Gandhi, Indira 1917-1984
Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (born November 19, 1917) was twice elected the prime minister of India and was the first woman to hold the position. Daughter of India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), she was introduced to the vagaries of political instability early in life. As someone who participated in the anticolonial national movement in the 1930s and 1940s as a youngster, and saw the carnage that accompanied the partitioning of British India into the independent nations India and Pakistan in 1947, Gandhi experienced firsthand the challenges and uncertainties experienced by a fledgling democracy. In this regard, her formative years introduced her to the political cultures that she would negotiate as one of independent India’s most charismatic and controversial figures.
After attending educational institutions in Europe and India, she married an Indian National Congress (INC) activist named Feroze Gandhi (1912–1960) in 1942. Her sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, were born in 1944 and 1946 respectively. Following the deterioration of her marriage, she moved to Delhi to support her father as he prepared to contest India’s first national election in 1951. The 1950s and early 1960s were a period of political education and preparation for Gandhi as she rose rapidly in the ranks of the INC, becoming a minister in the government formed by Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904–1966) soon after her father’s death on May 24, 1964. In 1965, when war with Pakistan broke out, she emerged as a strong contender for the INC leadership with the backing of a cohort of INC leaders named the Syndicate. Warding off challenges from numerous constituencies within the party, and with the backing of the Syndicate, she became India’s fifth prime minister.
From 1971 onward, Gandhi consolidated her dominance. In late 1971, civil war and the secessionist movement of East Pakistan led to the Indian Army’s invasion of East Pakistan in the third Indo-Pakistan war since 1947. With the creation of the independent nation-state of Bangladesh in 1971, Gandhi’s personality-centered political style became pronounced. Partly to underscore India’s growing geopolitical stature in the cold war, she encouraged the development of India’s nuclear program, which conducted a successful nuclear test in 1974. Even as India made economic gains in some areas, she undermined India’s constitutionally mandated federalism when, unlike her father, she steadily undercut the authority of regional political leaders in order to consolidate power at the center. Her regime witnessed the arrival of a distinctively populist style of government, most apparent from her use of the slogan “Garibi Hatao” (“remove poverty”). While these changes bolstered her authority, they also made her the brunt of popular discontent, which became strident in the 1973–1974 period because of food shortages and inflation. Popular unrest and legal assaults on Gandhi’s power precipitated, in June 1975, the declaration of a state of emergency by her government.
The only period of authoritarian rule in post-independence India and a phase denounced as one of the darkest of the postcolonial period, the state of emergency lasted from 1975 to 1977. Controversial constitutional amendments, censorship, and assaults on civil liberties were accompanied by the arrest of thousands of party workers, and perhaps most notoriously, the forced sterilization campaigns prompted by Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi (1946-1980). These policies raised severe discontent, but Prime Minister Gandhi misjudged the popular mood in 1977 and called parliamentary elections in which her party was comprehensively defeated.
The Janata Party government that came to power in 1977 under the prime ministership of Morarji Desai (1896-1995) did not survive for long, but the period after the state of emergency marked a decisive shift in Indian politics with the restoration of India’s parliamentary democracy and the reversal of many of the authoritarian policies adopted by Gandhi. The INC itself split in the wake of the election debacle, and Gandhi sought to build a new political base for herself, one drawn largely from ethnic and religious minorities. Her reemergence as a political leader coincided with infighting in the Janata Party government, and in 1980 Gandhi was voted back to power as India’s eighth prime minister.
Gandhi’s second term in office was weighed down with problems in the Punjab, where the rise of Sikh militancy accompanied Sikh demands for an independent state. Matters escalated in mid-1984 with Operation Bluestar, when she ordered the Indian Army to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar, one of the holiest Sikh shrines, to remove militants hiding in its premises. This act of desecration, accompanied by the excessive use of military force, has remained a source of enormous controversy. On October 31, 1984, Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards as she was walking out of her residence. The assassination triggered a pogrom against Sikhs in New Delhi and other northern Indian cities.
Gandhi’s political career has left a deep imprint on Indian politics, not least through her descendants. Her son Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991) became prime minister in 1984, and his widow Sonia Gandhi emerged during the late 1990s as the leader of the Congress Party. “Vote-bank” politics, with which Indira Gandhi is often identified, has remained an enduring facet of Indian political culture long after her death.
