on to power during many of the years following Rajiv’s
assassination in May 1991. As in Indira’s time, it continues to be an umbrella party, but unlike in
Indira’s era, it is a
fractured organization. It is often held hostage in the national Parliament—
and even in some of India’s states——by vested interests and other political
parties desirous of making opportunistic alliances. Sonia may be a strong
leader, even an obstinate one, but she isn’t a fearsome figure like her
mother-in-law was. Indira Gandhi was sui generis, and we will never
again see the like of her. That’s what this book is about.
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