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.
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.
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 Sanjay Gandhi choosing loyalists to lead the states. Sanjay soon died 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.
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.
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.
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 militants 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.