WHEN THE VETERAN JOURNALIST Inder Malhotra’s biography of Indira Gandhi was published in 1989, his subject had been dead for about five years. But the rancour she roused in her very many opponents remained as bitter as ever—made worse, if anything, by the misdeeds and shenanigans of her son and political heir, Rajiv Gandhi. In consequence, Malhotra’s biography—described by The Economist as critical but also objective and fair—was panned in India. Critics took umbrage at the fact that anyone could presume to present a balanced portrait of Gandhi. Even Malhotra’s friends told him off, he writes in a recent, updated edition of his book, for going “soft” on “the woman that had practically destroyed Indian democracy and done the country incalculable damage that could not be undone.”
Despite the unremitting hostility of much of the intelligentsia and commentariat, Malhotra wryly notes, Gandhi has remained an icon for the masses. Her memorial in Lutyens’ Delhi continues to draw throngs of visitors from across the country every day. Opinion polls regularly rank her the best prime minister the country has ever had. In 2012, Malhotra was part of an elaborate exercise, undertaken by two television channels, to identify the “greatest Indian after Mahatma Gandhi.” A distinguished jury prepared long and short lists, and massive marketing-style surveys and online voting gauged popular opinion. Eventually, BR Ambedkar topped the popular vote, while the jury chose Jawaharlal Nehru. Malhotra was, however, struck by the fact that “in every list of the top ten greats, irrespective of whoever prepared them, Indira Gandhi’s name was not only included but also in each one of them it was a few notches above that of her illustrious father.”
According to Malhotra, Gandhi’s posthumous popularity lies in her unflinching focus on India’s security and national interests throughout her rule. The second United Progressive Alliance government’s “pusillanimous” stance towards China and Pakistan, among other things, burnished Gandhi’s image: “people at large consider Indira ‘the strongest and most decisive’ prime minister India has had and yearn for a leader like her.” Malhotra wrote these words before the general election of 2014. Presciently, he pointed out that Narendra Modi was best positioned to present himself as such a figure.