Indira Gandhi

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Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi
Date of Birth: November 19, 1917
Date of Demise: October 31, 1984
Place of Birth: Allahabad, UP
Prime Minister of India
Tenure Order: 3rd Prime Minister
Political party: Congress (I)
First Term
Took Office: January 19, 1966
Left Office: March 24, 1977
Predecessor: Gulzarilal Nanda
Successor: Morarji Desai
Second Term
Took Office: January 14, 1980
Left Office: October 31, 1984
Predecessor: Charan Singh
Successor: Rajiv Gandhi

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (इन्दिरा प्रियदर्शिनी गान्धी) (November 19, 1917October 31, 1984) was Prime Minister of India from January 19, 1966 to March 24, 1977, and from January 14, 1980 until her assassination in 1984.


Early years

She was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.

A brilliant political strategist and thinker, Indira also possessed an extraordinary desire for political power. As a woman occupying the highest position of government in, what was at that time, a very patriarchal society, Indira was expected to be a passive leader, but her actions proved her otherwise.

When her father died in 1964, she was pressured to take up a career in politics. She was elected as a member of Parliament in her father's Indian National Congress Party, and was appointed a minister in the cabinet of Congress Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri died in office in 1966, and Indira successfully ran to succeed him as party leader, and thus Prime Minister of India. Initially she was dubbed as goongi gudiya (Hindi for dumb doll), as people thought that she would be a puppet in the hands of other Congress leaders. But she proved them all wrong as she emerged to be one of the strongest leaders in the history of independent India.

Prime Minister

As Prime Minister, Indira carefully used every tool available at her disposal to expand her power and authority. By using her powers of appointment, she created "notoriously weak" cabinets, centralizing her own personal authority in a way her predecessors never had.

She created her own independent Congress party following the November 1969 split within the governing Indian National Congress.

Re-elected in 1971 – after campaigning fiercely on her well-known platform, with the famous Garibi hatao slogan – she proceeded to boost her government's fortunes through a successful war that December against U.S.-backed neighbouring Pakistan in East Bengal, where India's intervention enabled local separatists to crown their nine-month war of independence with the creation of the independent republic of Bangladesh. President Nixon dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, but the fighting in East Pakistan was quickly over. Moreover the Soviet Union offered its support in case of a confrontation with the US. Thus US intervention failed to materialize for fear of a bigger crisis. Because of this and other similar cooperative ventures, India maintains a nostalgia-tinted warmth in its relations with Russia (after Soviet disintegration) as compared to its relations with the US.
Missing image
Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi in 1971
This American support to Pakistan should be viewed through the Cold War prism – Pakistan being a close South Asian ally of the U.S. and India being close to Moscow (though officially non-aligned). India subsequently withdrew its forces from west Pakistan, but the independent Republic of Bangladesh was created out of Pakistan. The comprehensive victory in the war resulted in a personality cult around Indira Gandhi; according to one Gallup poll, Indira became the world's most admired person in public office.

She is also credited with nationalizing the banks in India, a move severely derided by economists at the time, but for which she received immediate approval from the masses. The move reflected the anger of ordinary people at the time as several private banks had collapsed with depositors getting back only a fraction of their money. Moreover a large number of private banks were actually operated by holding companies with wide-ranging business interests and the common man felt the deposited money was being used inappropriately. The nationalized network of banks Gandhi created are successful and widely trusted institutions today. She also took the bold initiative of discontinuing privy purses – personal allowance payments to India's princely states, which she felt were anachronistic given India's democratic post-independence character.

Her efforts at achieving self-sufficiency for India in food grain production – the Green Revolution – achieved consummate success. Her government's initiatives in diversifying and increasing crop yields throughout the country ended India's reliance on foreign food grain imports. It was the success of this Green Revolution that led to her party, the Congress, sweeping the state legislative assembly elections in a number of states in 1972.

Her environmental protection policies were held up an exemplary given India's status as a poor developing country. She initiated both "Project Tiger" (a tiger conservation effort) and regulations aiming to protect habitats on coastal environments on the entire peninsula of India.

Indira Gandhi is considered the initiator of India's nuclear programme; India carried out its first nuclear tests in 1974, supposedly for peaceful purposes. (The second series of tests in 1998 led to the recognition of India's nuclear-weapons capability).


Opponents had long made allegations that her party had practiced electoral fraud to win the 1971 elections. In June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad found the sitting Prime Minister guilty of election fraud, and ordered her to be removed from her seat in Parliament and banned from running for an additional six years. Rather than face the charges, Indira declared a State of Emergency, and in her own words brought democracy "to a grinding halt". Invoking article 352 of the Indian Constitution, she granted herself extraordinary powers and launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition. This move was endorsed by Mother Teresa.

Rival party leaders were jailed, and electricity was cut off to opposition newspapers. Opposition-controlled state legislatures were dissolved and suspended indefinitely. The Prime Minister pushed a series of increasingly harsh bills and constitutional amendments through parliament, all which were approved with little discussion or debate.

Indira attempted to re-write the nation's laws with the help of the parliament, thus protecting herself from legal prosecution once emergency rule was revoked. As massive as these reforms were, Indira did not feel her powers were amassing quickly enough, so she utilized President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to issue "extraordinary laws" that bypassed parliament altogether, allowing her to rule by decree.

