Are Sonia and Rahul Gandhi caught in a dance with destiny they can't escape?
Ian Jack A few months before he died in May 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru gave an interview to the English travel writer Eric Newby, who had embarked on a foolish scheme to sail a raft down the world's most sacred river. Newby tells the story of their encounter in his book, Slowly Down the Ganges. "This was the one [interview] at which our friend, the cockney photographer Donald McCullin, had made his immortal remark to the prime minister. 'Mr Nehru,' he said, bobbing up from behind a sofa from the shelter of which he had been photographing the great man. 'You must find it difficult to control this rough old lot.' The prime minister had not taken kindly to this remark." Well, of course he hadn't. It was an insult on several levels: to the 450m people who then lived in India, to their heritage and traditions, to the world's largest democracy of which Nehru had been the chief architect, to a popular leader to whom the idea of "control" was offensive. On the other hand, perhaps McCullin divined something about Nehru that has remained true of all his descendants: that he wasn't quite like the people he led, and not just because he lived more comfortably than the great majority of them, or had a better education or a successful politician's gifts and tricks of personality. He was separate in some more fundamental way. A kind of Englishness obviously had something to do with it. A youthful progression through Harrow, Trinity College Cambridge and the Inner Temple made him more English, as the word used to be understood abroad, than a cockney photographer who left his Finsbury Park secondary modern at 15. But there was also an elevation that came from his looks and his bearing; in the iconography of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi was the saint and Nehru the prince. These qualities and the isolating effects of fame left him a lonely figure, the more so because his wife died when he was in his 40s (and she in her 30s), ending a marriage that had never been close or happy. Nehru thereafter found physical and intellectual intimacy in friendships with non-Indians such as Edwina Mountbatten and Clare Boothe Luce, or Indians who had lived almost entirely abroad, such as Krishna Menon. The life of his daughter, Indira, followed a similar pattern – an unhappy marriage to Feroze Gandhi that ended in separation and then her husband's death aged 47, with her most confessional friendships kept mainly with people who lived thousands of miles away. Father and daughter were busy private correspondents, given that they were also Indian prime ministers. At the start of his passionate relationship with Edwina, Nehru wrote to her every day and went on writing weekly or fortnightly until the day she died. The contents of his letters remain unknown, or at least unpublished, but one of her replies suggests the deepest intimacy: "I think I am not interested in sex as sex. There must be so much more to it, beauty of spirit and form … But I think you and I are in the minority!" Indira's letters to her friend Dorothy Norman, a New York writer and editor, also yearned for things she couldn't find at home. "The desire to be out of India and the malice, jealousies and envy, with which one is surrounded, are [sic] now overwhelming," she wrote just before her father died. "Also the fact that there isn't one single person to whom one can talk or ask advice even on the lesser matters." And yet less than two years later she was prime minister.