Brass, Paul R. 1994. The Politics of India since Independence. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Malhotra, Inder. 1991. Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Indira Gandhi, a prime minister of India, was the most effective and powerful politician of her day in that country. Considered a hero by her supporters and cursed by her enemies, who later assassinated her, Indira Gandhi paved the way for democracy in India during the twentieth century.
Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was born in the northern Indian city of Allahabad on November 19, 1917. She was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, an important figure in the nationalist movement, a movement devoted to the improvement of culture within the nation. Later he became India's first prime minister. Because of many of his political beliefs, Jawaharlal, along with much of his family, was often jailed for supporting Mohandas Gandhi's (1869–1948) nationalist movement. Mohandas Gandhi (no relation to Indira) opposed the dominant rule of Great Britain over India. This association placed Indira at the center of India's struggle for freedom. Her family's fight for freedom made Indira's upbringing shaky. Her father was often absent from being jailed, and her mother was bed-ridden from tuberculosis, a terrible disease affecting the lungs and bones. Because of her father's stand against institutions run by the British government, Indira's early schooling was not consistent. For a while she was taught at home. Later she attended an academy run by a poet-philosopher.
Shortly after her mother's death in 1936, Indira enrolled at Santiniketan University and Somerville College, Oxford University, in England. She married Feroze Gandhi (also no relation to Mohandas Gandhi) in March 1942, despite both family's objections, as the two were not part of the same social status or religions—he was a descendent of Iranian immigrants; she was Hindu. Feroze Gandhi became a lawyer and newspaper executive as well as an independent member of Parliament. Shortly after their marriage, they were both imprisoned for a period of thirteen months for their part in the nationalist political demonstrations against British rule. During her imprisonment Indira taught reading and writing to prisoners. Feroze Gandhi died in 1960. They had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay.
On August 15, 1947, Great Britain released their control over India and the Indian Empire was quickly divided into two countries, today known as India and Pakistan. No longer under British control, India erupted into violence. Thousands of members of rival religious groups, the Hindus and the Moslems, were killed during riots. During this time Indira served as her father's hostess and housekeeper. Since her father had never remarried after his wife's death in 1936, Indira took charge of her father's large mansion and began helping him in political matters. Together they worked towards peace, arranging a meeting of Hindu and Moslem religious leaders in New Dehli, India.
Throughout the period of Indira Gandhi's political association with her father, she focused on social welfare work, particularly children's welfare. The Indian National Congress had led the country to freedom and had then become its major political party. She had joined the Congress in 1938, and later served as a member of its Youth Advisory Board and chairman of its Woman's Department. Prior to assuming the presidency of the organization in 1959, Gandhi was named to its twenty-one-member executive Working Committee. She was elected with more votes than any other candidate to the powerful eleven-member Central Election Board, which named candidates and planned electoral strategy.
As prime minister
In June 1964, following her father's death, Gandhi became minister for information and broadcasting under Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904–1966), where she helped start an Indian television system. In January 1966, when Shastri died, Gandhi was elected leader of the Congress Party in Parliament (the governing body of India) and became the third prime minister of independent India.
Gandhi assumed office at a critical time in the history of the country. A truce had ended the 1965 war between India and Pakistan only a week earlier. The nation was in the midst of a two-year drought, resulting in severe food shortages and a deepening economic crisis with rising prices and rising unemployment. The political situation in India was equally as effected. In the fourth general elections of 1967 the Congress retained majority control (and reelected Gandhi as its leader), but lost control in half the state legislatures. After twenty years of political dominance, the Congress Party was experiencing serious difficulty.
A government divided
Gandhi immediately set about reorganizing the party to make it a more effective instrument of administration and national development. Her goal was to achieve a wider measure of social and economic justice for all Indians. As her left-of-center policies (slightly liberal, or supporting civil liberties and social progress) became clear, the Congress Party split, with the younger, more liberal elements rallying around Gandhi and the older, more conservative party leaders opposing her. This division came to a head in July 1969 when she nationalized (brought under the control of government) the country's fourteen leading banks in a highly popular move meant to make credit more available to agriculture and to small industry.
