Indira Gandhi: A life in Nature

By Jairam Ramesh

Publisher: Simon & Schuster India

Pages: 448

Price: Rs 799

What an impressive book. Extensive research, conversations with people who worked with Indira Gandhi, and review of her own notes…Jairam Ramesh has really done a commendable job on a less-known subject. Indira Gandhi’s lifelong devotion to nature and how it influenced her manifold contributions to wildlife and forest conservation in India. Another way of looking at it, Indira Gandhi’s political life and career, seen from the filter of her commitment to nature.Nevertheless, a political book on a famous politician’s deepest interest, itself so politicized in India subject, written by a practicing politician.

From a childhood affection for birds and pets, and frequent walks in the mountains, to the ceaseless effort at finding ‘ecological balance’ between conservation and development, between growth and ecology, there is nothing contrived about in this life story and Indira Gandhi’s deep commitment to Nature. She fights every big battle on the side of nature: resulting in the Wild Life (Preservation) Act, Project Tiger, and the Forest Conservation Act. She even fights every small battle on the side of nature:for Bharatpur, for Ranebennur, for the Andamans, for Dudhwa, for the stopping on tiger shooting in MP, to save Chilika Lake,for the hangul, the sangai, and the crocodile,…and so many more interventions that give us our priceless natural inheritance.

What is no less stunning is the reconstruction of Indira Gandhi’s personality. There are too many people out there who knew her, and too much material in the public domain with views on her politics, so I will avoid these. I am stunned by the singularity of her personality traits: high intelligence, articulation, clear propensity to command, talent with directing and persuading people (such as commonly seen with those who have ruled), sense of purpose, great memory, inspiring extra-ordinary loyalty from subordinates…like it or not, these are hallmarks of extra-ordinary leadership…

It is very hard from this read to avoid concluding her life was predestined for the assumption of political power. She lived in Teen Murti House from 1950-62. Very little in this book on her married life. It is simply assumed she was to stay at the PM’s house. It is assumed she would support her father, with whom she had a close relationship, and whose company she missed in the 40s, given (principally) his time in jail. It is assumed she would involve herself in Congress politics, so it is no surprise she would head the Party in 1957. Without doubt, she would have to meet Indian and global public figures in Delhi and at the PM’s house.So she is acquainted with all issues and the entire dramatis personae of Indian public life. And she is beloved PM Nehru’s only descendant, blest by Gandhi himself. Charismatic, sophisticated, astute, even partial to nature…what a giant among minnows.

What should such a person do when the first and then the second PM die in office? Retire? Go home? Where?To her beloved Kashmir, Manali, Mussorie, Matheran? Could she actually live there indefinitely, even if any one of them suited her aesthetics for a holiday? Find another relationship? Go abroad? Work and support herself would be out of question. What would she do?

From a childhood affection for birds and pets, and frequent walks in the mountains, to the ceaseless effort at finding ‘ecological balance’ between conservation and development, between growth and ecology, there is nothing contrived about in this life story and Indira Gandhi’s deep commitment to Nature. 

History has provided the only logical answer. Even accepting her monumental contributions to wildlife and forest conservation in India, a read of this book does not change that answer, or disassociate her father.

We must accept people have complex and multi-faceted personalities. Indira Gandhi likely had all the strengths and weaknesses that have been attributed to her. With one clear addition: this unreconstructed love of nature and contribution to its conservation. Point well-made and taken, author. I can go further, with her love of nature in all its variety, Indira Gandhi loved India. In her own way, to rule over indefinitely, uncontested, and unable to share, except with immediate family and clan, but surely this huge uncompromising contributionon conservation over a sustained period of time reflects love and service of India?

I am relieved to be far from the feudal time Indira Gandhi lived in, when so much leadership and contribution was personality-related, when institutions and the execute were routinely made subservient to charismatic leadership, and when it was axiomatic that people would succeed to the positions of their family members. This book brings out this period in our national life (perhaps not intentionally, but it cannot be avoided), and I cannot comment on how much of this reflects that time or Indira Gandhi’s own contribution, never mind the criticism of the rajas. I do hope such a time does not return, as it does not do justice to India’s diverse and aspirational people.Then or now!

After reading this book, I am mystified by one thing: Indira Gandhi was supremely intelligent, well-read, and educated (though in a non-academic way), she had a deep appreciation (yes, even caring) for non-human life, showed great flexibility and open-mindedness to find a balance between development and conservation, and also had an acute sense of history. Why did such attributes not prevent the severe extremes in her political choices?Both history and nature show up the limitations to extreme authority and favor flexibility and balance. Someday, someone will write a book, and explain to us how these conflicting personality traits combine seamlessly in one person.After all, like Nanaji Deshmukh, Indira Gandhi could so easily have retiredto her grand passions. Or not so? Did she feel she was the only person placed to save India from itself? Or was it something worse?

I do not see this book as a cause for celebration for the Congress party, of which Jairam Ramesh is a serving member. If the Congress party celebrates this aspect of Indira Gandhi’s contributions to India, they must answer why they passed the Forest Rights Act in 2006, without debate, safeguards, electorally convenient slips in cutoff dates, hostile and unreconciled to the legislations passed by Indira Gandhi. This was an Act for distributing forest lands for votes. Indira Gandhi, naturalist as nationalist, would have been horrified. This is precisely what she opposed with clarity and strength. For Nature, Indira Gandhi was no Nehruvian. There was no nuance and ambiguity, much less compromise. With very few exceptions, all her directives favored Nature. If you don’t believe me, read this book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *