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Sanjay Gandhi: the world’s wisest wizard

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-07-2017 Sidin Vadukut

Earlier this week, I got talking with an historian who teaches the history of modern India here in London. I had run into an impasse with a piece of research—on the history of timekeeping in India—and I was eager to think aloud with someone who had decades of experience dealing with clueless students. 

After listening to me patiently, the good professor suggested a few new perspectives to approach the problem from, and a couple of books that I may find useful, including, interestingly, Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent (a novel in which a terrorist plots to destroy the observatory at Greenwich, that of GMT fame).

Once we got that out of the way, we sat down and had a chat about India and Brexit and history and all kinds of other things. Say what you want about the internet. There is nothing like sitting down with someone who knows a lot of stuff and just talking. I highly recommend it.

“You know what is frustrating?” he said at one point. “After all these years, nobody has written a good, scholarly history of the Emergency.” While sociologists have done some work on public perceptions of the Emergency, he said, a big, hairy, audacious history of this turbulent and transformative period in Indian history remains a glaring gap in popular Indian historiography. 

Frequent readers may recall that this lacuna has been raised in these pages before. The Emergency is just one of several periods of modern Indian history that remains underserved in our book stores. The market liberalization of 1991 and the Kargil War are other examples. All events that could easily make for numerous works from numerous perspectives. Works that are essential if one is to make any sense of India in the past, present or future.

A few days after this conversation, I was passing by the British Library when I decided to pop in for a look. What did these guys have on the Emergency, I wondered. And that is how I stumbled upon numerous examples of that fascinating genre: the literature of Sanjay Gandhi sycophancy. I was able to locate three Indian books published during the Emergency.

Dear readers, I have seldom taken greater pleasure in gathering material for this column. 

S. Jagat Singh’s Sanjay Gandhi And Awakening Of Youth Power, published in 1977, starts with these immortal lines: “The entire world is amazed at the spectacular progress made by India in all important areas after the declaration of state of emergency on 25th June 1975. Within the short period, Indian prestige has grown hundredfold in the eyes of foreign countries whether friends or foes. Even those who obnoxiously criticized India on every pretext, have come to realize the importance of this crucial step taken by the Indian Government.”

Jagat Singh, who the title page tells us is the “Winner of International Literary Awards”, goes on to say: “Who will willingly submit to sterilization? Who will like to marry his son without a dowry? Who will waste his working time on keeping his house and his environment neat and clean? The greatness of Shri Sanjay Gandhi lies in the fact that he took up very unpopular programmes and vested them with a roaring popularity by dint of hard work and the force of his personality.”

M.J. Rao’s Youth Resurgence was published in late 1976 by Progressive Writers and Publishers, a company that may have been owned by senior Congress party members (later, V.C. Shukla was linked with the PWP and an associated newspaper, The Hitavada).

“The country had to be saved from subversive elements,” Rao writes. “The proclamation of Emergency thus marked a decisive phase in the country’s history and the beginning of new era of discipline and hard work.” And that, of course, is where Sanjay Gandhi comes in. A man who, Rao says with complete lack of irony, came up life the hard way, first through schooling in Dehradun and then through an apprenticeship in Rolls-Royce. Sanjay is the future: “History has still in its womb the future of this illustrious son of the Nehru family, but the omens are all to the good.”

No such restraint in our third book. Supreme Court advocate Piare Lal Sharma’s 1977 book is titled World’s Wisest Wizard—A Psychography Of Sanjay Gandhi’s Cosmic Mind. This was Sharma’s follow-up to a biography of Indira Gandhi titled World’s Greatest Woman. 

Sharma was no ordinary sycophant.

Sharma starts off by telling us in his author’s note that, “Writing is a natural gift to me and this book is a National Gift to you.” Then after an opening chapter that calls Sanjay Gandhi an “embodiment of arts and sciences”, we move on to a truly spectacular second chapter that imagines a conversation between Indira Gandhi and Feroze Gandhi one night in March 1946. At one point, Feroze thinks to himself about his wife: “How typically she represents her class: My mind is a volcano. Her mind is an unfathomable ocean.” 

Sharma’s masterpiece goes on for another 400 pages or so.

I highly recommend it. Not just because it is utterly bonkers. But also because it tells us how easy it is for governments to convince ostensibly intelligent people to grovel at their feet. Because it tells us how easily shrewd governments can manufacture news and opinion. Sure, the books I picked out at the British Library represent the most outlandish end of the sycophancy spectrum. But let us keep in mind that all over India many other journalists found other less obviously sycophantic ways of perpetuating propaganda. It has happened before. And it could well happen again.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com.

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