The split was formalized when Gandhi's candidate for the presidency of India, V. V. Giri, won over the party's official nominee. Although Gandhi took 228 members of Parliament with her into the New Congress, this was not a majority in the 521-member house, and she held power only with support from more liberal parties. In December 1970, when Gandhi failed to get the necessary support to abolish, or end, the privileges of the former Indian princes, she called on the president to dissolve Parliament. Midterm elections were set for March 1971, one full year ahead of schedule.
A coalition, or alliance, of three parties of the right and an anti-Congress socialist party opposed Gandhi, who made alliances with liberal parties as well as some regional parties. Her platform was essentially one of achieving social and economic change more rapidly in an effort to improve the quality of life of India's people. Her party won a massive victory with over a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
End of her career
Gandhi faced major problems in the areas of food production, population control, land reform, regulation of prices, unemployment, and industrial production. The problems were increased by the arrival in India of almost ten million refugees, who were uprooted as a result of the civil unrest in East Pakistan. In November 1971 Indian troops crossed into East Pakistan to fight Pakistani forces. A month later Gandhi announced recognition of the Bangladesh government set up by East Pakistani rebel leaders. On December 16 Pakistan's commander in East Pakistan surrendered to India.
In the state elections held in India in March 1972, Gandhi's New Congress Party scored the most overwhelming victory in the history of independent India. However, her opponent accused her of violating election laws, and a high court supported the charge in 1975. Because of this development, as well as domestic unrest, Gandhi declared a state of emergency and postponed elections. In the 1977 elections Gandhi and her party suffered major defeats and Gandhi eventually lost her seat and the post of prime minister.
The following year Gandhi headed the Congress Party as she returned to Parliament. In 1979 she again became prime minister. In efforts to prove India's nonalliance in the global community, she visited both the United States and the U.S.S.R., the former Soviet Union, which consisted of Russia and several smaller states. Internally, riots broke out among Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh religious sects, or groups. Sikhs, looking to separate themselves from India, secured weapons within their sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar, and assumed religious protection. Gandhi ordered government troops to storm the temple, leading to many Sikh deaths. This led to her assassination at her residence on October 31, 1984, by her own Sikh security guards. In death, Gandhi remains a symbol of courage and democracy in one of the world's most populated countries.
For More Information
Ali, Tariq. An Indian Dynasty: The Story of the Nehru-Gandhi Family. New York: Putnam, 1985.
Frank, Katherine. Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
Greene, Carol. Indira Nehru Gandhi, Ruler of India. Chicago: Children's Press, 1985.
Jayakar, Pupu. Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
GANDHI, INDIRA (1917–1984), prime minister of India (1966–1977 and 1980–1984). Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's only child, Indira Gandhi was elected to succeed him as prime minister, just two years after his death. Born in Allahabad in the palatial mansion of her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, Indira was reared in lonely luxury. Her mother, Kamala, soon after Indu's birth, was incurably afflicted with tuberculosis. Indira seemed so frail a child that her "Auntie Nan," Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the first woman to preside over the United Nations General Assembly, feared that "Indu-Boy" (as Nehru fondly called his daughter) might somehow have caught her mother's illness. Indira would emerge more powerful, however, than any man in Nehru's Cabinet.
Education and Marriage
Indira learned her best lessons in history and politics from her brilliant father. During several of the long years Nehru spent behind British bars, he wrote weekly letters to his daughter, offering her "glimpses of world history." She had another remarkable teacher as well, Bengal's Guru-Dev (Divine Teacher) Rabindranath Tagore, to whose private college Shanti-niketan (campus of peace) she went for little more than one year, obliged then to accompany her mother to the Swiss sanatorium in which she died. Nehru was released from prison to visit his wife and daughter in Europe and went to Moscow for the tenth anniversary of the birth of the Soviet Union. Both Nehru and Indira were to remain ardent Socialists for the rest of their lives. Indo-Soviet friendship became a powerful pillar of Prime Minister Gandhi's foreign policy. V. K. Krishna Menon, Nehru's alter ego in London, became Indira's close friend and adviser. Her future husband, Parsi Feroze Gandhi, long devoted to her sick mother, accompanied Indira in her travels around Europe just prior to and during the first few years of World War II. Nehru strongly opposed the marriage, but Indira prevailed, marrying the husband she chose in March 1942.
