Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi ( 19 November 1917 – 31 October 1984) 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 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 the prime minister of India.
As the 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.
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.
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.
In opposition and return to power
Since Gandhi had lost her seat in the election, the defeated Congress party appointed Yashwantrao Chavan as their parliamentary party leader. Soon afterwards, the Congress party split again with Gandhi floating her own Congress (I) faction. She won a bye-election from the Chikamagalur constituency to the Lok sabha in 1978. However, the Janata government’s Home Minister, Choudhary Charan Singh, ordered the arrest of her and Sanjay Gandhi on several charges, none of which would be easy to prove in an Indian court. The arrest meant that Indira Gandhi was automatically expelled from Parliament. These allegations included that she “‘had planned or thought of killing all opposition leaders in jail during the Emergency’”. In response to her arrest, Indira Gandhi’s supporters hijacked an Indian Airlines jet and demanded her immediate release. However, this strategy backfired disastrously.
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.
Operation Blue Star (attack on Golden temple)
In the 1977 elections, a coalition led by the Sikh-majority Akali Dal came to power in the northern Indian state of Punjab. In an effort to split the Akali Dal and gain popular support among the Sikhs, Indira Gandhi’s Congress helped bring the orthodox religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to prominence in Punjab politics. Later, Bhindranwale’s organisation Damdami Taksal became embroiled in violence with another religious sect called the Sant Nirankari Mission, and he was accused of instigating the murder of the Congress leader Jagat Narain. After being arrested in this matter, Bhindranwale disassociated himself from Congress and joined hands with the Akali Dal. In July 1982, he led the campaign for the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which demanded greater autonomy for the Sikh-majority state. Meanwhile, a small section of the Sikhs, including some of Bhindranwale’s followers, turned to militancy after being targeted by government officials and police in support of the Resolution.
The day before her death (30 October 1984) Indira Gandhi visited Orissa where she gave her last speech:
I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow…I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say, that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.
Indira Gandhi delivered her last speech at the then Parade Ground in front of the Secretariat of Orissa. After her death, the Parade Ground was converted to the Indira Gandhi Park which was inaugurated by her son, Rajiv Gandhi.
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: ” suckered. 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.
One of the major developments in Southeast Asia during Gandhi’s premiership was the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. Relations between ASEAN and India was mutually antagonistic. ASEAN in the Indian perception was linked to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and it was therefore, seen as a pro-American organisation. On their part, the ASEAN nations were unhappy with Gandhi’s sympathy for the Viet Cong and India’s strong links with the USSR. Furthermore, they were also apprehensions in the region about Gandhi’s future plans, particularly after India played a big role in breaking up Pakistan and facilitating in the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign country in 1971. India’s entry into the nuclear weapons club in 1974 contributed to tensions in Southeast Asia. Relations only began to improve following Gandhi’s endorsement of the ZOPFAN declaration and the disintegration of the SEATO alliance in the aftermath of Pakistani and American defeats in the region. Nevertheless, Gandhi’s close relations with reunified Vietnam and her decision to recognize the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1980 meant that India and ASEAN were not able to develop a viable partnership.
Although independent India was initially viewed as a champion of anti-colonialism, its cordial relationship with the Commonwealth of Nations and liberal views of British colonial policies in East Africa had harmed its image as a staunch supporter of the anti-colonial movements. Indian condemnation of militant struggles in Kenya and Algeria was in sharp contrast to China, who had supported armed struggle to win African independence. After reaching a high diplomatic point in the aftermath of Nehru’s role in the Suez Crisis, India’s isolation from Africa was complete when only four nations; Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Libya supported her during the Sino-Indian War in 1962. After Gandhi became Prime Minister, diplomatic and economic relations with the states which had sided with India during the Sino-Indian War were expanded. Gandhi began negotiations with the Kenyan government to establish the Africa-India Development Cooperation. The Indian government also started considering the possibility of bringing Indians settled in Africa within the framework of its policy goals to help recover its declining geo-strategic influence. Gandhi declared the people of Indian origin settled in Africa as “Ambassors of India.”Efforts to rope in the Asian community to join Indian diplomacy, however, came to naught, partly because of the unwilligness of Indians to remain in politically insecure surroundings and partly due to the exodus of African Indians to Britain with the passing of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1968. In Uganda, the African Indian community even suffered persecution and eventually expulsion under the government of Idi Amin.
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 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.
State of Emergency and the Fifth Five Year Plan
The Fifth Five Year Plan (1974–79) was enacted in the backdrop of the state of emergency and the Twenty Point Program of 1975. The latter was the economic rationale of the emergency, a political act which has often been justified on economic grounds. In contrast to the reception of Gandhi’s earlier economic plan, this one was criticized for being a “hastily thrown together wish list.” Gandhi promised to reduce poverty by targeting the consumption levels of the poor and enact wide ranging social and economic reforms. The government additionally targeted an annual growth of 4.4% over the period of the plan.
Operation Forward and the Sixth Five Year Plan
Gandhi inherited a weak economy when she again became Prime Minister in 1980. The preceding year in 1979–80 under the Janata Party government had led to the strongest recession (−5.2%) in the history of modern India with inflation rampant at 18.2%. Gandhi proceeded to abrogate the Janata Party government’s Five Year Plan in 1980 and launched the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980–85). The government targeted an average growth of 5.2% over the period of the plan. Measures to check the inflation were also taken; by the early 1980s inflation was under control at an annual rate of about 5%.
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.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Gandhi had the Indian army crush militant Communist uprisings in the Indian state of West Bengal. The communist insurgency in India was completely suppressed during the state of emergency.
Gandhi considered the north-eastern regions important, because of its strategic situation. In 1966, the Mizo uprising took place against the government of India and overran almost the whole of the Mizoram region. Gandhi ordered the Indian army to launch massive retaliatory strikes in response. The rebellion was suppressed with the Indian Air Force even carrying out airstrikes in Aizawl; this remains the only instance of India carrying out an airstrike in its own civilian territory. The defeat of Pakistan in 1971 and the secession of East Pakistan as pro-India Bangladesh led to the collapse of the Mizo separatist movement. In 1972, after the less extremist Mizo leaders came to the negotiating table, Gandhi upgraded Mizoram to the status of a union territory. A small-scale insurgency by some militants continued into the late 1970s but was successfully dealt with by the government. The Mizo conflict was definitively resolved during the administration of Gandhi’s son Rajiv. Today, Mizoram is considered as one of the most peaceful states in the north-east.
Nuclear Program of India
Gandhi contributed and further carried out the vision of Jawarharalal Nehru, former Premier of India to develop the program. Gandhi authorised the development of nuclear weapons in 1967, in response to the Test No. 6 by People’s Republic of China. Gandhi saw this test as Chinese nuclear intimidation, therefore, Gandhi promoted the views of Nehru to establish India’s stability and security interests as independent from those of the nuclear superpowers.
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 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.
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