A deeply researched biography of a man who has been systematically obliterated from history by the Nehru-Gandhi clan.
In modern times, at least during the period for which reasonably reliable records are available, ruling oligarchies and elites worldwide have proved themselves very adept at erasing inconvenient and embarrassing facts and figures from official records and archives. In the first half of the 20th century, the past masters of these sleights of hand were the British (with their huge empire), the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
As the world political order changed, and both Pax Britannica and the Third Reich disappeared into oblivion, the two specialists of disinformation and data manipulation were the Americans and the Soviets. China was never quite in the same league as the two big brothers.
On a smaller scale, there were others who had learnt these tricks from their tutors in the Western hemisphere. In our part of the world, the true institutional inheritor of this craft was the Congress Party and its guiding spirits after independence, the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Some analysts would say that the latter cabal should aptly be referred to as the Gandhi-Nehru-Gandhi coterie, since Jawaharlal Nehru (JLN) had learnt his statecraft from the original supremo of the clan, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (MKG).
MKG, for all his spiritual and otherworldly posturing, was a ruthless political operator, who would stoop to any level to get rid of anyone whom he considered his direct rival or a threat to his anointed favourites, among whom was JLN at the very top. It is evident that JLN was deeply influenced by his mentor in every respect, and, in turn, he passed on his political DNA to his daughter Indira (IG).
As a result, what we have seen from the late 1950s onwards is the complete obliteration of one Gandhi from the Congress party’s psyche and history, and the national consciousness and official documents. This is IG’s husband, Feroze, the subject of Swedish journalist Bertil Falk’s admirable biography. To put things in perspective, in his brief lifespan of 48 years, Feroze achieved what few Indians in public life, primarily in politics, have managed to do.
He became an MP in 1956, and two years later, risked his career and his son-in-law status when he took on JLN and the entire Congress High Command by exposing the LIC scandal in which Haridas Mundhra, the notorious Calcutta business magnate, was the kingpin. The most prominent person who had to confront the broadsides fired by Feroze was Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari (TTK), a great favourite of JLN. The Finance Secretary at that time, H.M. Patel, too, faced the music.
The debates in Parliament on the LIC-Mundhra scandal, in which Feroze was the star participant, compelled JLN in early 1958 to appoint the Chagla Commission to investigate the matter. Justice M.C. Chagla, a towering jurist, concluded that the accusations levelled by Feroze against TTK were justified. TTK had to resign. JLN, who had earlier labelled his son-in-law as “a bloody liar”, never forgave Feroze for this.
True to his DNA, JLN wrote to TTK: “Despite the clear finding of the Commission so far as you are concerned, I am most convinced that your part in this matter was the smallest and that you did not even know what was done.” The country’s prime minister was dismissing the findings of a judicial commission set up by his own government, and backing his own man. History should judge JLN for this grievous violation of ethics.
Young Feroze’s exposure of Mundhra’s shenanigans and TTK’s complicity in the crimes continued to have a series of repercussions after the initial shockwave. It led to the appointment of the Justice Vivian Bose Commission and a number of changes in Indian corporate law and regulations. In many ways, these were baby steps in the eventual attempts to bring in transparency and good corporate governance in India a few decades later.
Like all whistleblowers, Feroze had to pay a price. In his case, it was very heavy. In Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, China and in some other climes, he would have been physically eliminated. The Nehru-Gandhi clan had learnt from the British to be more sophisticated and wily, and possibly more effective. Their system ensured that Feroze’s status in the first family changed irrevocably. He was relegated to the Congress backbenches and JLN, along with his cronies, ensured that Feroze would always continue to be an outsider in the party hierarchy. From the fast track, where everyone predicted a glorious political career for him, he was consigned to the also-ran category.
There are examples galore in Falk’s book of how the son-in-law was studiously sidelined and occasionally slighted.
When the Soviet leaders Bulganin and Khrushchev visited India in 1956, IG accompanied JLN to the public meeting in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, while Feroze was denied admission. He blew his top later in Parliament and extracted a semi-apology from JLN. At a public function where JLN was chiding Congress members for bringing their wives and children along, Feroze loudly commented that he, for one, had not brought along his wife. IG was sitting with JLN in the front row.
Falk’s research is conscientious and painstaking. He looks at written sources of course, but he has supplemented this with personal meetings and discussions with many friends, admirers, critics and opponents of his protagonist. He even had a detailed interview with IG herself. As a result, this is a balanced approach, far from either a hagiography or a hatchet job.
Feroze’s public life between 1958, after the Mundhra-TTK episode, and his death in 1960 was eventful, if not very fruitful. Falk shows that he enjoyed the company of his two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, and even doted on them. The boys, in turn, were clearly fond of their father. It must have been a traumatic experience for the young boys to spend most of their time with their mother and grandfather in the majestic Teen Murti House, and the balance with Feroze who lived separately in a bungalow on Queen Victoria Road (now Rajendra Prasad Marg).
Falk quotes Amitabh Bachchan, Rajiv’s lifelong friend that the boys loved it when Feroze helped them with repairing and maintaining mechanical and electrical gadgets of all types.
Feroze himself was ambivalent about his son-in-law status. He refused to move into Teen Murti House, maintaining that he wanted to develop his own personality, out of JLN’s shadow, and be independent in Parliament. Occasionally, he would lament that he was nothing apart from being the son-in-law.
Falk has included delightful vignettes about Feroze in different avatars and at different stages of his life. Therein lies the charm of the book, as well as its drawback.
Falk cannot seem to make up his mind about the basic structure of his work. Should it be a serious socio-political assessment of a very interesting and charismatic public figure, who was also a bit of a gadfly? Or should it be a general work, for the lay reader, with emphasis on personal recollections and innumerable snippets of memorabilia? In many parts, the book is heavily anecdotal, but it also has a number of segments of dedicated research and analysis.
Finally, Falk reminds us of certain important matters. On the complicated and sensitive subject of how Feroze and IG related to each other, he quotes IG telling the late poet Dom Moraes: “I do not like Feroze, but I love him.” Clearly, this disclosure requires much more study.
What is not questionable is the description of Feroze as a person who was an Indian at heart but related seamlessly to universal culture. He loved the Gita, effortlessly recited shlokas in Sanskrit and Hindi, and also taught his wife to appreciate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
In death, Feroze opted to be treated as a Hindu. He was cremated at Nigambodh Ghat in Delhi and his ashes immersed in the Sangam at Allahabad. Yet, his Parsi ancestry was not forgotten. His family received a portion of his ashes which were duly buried in the Parsi cemetery in Allahabad and the rest were buried in the ancestral cemetery in Surat.
His Allahabad gravestone has the following epitaph: “He is not dead who lifts Thy glorious mind on high; to live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” Falk reconciles the decision to have both Hindu and Parsi ceremonies for Feroze in an eloquent and moving passage as a “secular reunion for a passing moment of two separated branches of a common Indo-European religious tree”. After all, fire is deified as Agni in the Vedas and is also “a holy symbol burning on the altars in the Fire Temples of the followers of Zoroaster”. This passage should be made compulsory reading for some of our über-secularists who have such disdain for our ancient Indic culture.
On another key issue that is vitally important in a book like this, Falk is crystal clear. Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose the Emergency was a betrayal of democracy and a betrayal of her late husband.