Indira Gandhi

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Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi
Indira Gandhi
Date of Birth: 19 November 1917
Date of Assasination: 31 October 1984
Place of Birth: Allahabad, UP
Prime Minister of India
Tenure Order: 3rd & 5th Prime Minister 
Political party: Congress (I)
First Term
Took Office: 19 January 1966
Left Office: 24 March 1977
Predecessor: Gulzarilal Nanda
Successor: Morarji Desai
Second Term
Took Office: 15 January 1980
Left Office: 31 October 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. She was one of modern India's most important political leaders.


Early years

The Nehru family traced their ancestry to the Brahmins of Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi. Indira's grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was a wealthy barrister of Allahabad in what is now Uttar Pradesh. Nehru was also one of the most prominent members of the Indian National Congress in pre-Gandhi times and would go on to author the Nehru Report, the people's choice for a future Indian system of government as opposed to the British, non-Indian Simon Commission report in 1928. Her father Jawaharlal Nehru was a well-educated lawyer and was a popular leader of the Indian Independence Movement. Indira was born to his young wife Kamala as Nehru entered the struggle and Mahatma Gandhi prepared the masses for a new kind of revolution.

Growing up in the sole care of her mother, who was sick and alienated from the Nehru household, Indira developed strong protective instincts and a loner personality. Her grandfather and father continually being enmeshed in national politics also made mixing with her peers difficult. She had conflicts with her father's sisters, and these continued into the political world.

Indira created the Vanara Sena movement for young girls and boys which played a small but notable role in the Indian Independence Movement, conducting protests and flag marches, as well as helping Congress politicians circulate sensitive publications and banned materials. In an often-told story, Indira smuggled out from her father's police-watched house an important document in her schoolbag that outlined plans for a major revolutionary initiative in the early 1930s.

In 1936, her mother Kamala Nehru finally succumbed to tuberculosis after a long struggle. Indira was 17 at the time and thus never experienced a stable family life during her minority. Indira attended prominent Indian, European and British schools like Santiniketan and Oxford, but her weak academic performance prevented her from obtaining a degree. In her years in continental Europe and the U.K., she met Feroze Gandhi, a young Parsee Congress activist, whom she married in 1942, just before the beginning of the Quit India Movement - the final, all-out national revolt launched by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party. Indira and Feroze were arrested and detained for several months for their involvement in the movement. In 1944, Indira gave birth to Rajiv Gandhi, followed two years later by Sanjay Gandhi.

During the traumatic Partition of India in 1947, Indira helped organize refugee camps and provide medical care for the millions of refugees from Pakistan. This was her first exercise in major public service, and a valuable experience for the tumult of the coming years.

Personal Life

The couple later settled in Allahabad where Feroze worked for a Congress Party newspaper and an insurance company.Their marriage started out well, but deteriorated later as Indira moved to Delhi to be at the side of her father, the Prime Minister, who was living alone in a high-pressure environment. Indira became his constant confidante, secretary and nurse. The boys lived with her, and the separation eventually became permanent.

When India's first general election approached in 1952, Indira managed the campaigns of both Nehru and her husband, who was contesting the constituency of Rae Barreily. Feroze had not consulted Nehru on his choice to run, and even though he was elected, he opted to live in a separate house in Delhi. Feroze quickly developed a reputation for being a fighter against corruption by exposing a major scandal in the nationalized insurance industry, resulting in the resignation of the Finance Minister, a Nehru aide. At the height of the tension, it was known to both that Feroze was having extramarital affairs. However, in 1957, shortly after re-election, Feroze suffered a heart attack, which dramatically healed Indira's broken marriage. At his side to help him recuperate in Kashmir, Indira, her husband and her children grew closer. But Feroze died on September 8, 1960, while Indira was abroad with Nehru on a foreign visit.

Rise to Power

In 1959-1960, Indira was elected the President of the Indian National Congress. Her term of office was uneventful. Indira also acted as her father's chief of staff. Nehru was known as a vocal opponent of nepotism, and Indira did not contest a seat in the 1962 elections.

Nehru died in May of 1964, and Indira, at the urgings of the new Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, contested elections and joined the Government, being immediately appointed Minister for Information and Broadcasting. She went to Chennai when the riots over Hindi becoming the national language broke out in Southern, non-Hindi speaking states: There she spoke to government officials, soothed the anger of community leaders and supervised reconstruction efforts for the affected areas. Shastri and senior Ministers were embarrassed, owing to their lack of such initiative. Indira's actions were probably not directly aimed at Shastri or her own political elevation. Indira lacked interest for details in work and was a lack-lustre Minister, but she was media-savvy, and adept at the art of politics and image-making.

When the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 broke out, Indira was vacationing in the border region of Srinagar. Although warned by the Army that Pakistani insurgents had penetrated very close to the city, Indira refused to shift to Jammu or Delhi. She rallied local government and welcomed media attention, in effect reassuring the nation. Indira was hailed as the "only man in a cabinet full of women". Shastri died of a heart attack while negotiating the peace agreement in Tashkent under Soviet mediation with Pakistan. Inidira quickly emerged as a candiate to succeed him.

