Indira Gandhi was widowed at 43, a young, attractive and stylish woman in the prime of life, radiant with good health and energy, eager to claim her place in the political sun. Did she miss an intimate male presence in her life? In 1966, there were rumours that Dinesh Singh, the handsome and sophisticated raja of Kalakankar and a minister in her first cabinet, was her lover and even functioned as the power behind the throne.

There were rumours, too, of her closeness to spiritual leader and yoga instructor Dhirendra Brahmachari in his younger days, and about her alleged romantic involvement with Jawaharlal Nehru’s secretary MO Mathai. However, her close associates strongly refute these rumours. “It was just not possible for her to have an affair,” said former Congress leader Natwar Singh. “There were security men under the bed! Dinesh Singh only spread rumours about his so-called closeness to her to advance his own cause and was soon turfed out. Of course, you’re not made of wood but this is the price you pay – you don’t have a private life.”

Gandhi loved being admired and being the centre of attention of good-looking, witty and intelligent men, but, as her friend Pupul Jayakar writes, “the sexual side of her was underdeveloped”. She confessed to Jayakar:

“I do not behave like a woman. The ‘lack of sex’ in me partly accounts for this. When I think of how other women behave, I realise that it is the lack of sex and with it a lack of woman’s wiles, on which most men base their views on me.”

The “lack of sex”, the reluctance to play a subordinate, seductive role was a subconscious resistance to male authority. She may have submitted for a while to her father Jawaharlal Nehru, husband Feroze Gandhi and son Sanjay Gandhi but rebelled against them as well, entering full-time politics with gusto against her father’s wishes, refusing to be a Lucknow wife to a parliamentarian husband, lifting the Emergency in defiance of her aggressive younger son.

Indira Gandhi with her father Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi in 1961. Photo credit: AFP.
Indira Gandhi with her father Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi in 1961. Photo credit: AFP.

When dominating principal secretaries like PN Haksar asserted their wisdom too much, she removed them. When American presidents thought they could take “the pretty girl” for granted, she thumbed her nose at them. “I’m not a feminist,” she said. “Till I was 12 years old I hardly knew the difference between being a boy or a girl. I was brought up amongst boy cousins climbing trees, flying kites and playing marbles.” Instead of a feminist, she confessed to being a “biform human being” like her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, neither man nor woman, and the man in her personality was more dominant than her feminine nurturing side.

Drawn to power-wielding men

Indira Gandhi was an alpha female who was drawn to alpha men, preferring sinners to saints. Motilal Nehru, Feroze Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi were the alpha males in her life. Brought up by a refined and intellectual father, she was paradoxically drawn towards darker versions of men – aggressive, dynamic men on the make who perhaps satisfied her own latent adventurous, defiant side. Perhaps hers was a subconscious revolt against the high bar set by Nehru, or perhaps insecure about wielding power without too much political conviction, she turned towards brash, power-wielding men rather than towards philosopher-idealists like her father, with whom she had never been able to communicate easily and who might disapprove of her methods. Sanjay Gandhi was that more hotheaded wildchild sort of man, so was Feroze Gandhi and so was MO Mathai with whom she allegedly had a relationship.

Sanjay Gandhi was the last of the naughty boys to whom she warmed more intimately than she did to her cerebral father or her other son, the gentle Rajiv Gandhi. If Jawaharlal Nehru was the saint-hero, these men were the anti-Jawaharlal, the opposite of saintly.

Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency in defiance of her aggressive younger son Sanjay Gandhi.
Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency in defiance of her aggressive younger son Sanjay Gandhi.

Gandhi’s relationships with men were a contest of wills, her powerful personality and dominating presence – however softly expressed – invariably leading her into conflict with family patriarchs who misjudged her as retiring and malleable. She fought powerful men at every turn, anxiously sought approval from the men she loved and used feminine unpredictability to stymie the men who plotted against her.

She would say of her relationship with Feroze Gandhi:

“We quarrelled a lot yes, we were two equally strong types, equally pig-headed – neither of us wanted to give in. And I like to think that those quarrels enlivened our life, because without them we would have had a normal life but banal and boring. We didn’t deserve a normal banal and boring life.” 

"We quarrelled a lot", Indira Gandhi said of her husband Feroze Gandhi. Photo courtesy: YouTube.
"We quarrelled a lot", Indira Gandhi said of her husband Feroze Gandhi. Photo courtesy: YouTube.

Indira Gandhi and Feroze Gandhi were more alike than different, both were strong, rugged individualists with an urge to dominate the other.

In politics, Congress bosses thought of Gandhi as a goongi gudiya (dumb doll), fooled by her early quiet and shy manner. As prime minister, when she asserted her will against them, split the Congress, took over the party and made herself its supremo, they were left bewildered at the blitzkrieg she had unleashed, taken aback by what a formidable woman she was. Growing up in early 20th century India, when openly assertive women were regarded as unacceptably outrageous, Indira Gandhi concealed her firepower under a cloak of demure girlishness, yet lashed out unexpectedly against her father and husband when their expectations of her ran counter to her own ideas of the larger role she wanted to play. Indira Gandhi was a petite virago, the horse-riding, skiing girl-boy, Indu-boy, whose identity was defined by power and lineage rather than by gender, and she was drawn to equally dominating daredevil men.

In politics though, she opted squarely for loyalists over equals; any show of dynamism, autonomy or alpha male-ness in party colleagues always alerted her to grave danger ahead.

Sagarika Ghose is the author of Indira, India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister.