Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was a key 20th-century stateswoman, a central figure of the Indian National Congress party, and to date the only female Prime Minister of India. Indira Gandhi was the only child of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She served as Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984, making her the second-longest-serving Prime Minister after her father.
Gandhi served as her father’s personal assistant and hostess during his tenure as prime minister between 1947 and 1964. She was elected Congress President in 1959. Upon her father’s death in 1964, Gandhi refused to enter the Congress party leadership contest and instead chose to become a cabinet minister in the government led by Lal Bahadur Shastri. In Congress’ party parliamentary leadership election held in early 1966 upon the death of Shastri, she defeated her rival, Morarji Desai, to become leader and thus succeed Shastri as Prime Minister of India.
As Prime Minister of India, Gandhi was known for her political ruthlessness and unprecedented centralisation of power. She went to war with Pakistan in support of the independence movement and war of independence in East Pakistan, which resulted in an Indian victory and the creation of Bangladesh, as well as increasing India’s influence to the point where it became the regional hegemon of South Asia. Gandhi also presided over a controversial state of emergency from 1975 to 1977 during which she ruled by decree. She was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards a few months after she ordered the storming of the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar to counter the Punjab insurgency.
Early life and career
Indira Gandhi was born Indira Nehru in a Kashmiri Pandit family on 19 November 1917 in Allahabad. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in India’s political struggle for independence from British rule, and became the first Prime Minister of the Union (and later Republic) of India. She was the only child (a younger brother was born, but died young), and grew up with her mother, Kamala Nehru, at the Anand Bhavan; a large family estate in Allahabad. She had a lonely and unhappy childhood. Her father was often away, directing political activities or being incarcerated in prison, while her mother was frequently bed-ridden with illness, and later suffered an early death from tuberculosis. She had limited contact with her father, mostly through letters.
First term as Prime Minister between 1966 and 1971
Following a poor showing in the 1967 general election, Indira Gandhi started progressively moving to the left in the political spectrum. In 1969, after falling out with senior party leaders on a number of issues, the party president S. Nijalingappa expelled her from the party. Gandhi, in turn floated her own faction of the Congress party and managed to retain most of the Congress MPs on her side with only 65 on the side of Congress (O) faction. The policies of the Congress under Indira Gandhi, prior to the 1971 elections, also included proposals for the abolition of Privy Purse to former rulers of the Princely states and the 1969 nationalization of the fourteen largest banks in India.
Verdict on electoral malpractice
On 12 June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad declared Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha void on grounds of electoral malpractice. In an election petition filed by Raj Narain (who later on defeated her in 1977 parliamentary election from Rae Bareily), he had alleged several major as well as minor instances of using government resources for campaigning. The court thus ordered her stripped of her parliamentary seat and banned from running for any office for six years. The Prime Minister must be a member of either the Lok Sabha (the lower house in the Parliament of India) or the Rajya Sabha (the upper house). Thus, this decision effectively removed her from office. Gandhi had asked one of her colleagues in government, Mr Ashoke Kumar Sen to defend her in court.
State of Emergency (1975–1977)
Gandhi moved to restore order by ordering the arrest of most of the opposition participating in the unrest. Her Cabinet and government then recommended that President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declare a state of emergency because of the disorder and lawlessness following the Allahabad High Court decision. Accordingly, Ahmed declared a State of Emergency caused by internal disorder, based on the provisions of Article 352(1) of the Constitution, on 25 June 1975.
Rule by decree
Within a few months, President’s Rule was imposed on the two opposition party ruled states of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu thereby bringing the entire country under direct Central rule or by governments led by the ruling Congress party. Police were granted powers to impose curfews and indefinitely detain citizens and all publications were subjected to substantial censorship by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Finally, the impending legislative assembly elections were indefinitely postponed, with all opposition-controlled state governments being removed by virtue of the constitutional provision allowing for a dismissal of a state government on recommendation of the state’s governor.
Indira Gandhi used the emergency provisions to change conflicting party members.
Rise of Sanjay
The Emergency saw the entry of Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay, into Indian Politics. Sanjay wielded tremendous power during the emergency without holding any Government office. According to Mark Tully, “His inexperience did not stop him from using the Draconian powers his mother, Indira Gandhi, had taken to terrorise the administration, setting up what was in effect a police state.”
1977 election and opposition years
In 1977, after extending the state of emergency twice, Indira Gandhi called elections to give the electorate a chance to vindicate her rule. Gandhi may have grossly misjudged her popularity by reading what the heavily censored press wrote about her. In any case, she was opposed by the Janata alliance of Opposition parties. Janata alliance, with Jai Prakash Narayan as its spiritual guide, claimed the elections were the last chance for India to choose between “democracy and dictatorship.” The Congress Party split during the election campaign of 1977: veteran Gandhi supporters like Jagjivan Ram, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy were compelled to part ways and form a new political entity, CFD (Congress for Democracy), primarily due to intra-party politicking and also due to circumstances created by Sanjay Gandhi. The prevailing rumour was that Sanjay had intentions of dislodging Gandhi and the trio stood between that. Gandhi’s Congress party was crushed soundly in the elections. The public realized the statement and motto of the Janata Party alliance. Indira and Sanjay Gandhi both lost their seats, and Congress was cut down to 153 seats (compared with 350 in the previous Lok Sabha), 92 of which were in the South. The Janata alliance, under the leadership of Morarji Desai, came into power after the State of Emergency was lifted. The alliance parties later merged to form the Janata Party under the guidance of Gandhian leader, Jayaprakash Narayan. The other leaders of the Janata Party were Charan Singh, Raj Narain, George Fernandes and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
1980 elections and third term
The Congress (I) under Gandhi swept back to power in January 1980. Elections soon after to State assemblies across the country also brought back Congress ministries in the state with Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi choosing loyalists to lead the states. Sanjay died soon after in an air crash, early into this term. Sanjay Gandhi died instantly from head wounds in an air crash on 23 June 1980 near Safdarjung Airport in New Delhi. He was flying a new aircraft of the Delhi Flying club, and, while performing an aerobatic manoeuvre over his office, lost control and crashed. The only passenger in the plane, Captain Subhash Saxena, also died in the crash.Gandhi by this stage only trusted her family members and therefore decided to bring in her reluctant pilot son, Rajiv into politics.
In 1971, Gandhi intervened in the Pakistani Civil War in support of East Pakistan. India emerged victorious in the resulting conflict to become the regional hegemon of South Asia. India had signed a treaty with the Soviet Union promising mutual assistance in the case of war, while Pakistan received active support from the United States during the conflict. U.S. President Richard Nixon disliked Gandhi personally, referring to her as a “witch” and “clever fox” in his private communication with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Relations with the U.S. became distant as Gandhi developed closer ties with the Soviet Union after the war. The latter grew to become India’s largest trading partner and its biggest arms supplier for much of Gandhi’s premiership. Nixon later wrote of the war: “[Gandhi] suckered [America]. Suckered us…..this woman suckered us.”
Gandhi remained a staunch supporter of Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict and was critical of the Middle East diplomacy sponsored by the United States. Israel was viewed as a religious state and thus an analogue to India’s arch rival Pakistan. Indian diplomats also hoped to win Arab support in countering Pakistan in Kashmir. Nevertheless, Gandhi authorized the development of a secret channel of contact and security assistance with Israel in the late 1960s. Her lieutenant, Narasimha Rao, later became Prime Minister and approved full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992.
Gandhi presided over three Five-Year plans as Prime Minister, two of which succeeded in meeting the targeted growth.