Indira's son Rajiv, heir to her premier power, was born on 20 August 1944. Her second son, Sanjay, born three years later, died in a stunt plane crash in Delhi three years before his mother. Indira's own passion for power was long hidden behind her seeming disinterest in office, but as Nehru's official "hostess" and constant traveling companion during his decade and a half as prime minister, she learned all that was required to be chosen by her Congress Party colleagues as India's first female prime minister in 1966. Her first half decade at the top proved so successful that Indira Gandhi was virtually worshiped by millions of Indians and Bangladeshis as an incarnation of the "Mother Goddess" Durgā. She led India to victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh War, when Dhaka surrendered in mid-December 1971. "Madam" Gandhi had signed a twenty-year Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship that June, which provided India with heavy Russian tanks and artillery for its campaign across Bangladesh, as well as potential "nuclear support" if India were ever threatened with a U.S. attack. The independence of Bangladesh, after a quarter century as East Pakistan, diminished what remained of Pakistan by more than half its population, also stripping Islamabad of most of the hard currency earned from the export of Bengali jute. Indira Gandhi thus towered over South Asia as its most powerful premier, hailed by her own people as "Mother India," admired by Bangladeshis as their nation's "Liberator," feared by Pakistan's fallen General Yahya Khan and by his humiliated successor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Decline and Fall
Though Indira reigned supreme in foreign affairs, domestically she faced increasingly difficult problems and mounting political opposition. Global inflation of crude oil prices hit India's economy harder than it would have in times of peace. Unemployment rose sharply and strikes wracked Bihar and Bombay soon after the war had ended in so stunning a victory. Railroad workers and miners joined in slowing down, if not closing, crucial sectors of India's urban economy. Former Congress colleagues of Nehru called upon his daughter to either take appropriate action in helping heal open wounds or "step down." Bombay's Congress leader, Morarji Desai—who had run unsuccessfully against Indira for Nehru's mantle, later joining her as finance minister in her Cabinet—resigned after she ignored his advice. Now he led a popular Janata (People's) Party opposition movement, together with Bihar's Jaya Prakash ( J. P.) Narayan, Nehru's oldest Socialist comrade-in-arms, aimed at forcing Indira to resign or suffer ignominious national electoral defeat.
In May 1974, faced with mounting internal opposition, Indira Gandhi triggered India's first underground nuclear explosions—warnings both to Pakistan's bellicose new premier Bhutto, as well as to Morarji and J. P., of just how powerful "Mother India" was. But Janata Party opposition only grew louder, and in June 1975, Allahabad's High Court Justice Jag Mohan Lal Sinha found Prime Minister Gandhi guilty of two counts of electoral malpractice, each carrying mandatory penalties of resignation and abstention from elective office for six years. Rather than step down, however, Gandhi had her president declare a "National Emergency," giving her dictatorial powers, imprisoning her opposition, including Morarji and J. P., banning every opposition party, shutting off power to Delhi's news presses, and canceling elections. India remained under her autocratic power in darkness and fear for a year and a half, from 26 June 1975 until 18 January 1977. Indira Gandhi's "Emergency Raj" was the most shameful and tragic period in more than half a century of India's independent rule.
The Janata Party's victory in national elections of April 1977 appeared to end Gandhi's political career. Yet constant squabbling among the aged leaders of that coalition only proved them impotent to solve any of India's most pressing problems, reopening doors of power to "Madam Gandhi," who returned in January 1980, on a popular wave of electoral support. Gandhi was faced in her last four years with growing opposition from Punjab's Sikh community. Militant Sikhs demanded an independent nation-state of Khalistan (Land of the Pure). Gandhi tried to counter Punjab's most popular Sikh leaders with younger candidates of Sanjay's choice, whom she thought they could "control." By early summer of 1984, however, it seemed clear to her that "Sant" Bhindranwale, who seized control of Amritsar's Golden Temple, was no "Saint" at all, but a fanatical extremist determined to lead a Sikh revolt against India. In June she unleashed the army, whose Operation Bluestar left Bhindranwale and all his followers inside the temple compound dead, claiming the lives of one hundred Indian troops and later of Indira Gandhi herself, who was gunned down in her Delhi garden by two of her own trusted Sikh guards on 31 October 1984.
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