Indira's emergency rule lasted nineteen months. In spite of the controversy involved, India made significant strides in economic and industrial progress during this period. India was badly in need of economic recovery after the monetary strain of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Also communal Hindu-Muslim riots, which had been surfacing again in the 1960s and 70s virtually ceased, and during the initial stages of the Emergency the government seemed to be working with vigor. However with the stringent measures imposed during Emergency, the Indian public and opposition grew increasingly resentful. Gandhi was absolved of election fraud charges by the Supreme Court of India in November 1975.

In 1977, greatly misjudging her own popularity, she called elections and was roundly defeated. To the surprise of some observers, she agreed to step down without much objection. However, three years later she would be re-elected, and her second term would be much less authoritarian.

The effects of the Emergency are described in vivid detail through the works of Rohinton Mistry, in his books "Such a Long Journey," and even more noteably, "A Fine Balance," which details specific effects of the cruelty of Indira.

Detailed article: Indian Emergency

Later years

Indira's later reign was most marked by a serious breakdown in Hindu-Sikh relations that would eventually lead to her own assassination. Alarmed at the rise in popularity of the highly political Sikh missionary and militant leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, India's leaders were disturbed by his proclamation that Sikhs were a sovereign and self-ruling community. He and his followers also engaged in terrorist activities aimed at driving out Hindu populace from the state of Punjab. Many atrocious acts were carried out by the militants. The initial appeasement policies of the central government soon gave way to the trademark hard fist approach of Mrs. Gandhi.

Aware of the Pakistani support for the movement, and after years of the separatist movement in Punjab led by Bhindranwale, the separatist militants occupied the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar in June 1984. A decision was taken by the Government to evict these militants from a place of worship: Amritsar's holy Harmindar Sahib or Golden Temple, the central Sikh place of prayer, which had been occupied by Sant Jarnail Singh and his militant supporters with a heavy cache of arms. Operation Blue Star, a military assault, was ordered: the army was to fight its way into the main shrine where Sikh militants had established their headquarters. The army unit involved was headed by Major General Kuldip Singh Brar, GOC, 9 Infantry Division. The occupiers refused to depart from their holiest shrine and a firefight ensued, with 83 soldiers and 493 occupiers – including the leaders – killed, and many more injured.

Sikhs everywhere were outraged at the percieved desecration and their alienation was deep and had dramatic consequences: on October 31, 1984, early in the morning, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh in an act of treason. She was walking towards a television crew led by famous movie actor and director Peter Ustinov, who were waiting to conduct an interview with her. She died shortly after arriving at the All India Institute for Medical Sciences in New Delhi. Beant Singh was fatally shot just after the assassination, and Satwant Singh was sentenced to death by hanging in 1988. In New Delhi, anti-Sikh riots engulfed the city after her death, leaving more than 3,000 innocent Sikh men, women and children dead. Many members of the ruling Congress party were implicated for their role in the riots, either through commission or omission. Many related cases are still pending judgement in Indian courts. The judicial response is an inflammatory topic in India even today. Some believe that Indira had a premonition of her death. The very night before the day she was assassinated she said in a speech, "I don't mind if my life goes in the service of the nation. If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation."


To this day, Indira's legacy as Prime Minister remains mixed. She had a strong personality, and her reign was popular with many segments of India's population, especially the youth and the poor. Her phrase "poverty is the greatest pollutor" in her remarkable speech at the first UN World Environmental Conference in Stockholm in 1972 set her (and India at the time) apart in attempting to harmonise environmental and developmental concerns in developing countries.

In her early struggles to gain control of the Congress party, she transformed Indian politics by appealing directly to the people and subverting the established structure of the Congress. The inadvertant result of this was fragmentation of the political hierarchy resulting in the later rise of parties such as the BSP and the Samajwadi Party, allowing previously marginalised communities to gain polical representation. Her decision to declare a state of emergency solely to escape prosecution remains controversial, and many Sikhs still resent her for Operation Bluestar and the human rights violations of the subsequent Operation Woodrose.

Her two sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, were both involved in politics. Sanjay Gandhi, who was instrumental in convincing Mrs. Gandhi in her decision to call for the emergency of 1975–77, has attracted much censure for his dictatorial use of power particularly in his advocacy of press censorship and forced sterilization camps during the state of emergency. He was being groomed as Mrs. Gandhi's successor before he died in a plane crash in June 1980 amidst controversy. His widow, Maneka Gandhi, who had a falling out with Mrs. Gandhi after Sanjay Gandhi's demise, as well as his son, Varun, are active in politics. However, both are members of the main opposition BJP party. Rajiv Gandhi entered politics in February 1981 and became prime minister on his mother's death, later (May 1991) himself meeting a similar fate, this time at the hands of foreign LTTE militants. Rajiv's widow and Indira's daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, led a Congress led "coalition" (which by itself was history for the Congress party) to a surprise electoral victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha, dethroning Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Sonia Gandhi declined the opportunity to assume the office of Prime Minister but remains in control of the Congress political apparatus; Dr. Manmohan Singh, notably a Sikh and a Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist, now heads the nation. Rajiv's children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi (post-marriage: Priyanka Vadera), have also entered politics with Rahul Gandhi seen as a future prime ministerial candidate.

Preceded by:
Gulzarilal Nanda
Prime Minister of India
Succeeded by:
Morarji Desai
Preceded by:
Charan Singh
Prime Minister of India
Succeeded by:
Rajiv Gandhi

Template:End box

Template:Prime Ministers of India


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