Five Books You Need To Read To Understand The Gandhi Family And Congress

Ram Guha laments in his magnificent – “India After Gandhi” that any history after Independence is seen as ‘sociology’ or ‘political science’ by Indian historians, which clearly is a fallacy. All history is history. Since the Congress (and by extension: the Gandhi family) ruled India for most of its post-independence years, it is but natural that most of post-independence history chronicles the rise and fall of the Grand Old Party. In my travels through Indian history, I came across the following five gems that helped me make better sense of our country under the Congress party. Read all of them – they are all pacy thriller-like reads – to understand the party’s descent from Jawaharlal to Rahul.

In chronological order, as the events in these books occurred…

Emergency Retold by Kuldip Nayar

‘Emergency Retold’ captures the India of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency years (’75-’77) when democracy was suspended in India, with very little logic other than saving Indira Gandhi’s Prime Minister-ship. This was the beginning of the end – the seeds of ‘family over party, party over nation’ were sown in 1975. I loved Nayar’s ‘Emergency Retold’. Except for certain parts where Nayar lends voice to lengthy diatribes by leaders against the Emergency, the narrative is taut and thriller-like. If you think the Congress leaders of today are sycophantic (towards Rahul), read ‘Emergency Retold’. The Indira/ Sanjay combine killed the spirit of the Congress to such an extent that sycophancy became the norm as opposed to the exception. 

The Sanjay Story by Vinod Mehta

  ‘The Sanjay Story’ coincides with ‘Emergency Retold’ to tell the story of Sanjay Gandhi’s ascent; and then goes on to his death. Frank and fearless, Vinod Mehta tells the story of Sanjay Gandhi the way it was. With all his thievery, the formulae of corruption the young Gandhi scion divined to milk Maruti (and fill the Gandhi family’s personal coffers), etc. Sanjay Gandhi’s life is laid bare as it deserved. But the book is essential reading not just for the way it tears up the facade around Sanjay but the similarities between the Congress of the 80’s and the Congress of the day. Mehta chronicles how several senior Congress stalwarts were forced to bow before Sanjay just as Congress’s yes-men do today before Rahul Gandhi. Similar to Rahul, Sanjay was drummed up as a youth icon with guidelines and diktats issued to Doordarshan’s senior officials to ensure that Sanjay’s visits made up a significant chunk of the news. What’s more, the best part of the book is where one of Sanjay’s interviews is chronicled, almost word for word. Read the interview and the absolute lack of foresight or vision, the one line answers, the ‘I don’t know’s can only remind you of one man in the present generation.

Amritsar by Mark Tully and Satish Jacob

Amritsar‘ chronicles the gigantic mess Congress made of handling the Punjab insurgency in the 80’s. Mark Tully and Satish Jacob take the reader behind the facade of the players and play-makers in the great Punjab game. Tully/ Jacob lay bare the machinations behind the Bhindrawale movement – making crucial revelations such as the Congress and Akali hand in creating the monster, culminating in Bluestar. ‘Amritsar…‘ is a thriller from start to finish; Tully/ Jacob keep the narrative taut from the start – the discord in Punjab, to finish – the vengeance of Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards. 

When a Tree Shook Delhi by Manoj Mitta and H. S. Phoolka

‘When a Tree Shook Delhi’ starts with Indira Gandhi dying in AIIMS in 1984 (having been shot by her Sikh bodyguards) and President Jarnail Singh being attacked by a mob outside the hospital, with the impotent police watching. The title is from Rajiv Gandhi’s speech justifying the riots (“When a big tree falls, the earth shakes,” said Mr. Gandhi of the riots). A page-turning thriller on the lines of Mark Tully’s ‘Amritsar’, the book exposes the police and political network attached to the Congress government of the day. The first half of the book is Mitta’s journalistic account of the riots while the second half is an autobiographical account of the riots through Phoolka’s eyes. Both are excellent though I enjoyed Phoolka’s half better. 

The Accidental Prime Minister by Sanjaya Baru

What makes ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ most interesting is that it is a fly on the wall account of Manmohan Singh’s Prime Ministership. The author, Sanjaya Baru, quit the PMO before UPA 2 began; so the account is of the relatively rosier times of UPA 1. However, the book helps one understand where the skeletons that came out in UPA 2 originated. Baru writes quite frankly about the politics of the PMO – the power struggles between PMO officials – and also reveals Sonia Gandhi’s attempts to pseudo-run the government through the National Advisory Council. What strikes one most when reading the account is that Manmohan was actually a brilliant tactician but what dragged him down was an inherent inability to speak effectively in public. His ability to swing the 123 Nuclear Deal with the US and the elaborately intricate maneuvers he resorted to in pushing the deal through, do help one absolve Manmohan of the stains he had suggested history would do for him. The book needs to be read to understand the history of UPA I and how it let our nation down.