The most unusual aspect of India's political system has been the emergence of a political leadership, through the electoral process, committed to safeguarding the liberties of a people who, historically, have been unable to defend free institutions for themselves.
Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, India's first prime minister after withdrawal of British rule, could easily have opted for dictatorship. But it is well known that he rejected the idea, believing that Indians needed desperately to nurture the fundamental human aspirations of free expression and dignity, even at the expense of political efficiency and rapid industrial development. The Congress Party, which he headed, was the only liberation movement in Asia to convert itself successively into a political party and provide a stable government in the post-independence era. As a democratic organization, the party's structure was carefully composed to reflect and integrate monumental regional diversities in culture, language, and religion.
Under Indira Gandhi's premiership, however, there has been a major break with the whole texture of the Congress past, and, in the process, Indian politics and the working of Indian institutions have been fundamentally altered.
These two books articulate differing versions of the authoritarian swing in Indian political leadership. Nayantara Sahgal, a scholar, novelist, and first cousin to Mrs. Gandhi, has made an important contribution to our understanding of the prime minister's personality and its interplay with the dynamics of Indian political life. Although a prejudiced observer by virtue of her close family connection, Mrs. Sahgal enters her disclaimer in the preface and pleads her right to intelligent observation and careful research.
Premised on an intense commitment to democratic values, Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power examines the evolution of Mrs. Gandhi's personality, style, and leadership in the context of India's political traditions. It also analyzes the conscious dismantling of the representativeness and effectiveness of the Congress Party as a people's voice; the dilution of parliamentary democracy by frequent imposition of President's Rule (which Mrs. Gandhi is now working hard to institutionalize); and the steady erosion of constitutional government. The study is well documented.
The book covers the period from Mrs. Gandhi's emergence from her father's shadow in 1964 to her creation of a one-leader, one-party state and her attempts to forge a political dynasty, first with her son Sanjay and now her elder son Rajiv. We are also offered a portrait of her childhood and adolescence carefully constructed through Nehru's personal letters. It is in this period, the author argues, that the rudiments of insecurity, an inflated sense of indispensability, and an isolated aloofness seem to have taken root in the subject's character. These elements are traced through her adulthood and political career to find a logical terminus in her perception of enemies in the democratic process (a system of shared, interdependent power, an anathema to the prime minister) and her efforts, illegally when necessary, to consolidate and perpetuate her power and that of her family.
The tragedy, Mrs. Sahgal argues, is that the Indians have a leader ''whose childhood, education, and family tradition provided her with unusual opportunities for training in democratic ideals, yet whose own temperament has never felt entirely comfortable with this inheritance.''
Regarding the infamous Emergency rule of 1975 to '77, when civil liberties were suspended, the author demonstrates how the prevalence of paramilitary forces, a dreaded secret police, bureaucratic abuses, and widespread corruption created a sort of Indian fascism with a radical face, which continues today through the reinstatement of arbitrary arrests and in the denuding of the art of administration and the normal legislative process.
Yet, writes Mrs. Sahgal, Indira Gandhi yearns for a democratic image and can, in the midst of jailing thousands without charge or trial, repeat calmly and convincedly, ''I am a democrat.'' It's all part of India's British connection, says the author. Democracy was the heart and soul, the symbol of India's struggle for freedom and the fundamental philosophy of the present Prime Minister's father.
Readers are offered a thorough chronology of the Sanjay Gandhi phenomenon. His brief, intense, and controversial political career and his abuses of power and position are placed within the larger context of his mother's blind indulgence and the social and economic conditions of the time. Indira Gandhi's current dependence on religion and astrology after having declared herself earlier as an enlightened agnostic, is seen as a consequence of Sanjay's death in a plane crash in 1980.
While the book possesses great organization and clarity of style, its frame of reference is not entirely objective. The author is a strong champion of democracy, believing that there should be more, not less, of it in India, and that ultimately the book is really a defense of the original structure of the Congress Party and its adopted goals. These premises provide an added dimension to the book's concluding opinion, in the light of Rajiv Gandhi's June 1981 election to Parliament. Mrs. Sahgal concludes: ''Idea of family succession as a birthright, tragic and retrograde for a republic, will provide an ironic ending to a heroic experiment in democracy unique in Asia.'' For if Mrs. Gandhi succeeds in passing the reins to Rajiv, India will have a three-generation ruling dynasty within its democratic system going back to Nehru.
The tendency to political ambivalence in Mrs. Gandhi's style, the gap between ideological yearning and practice, is clearly silhouetted in Indira Gandhi: My Truth. Emmanuel Pouchpadass, a friend, has presented her with a set of carefully worded, inoffensive questions which stimulate her to describe her childhood, justify her political actions, and formulate her political philosophy. Mr. Pouchpadass provides no critical appraisal of Mrs. Gandhi's responses, and the book is thus a very personal defense of her consolidation of political power.
Concentrating only on her achievements, real or exaggerated, Indira Gandhi offers us a very exalted portrait of herself, almost as if she had been singled out amid the incompetence and limitations of ordinary men and women to provide enlightened executiveship.
Readers, however, will be interested in her rationalization for the gradual dismantling of consititutional government and reverting power for all decisionmaking (from approving plans for public statues to dealing with language riots) to the office of the prime minister. It appears Mrs. Gandhi seeks a very delicate balance between parliamentary democracy and dictatorship in light of the ''illiteracy and ignorance'' of the majority of voters in her country.
If she succeeds in the marriage of these two political systems, generally thought to be incompatible, she will have disproved every major political theory in this century.