Critics of the Nehru Gandhi family often point to their dominance in the public domain, with scores of institutions, schemes, neighbourhoods etc named after them. “The dynasty” is shorthand for this family, even though there are many equally long and durable political dynasties in Indian politics, including a few of them allied with the self-same critics of the Nehru-Gandhis.
But not all from the first family are equally well known; or, more accurately, hardly anything is heard about some of them. Indeed, the man who “created” the Gandhi part of the dynasty is barely remembered. Feroze Gandhi is a figure lost in the shadows of history and is little more than a footnote in the grander narratives of the family.
Swedish journalist Bertik Falk has taken upon himself to bring him to our notice with his book, Feroze: The Forgotten Gandhi. It is, say the publishers, the result of 40 years of research, during which he spoke with countless people who knew him. Falk covers not just the adult Feroze but also goes deep into his childhood, including probing the rumours about his “controversial origin”, which should be enough to pique interest about the book. (I won’t go too much into it here, except to mention that there was some mystery about his parentage. The book does not resolve it, but ultimately that is of little consequence.)
What do we know about Feroze Gandhi? Not much, except that he was Indira Gandhi’s husband and they had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay. And that at some stage the couple became estranged. The more politically aware may know that Feroze, despite being a Congressman, was a thorn in the government’s side, constantly raising awkward questions and exposing scandals in Parliament. Falk calls him a VIP, a “Very Investigative Parliamentarian”.
Falk tells us about all this and more. Being a reporter, he delves deep into Feroze’s background, in Allahabad and Britain, which are perhaps the most fascinating parts of the book. We learn that he was an early nationalist, showing up not just as a participant in the crowd scenes but also as a leading figure who became close to the Nehrus, especially Indira’s mother Kamala. Allahabad was “one of the epicentres of the civil disobedience” movement and like many others, Feroze too participated with gusto and went to jail, along with Lal Bahadur Shastri and several others.
In the meanwhile, he was also getting fascinated with young Indira and proposed to her. She turned him down. Indira was just 16 at the time and the family too did not take this too seriously. A similar proposal from another admirer had sent them “into peals of laughter for weeks”; Feroze did not fare any better, with Kamala Nehru thinking it was no more than puppy love.
They eventually married in 1942 — Nehru was initially not in favour of the idea, but gave in amidst protests by irate orthodox Hindus and the few Parsis who lived in Allahabad. Trolls of the era sent letters to Gandhiji, then running the Harijan newspaper, but, as Falk pointed out, they only objected on the grounds of Feroze’s religion; none had objections to the man.
Feroze became a journalist, first with the National Herald, the paper set up by the Congress, and then with the Indian Express. He also turned out to have a roving eye, and Falk explores his many “affairs” with other women, including married ones. This naturally caused a lot of disturbance in the household and eventually caused a rift in the marriage.
Feroze caused a stir elsewhere too. After years of keeping quiet in Parliament, he made his maiden speech in the Lok Sabha, speaking for almost two hours during which he exposed a scam by the Bharat Insurance Company, owned by the Dalmia-Jain group. Ramakrishna Dalmia, founder of the group, was jailed. More significantly, the government nationalised the insurance business. Feroze, being a socialist, had long pushed for this.
Falk is not too fond of the Nehrus either and that shows up in different ways — he thinks they made it because they were wealthy and this helped each one of them go far. But he does not apply that principle fully to Feroze, “that Feroze Gandhi married Indira Gandhi was, in this respect, both an advantage and a stumbling stone.”
He thinks even if Feroze hadn’t married into the powerful Nehru family, he would have gone far. It becomes clear to the reader that to the author, Feroze is a hero, a flawed one perhaps, but one destined for great things.
After the Dalmia speech, Feroze Gandhi turned into an effective parliamentarian and became known as “the giant killer”. He exposed the Mundhra scandal which led to the disgrace and resignation of the finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari and then proved how Telco (now known as Tata Motors) was overcharging the Indian Railways. As expected, all this did not endear him to the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Towards the end, Feroze became disillusioned with the state of affairs in the country. His smoking and drinking was telling on his health. Eventually it became too much and he suffered a series of heart attacks. Though husband and wife were by now distant, Indira Gandhi would later say that his death was a big shock to her. Falk criticises her in the chapter “The Legacy of Feroze Bhai” saying that by declaring Emergency, Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi threw everything that Feroze Gandhi stood for in the dustbin.
For anyone interested in pre-Independence India and the politics of the 1950s, this is a good book to read, but it tells the story with Feroze at the centre of things. Falk has spoken to several people and read up everything around the man and his times, though occasionally it feels like the information and insights are used to serve his opinions. For this writer, the most valuable part of this book is about Feroze the parliamentarian, a good reminder to Indians today when our representatives often do not take their duties and obligations seriously....