INDIA, the world's largest democracy, and the United
States, the most powerful, share deep and abiding values that override any temporary difficulties in their relations. Their peoples are warm, open and friendly, carefully nurturing their shared democratic principles. Each has overcome a recent traumatic test of its democratic institutions, the United States its Watergate, India its "Emergency."
These are favorite themes of Indian diplomats, and we likely will be hearing them often in connection with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's visit to the United States, scheduled for the coming week. Gandhi herself no doubt will sugar her remarks with constant references to India's democratic principles, as she did in the recent extraordinarily adulatory profile carried by PBS.
The Watergate-Emergency analogy will be cited as proof beyond any doubt that the political destiny of the two countries is shared. Richard Nixon transgressed even the gray area of acceptable political behavior and removed himself from office before the representatives of the people could remove him. Indira Gandhi, citing a grave threat to India's fragile cohesion in June 1975, turned to provisions of the constitution allowing an abrogation of parliamentary rule and took over full power in what became known as the "Emergency." The exercise of those powers soon turned into an orgy of jailings, beatings, forced sterilizations and draconian "slum" clearance projects. When she called elections for March 1977, she and her party were soundly defeated.
There is at least one striking difference, however. Richard Nixon continues to wander in the political wilderness; Indira Gandhi and her Congress-I (for Indira) Party have made a resounding comeback and she now enjoys greater power than ever. The story of her actions during the period of Emergency rule, her overwhelming political defeat and her subsequent return to power say much about the relative durability of political institutions and political personalities in India. It is a story the telling of which has been taken on by Ved Mehta, an Indian by birth but now a naturalized American whose writings are known to many through his articles in The New Yorker and earlier biographies, novels and books on history and philosophy, many on Indian themes.
A Family Affair is the sequel to Mehta's The New India. Where the earlier volume traced the period of emergency rule, A Family Affair for the most part is a chronicle of the hapless effort of the Janata (People's) Party to develop a viable replacement for three decades of Congress Party rule, identified, with brief exception, with the Nehru family. It is the story of the attempt to mix a bunch of old revolutionaries, political also-rans and Young Turks, only to see each element in the mix slowly separate, much like very different brothers going their own way after arguing over their late parents' legacy. There is even an intriguing sub- plot in which attempts were made to equate the relationship of Prime Minister Morarji Desai to his son Kantilal with that of Sanjay Gandhi to his mother.
Mehta walks through these two troubled years with vignettes of political history and political theater and brief word pictures of figures like Desai; Jaya Prakash Narayan, the patriarch of the anti-Gandhi movement; Untouchable leader Jagjivan Ram; Charan Singh, leader of India's land- owning farmer class, and the eccentric Raj Narain.
It is for the most part, however, a slow walk. For those unfamiliar with the history of the period, this brief volume admirably provides a clear, concise picture of a group of politicians whose fingers circled around the brass ring only to have them slip away again as they fell to bickering like so many village gossips. Men who dwelled long in the shadow of power and whose experience lay far from the pressures of national leadership simply proved themselves incapable of mustering the skill and imagination to forge an effective national government--a phenomenon not unfamiliar to this country. For Mehta, this is all proof of the abiding feudal nature of politics in his native land.
Missing in this volume is the depth of its predecessor, in which Mehta intertwined his account of contemporary events with valuable political and philosophical insights into his native land. Perhaps that is because this, for Mehta, appears to be very much a book of despair.
Toward the end of The New India, Mehta described the Emergency as a "watershed" between India's version of British democracy, with an independent army, civil service and judiciary, and a "homegrown court autocracy" with, as he puts it, all the trappings of personal loyalty, reward and vengeance. Yet he concluded that volume on a note of hope, an expression of faith that democratic instinct had triumphed over despotism in Mrs. Gandhi's defeat.
Mehta acknowledges in A Family Affair that the change represented by the period of Emergency rule was more enduring but this only became evident with the disintegration of Janata rule and the return of Mrs. Gandhi to power. A Family Affair offers no such vision of the future.