There is considerable debate regarding whether Gandhi was a socialist on principle or out of political expediency.S. K. Datta-Ray described her as “a master of rhetoric…often more posture than policy”, while The Times journalist, Peter Hazelhurst, famously quipped that Gandhi’s socialism was “slightly left of self-interest.” Critics have focused on the contradictions in the evolution of her stance towards communism; Gandhi being known for her anti-communist stance in the 1950s with Meghnad Desai even describing her as “the scourge of [India’s] Communist Party.”Yet, she later forged close relations with Indian communists even while using the army to break the Naxalites. In this context, Gandhi was accused of formulating populist policies to suit her political needs; being seemingly against the rich and big business while preserving the status quo in order to manipulate the support of the left at times of political insecurity, such as the late 1960s. Although Gandhi came to be viewed in time as the scourge of the right-wing and reactionary political elements of India, leftist opposition to her policies emerged. As early as 1969, critics had begun accusing her of insincerity and machiavellism. The Indian Libertarian wrote that: “it would be difficult to find a more machiavellian leftist than Mrs Indira Gandhi…for here is Machiavelli at its best in the person of a suave, charming and astute politician.” Rosser wrote that “some have even seen the declaration of emergency rule in 1975 as a move to suppress [leftist] dissent against Gandhi’s policy shift to the right.” In the 1980s, Gandhi was accused of “betraying socialism” after the beginning of Operation Forward, an attempt at economic reform. Nevertheless, others were more convinced of Gandhi’s sincerity and devotion to socialism. Pankaj Vohra noted that “even the late prime minister’s critics would concede that the maximum number of legislations of social significance was brought about during her tenure…[and that] she lives in the hearts of millions of Indians who shared her concern for the poor and weaker sections and who supported her politics.”
Despite the provisions, control and regulations of Reserve Bank of India, most banks in India had continued to be owned and operated by private persons. Businessmen who owned the banks were often accused of channeling the deposits into their own companies, and ignoring the priority sector. Furthermore, there was a great resentment against class banking in India, which had left the poor (the majority population) unbanked. After becoming Prime Minister, Gandhi expressed the intention of nationalising the banks in a paper titled, “Stray thoughts on Bank Nationalisation” in order to alleviate poverty. The paper received the overwhelming support of the public. In 1969, Gandhi moved to nationalise fourteen major commercial banks. After the nationalisation of banks, the branches of the public sector banks in India rose to approximate 800 percent in deposits, and advances took a huge jump by 11,000 percent. Nationalisation also resulted in a significant growth in the geographical coverage of banks; the number of bank branches rose from 8,200 to over 62,000, most of which were opened in the unbanked, rural areas. The nationalization drive not only helped to increase household savings, but it also provided considerable investments in the informal sector, in small and medium-sized enterprises, and in agriculture, and contributed significantly to regional development and to the expansion of India’s industrial and agricultural base. Jayaprakash Narayan, who became famous for leading the opposition to Gandhi in the 1970s, was solid in his praise for her bank nationalisations.
Family and personal life
A member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, she was married to Feroze Gandhi at the age of 25, in 1942. Their marriage lasted for 18 years, until Feroze died after a heart attack in 1960. They had two sons – Rajiv (b. 1944) and Sanjay (b. 1946). Her younger son Sanjay had initially been her chosen heir; but after his death in a flying accident in June 1980, Gandhi persuaded her reluctant elder son Rajiv to quit his job as a pilot and enter politics in February 1981. Rajiv took office as prime minister following his mother’s assassination in 1984; he served until December 1989. Rajiv Gandhi himself was assassinated by a suicide bomber working on behalf of Tamil tigers on May 21, 1991.
After leading India to victory against Pakistan in the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, President V. V. Giri awarded Mrs. Gandhi India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna., In 2011, the Bangladesh Freedom Honour (Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona ), Bangladesh’s highest civilian award, was posthumously conferred on Indira Gandhi for her outstanding contributions to Bangladesh’s Liberation War.
Indira Gandhi is associated with fostering a culture of nepotism in Indian politics and in India’s institutions. She is also almost singularly associated with the period of Emergency rule and the dark period in Indian Democracy that it entailed,the period of conflict with Khalistan freedom fighters in the western state of Punjab, and being the face of a progressive Indian electorate owing to her being the first woman elected to hold the office of the Prime Minister of India.
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