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Insecurities that led to Indira Gandhi falling out with her aunt Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

New Delhi, Feb 24, 2024
The origins of the fragile relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, and her niece, Indira Gandhi, which ended with the aunt becoming one of the fiercest critics of the Emergency (1975-77), has been a mystery for historians.

Pandit’s latest biographer, Manu Bhagavan, a professor of Modern Indian History at Hunter College, New York, untangles the complex relationship, showing how the unravelling had started in the last years of Nehru.

Bhagavan shows how Pandit was rumoured to be the chosen one to succeed the then vice-president, Sarvepalli Radhakrishan, but Nehru, reportedly with his sister’s consent, opted for Zakir Hussain.

Whether or not that was the reason, but the relations between the siblings did get icy and Pandit blamed it on Nehru’s closest aides — V.K. Krishna Menon and M.O. Mathai, his personal secretary.

In a note to Nehru, which she asked him to keep to himself, Pandit wrote: “After a long period of sharing the same wavelength we suddenly ceased to synchronise. … I do not know why this happened, but part of it was certainly due to Krishna Menon and Mac Mathai … .

“Both in their own ways subtly misinterpreted my actions and … deliberately gave you a wrong idea of me and my relationship with our own people. The trust you had in me was damaged.”

Pandit went on to point out that this had been “one of the reasons for my antagonism with Krishna Menon. The other, as I have perhaps told you, is his habit of telling half-truths in order to present only the kind of picture he wishes to get across.”

At this time, Pandit, who had held top positions in the world of diplomacy, including being the first woman to serve as President of the UN General Assembly, was the Governor of Maharashtra.

The tenuous family ties started fraying further after Nehru had a stroke in 1964 and started sinking.

The succession had become a subject of intense speculation, and Pandit, it was rumoured, may get External Affairs, a position that Indira, too, was eyeing. Fearing her father may just agree to giving the plum job to her aunt, Indira was doing her best to make it not happen.

As Bhagavan writes, “It was not long before reports began to emerge that the two women were antagonists and that Indira, taking advantage of her position as her father’s primary nurse and gatekeeper, was going to lengths to prevent her aunt from spending time alone with the ailing prime minister.

Nan, for her part, dismissed such gossip, chalking up her short visits to her brother’s admonition that she should immediately get back to work.”

Nan is what Pandit used to be called lovingly by her family and she was then also leading the Indian delegation to the United Nations.

Nehru passed away on the Buddha Jayanti Day in 1964 and Pandit found herself again at the centre of speculation, especially after she resigned as Governor of Maharashtra. Would Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nehru’s successor, make her a minister in his cabinet?

The question was raging in political circles and it subsided only after the Congress high command gave Pandit the ticket to contest from Nehru’s pocket borough, Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh.

According to Bhagavan, Indira wasn’t keen to contest from Phulpur because she was uncertain about which way the political tide was turning as a result of the perceptible change in the public mood after the China War.

Pandit, however, trumped the opposition and got elected to the Lok Sabha with 60 per cent of the popular vote.

“Nan’s victorious entry into politics sent the press into overdrive. Stories flew in every direction suggesting that she might join Shastri’s Cabinet, that she could become the next Speaker of the House, and even that she potentially could become India’s prime minister in the future,” write Bhagavan.

The biographer continues: “A common thread running through many such narratives involved Nan’s relationship with Indira, which was said to have blossomed into a full-fledged rivalry.

“Nehru’s daughter was then the minister for information and broadcasting. Newspapers wrote that if Nan joined the government, she would immediately outrank her niece, resulting in Indira most likely quitting and going abroad on a diplomatic post.

“So breathless were such reports from wagging tongues that Indira was forced to issue a denial.”

Not content with becoming just another MP, Pandit acquired quite a reputation for not pulling back her punches right after her maiden speech in Parliament, where she spoke passionately about the “demoralisation and decadence and deterioration” that had overtaken the land.

She blasted the normalisation of corruption and said the government had become “prisoners of indecision”.

As if all this plain talk wasn’t enough, Pandit even filed her nomination papers against the party’s high command’s choice for Deputy Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party. She withdrew only after Shastri intervened personally.

Not that Shastri was able to hold her back. In a speech as relevant today as it was when it was first delivered, Pandit said the Congress, to quote Bhagavan paraphrasing her, was growing “increasingly disconnected from the masses it claimed to speak for and could soon find itself with no base of support”.

Echoing earlier observations in the press about backroom dealmaking, she chastised the Congress for not being open to “new blood”.

In the middle of this, Pandit continued to be a roving peacemaker, but peace at home was turning out to be elusive. Indira was getting upset about even small matters such as certain repairs that Pandit had carried out at their ancestral home, Anand Bhawan, in Allahabad (now Prayagraj).

More importantly, Indira seemed to be upset that her aunt was holding on to Phulpur, although, as Bhagavan writes, she “assured her aunt that she was not at all interested in serving in the Lok Sabha in any capacity, feigning disinterest in political life altogether.”

Meanwhile, the Second India-Pakistan War had come to an end, Shastri passed away in Tashkent soon thereafter, and after some political turmoil, Indira became prime minister.

“Things started on the wrong foot when Nan was misquoted as saying that she felt her niece ‘needs experience’ and that she was ‘in very frail health indeed’. The papers repeatedly framed the relationship of the two women as one of competition.

Worse, her critics soon took to calling Indira a ‘prisoner of indecision’, the now famous phrase Nan had used the year before referring to the previous government,” Bhagavan writes.

Elections followed in 1967, Pandit won a second term and Indira got elected from Rae Bareli, but the Congress suffered its first decline in numbers in the Lok Sabha.

And as Bhagavan puts it, “Indira Gandhi in the meantime had not hesitated to send further signals that Nan was now persona non grata.”

Politically, Pandit found herself at odds with Indira within the party, worried at the direction it was taking under her niece’s leadership.

The political ties were snapped finally when at a private meeting between Indira and Pandit, India’s prime minister told her aunt point blank: “Well, Puphi, I don’t really trust you.”

Pandit attended Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Maino’s marriage, but, as Bhagavan puts it, “there was no serious rapprochement between aunt and niece.”

Within months of the marriage, Pandit quit Parliament, saying she felt “out of tune” with what was happening in the government, and she made the “hard decision” to quit public life at the age of 68.

The Emergency was the last nail in the coffin of their relationship. Pandit was livid to find that Indira was having her spied upon and she kept her daughter, the writer Nayantara Sahgal, up-to-date about what was happening in the country.

Sahgal, on her part, was one of the fiercest critics of the Emergency, writing for publications such as ‘New Republic’ and ‘The New York Times’. Pandit, too, chose not to remain a silent chest beater.

In the words of Bhagavan, “… roused to action by her daughter’s bravery, Nan spoke out to a reporter from the ‘Times’, announcing that she was ‘profoundly troubled’ at the direction the Government was taking. ‘If there are no civil liberties and no dissent, then where is the democracy we fought for,’ she demanded to know.

“Then, devastatingly, she added: ‘It is far more repressive today, in many ways, than it was under the British’.”(Agency)

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