Shastri had been a candidate of consensus, bridging the left-right gap and staving off the conservative Morarji Desai. Among Indira's many supporters was Congress President Kumaraswami Kamaraj. In a vote of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Indira won against Desai, 355 to 169, becoming the third Prime Minister of India, the first woman to hold that position in the world's most populous democracy.

Mother Indira

Goongi Gudia (Dumb Doll) and Woh Chokri (That Girl) were the derogatory nicknames addressed to the PM behind her back. Her elevation was in fact a bid by the Congress establishment to retain power, as the political fortunes of the Congress Party had over 17 years become sorely dependent on the "star of Nehru". The Syndicate, as the establishment was known, did not view Indira as a desirable leader but felt she was suitable as the public image of their government. Many political primma-donnas sought to tie their fortunes to Indira. The 1967 General Election returned Indira and the Congress Party to power with a sharply reduced majority, owing to a wide array of economic and social problems and public dissatisfaction with the Government.

Indira's tenure began with a major food shortage on top of the usual back-breaking poverty, ignorance and economic stagnation. She succeeded in negotiating a major food import from U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, more U.S. economic aid and also made a hard decision to devalue the national currency in 1967. Indira refused to back Johnson over the Vietnam War, and Johnson defaulted on the promised aid package. She was also heavily criticized over the devaluation, which brought hardships to common people, and resulted in the elevation of Morarji Desai to the position of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance. Desai had wanted the more powerful Home Ministry, but Indira succeeded in her gambit to prevent him from directly challenging her leadership.

At this point the Kashmiri Mafia began building Indira's leadership. Indira's Personal Private Secretary, P.N. Haksar, a Kashmiri Hindu like her and an old contact from her college days, became her closest and most important political advisor. Haksar helped Indira build a constituency of support directly to her, and not the Congress Party. Indira also became a forceful orator. She used subtle imagery, such as dressing in attire common to the women in the state she was visiting, to build a visible connection with the people. She inherited the loyalty India's working and farming poor gave to her father by turning sharply to the left with a slew of socialist economic reforms. The most controversial of her reforms was the nationalization of all the country's banks. The move reflected the anger of ordinary people at the time as several private banks had collapsed, bankrupting depositors. Moreover, a large number of private banks were actually operated by holding companies with wide-ranging business interests which did not necessarily align with smallholders' interests. Desai and the right-wingers, as well as the economic establishment, staunchly opposed the move. The nationalized network of banks Gandhi created are successful and widely trusted institutions today, but have been accused of holding back India's economic performance due to inflexibility.

On the death of President Zakir Hussain in 1969, the Syndicate backed Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, while Indira backed the Vice President and leftist V V Giri. The All India Congress Committee voted against Giri and Indira, who had called upon Congressmen loyal to her to disobey the AICC vote. The Congress Party soon convened a special session to strip Indira of her party membership, censure her and in effect dismiss her as Prime Minister. But only half the Committee met; the other half convened at Indira's residence, calling itself the "legitimate" AICC. The Indian National Congress, Godfather of the Indian Independence Movement since 1885, had split. The establishment rallied under the Congress (Organization), popularly referred to as the "Old Congress." Indira's supporters formed a thin parliamentary majority, as the Congress (R), or "Ruling Congress." In 1971, Indira galvanized her mass support with the "Garibi Hatao" (Eradicate Poverty) political campaign, and the Congress Party won an awesome majority in Parliament, giving her unprecedented power.

A major crisis was then brewing in East Pakistan, where more than 15 million Bengali Hindus were being forced out of the country into India by the Pakistani army, and ethnic cleansing had resulted in perhaps as many as 3 million deaths. A rebellion started and Bengalis declared independence from Pakistan, creating Bangladesh. The Mukti Bahani, manned by dissenting Bengali soldiers of the Pakistani army and Indian Army-trained refugee volunteers, launched major attacks against the repressive West Pakistan-based regime. In the meanwhile, Indira led the Government in organizing relief camps. She visited Russia and the United States, and at the United Nations upheld India's right to intervene in this mass human tragedy. When the Pakistani air force struck at targets inside India, the Bangladesh Liberation War began. Within three weeks 93,000 Pakistani soldiers were captured, and Bangladesh was liberated. Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh's founding father, gave speeches to a gathering of hundreds of thousands in Dhaka, the new capital. At home, Indira was elevated to a Goddess-like status, with newborn girls named after her and comparisons to the Goddess Durga being made. Increasingly, she was called Mother Indira, having delivered the country to security and confidence in the future.

Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi in 1971
Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi in 1971

Nuclear Security and the Green Revolution

During the 1971 War, the US had sent its 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal as a warning to India not to use the genocide in East Pakistan as a pretext to launch a wider attack against West Pakistan, especially over the disputed territory of Kashmir. This move had further alienated India from the First World, and Indira now accelerated a previously cautious new direction in national security and foreign policy. India and the USSR had earlier signed the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Cooperation, the resulting political and military support contributing substantially to India's victory in the 1971 war. But Indira now also accelerated the National nuclear program, as it was felt that the nuclear threat from China and the intrusive interest of the two major superpowers were not conducive to India's stability and security. Indira also invited the new Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Shimla for a week-long summit. After near-failure of the talks, Bhutto and Indira eventually signed the Shimla Agreement, which bound the two countries to resolve the Kashmir dispute by negotiations and peaceful means. Indira was heavily criticized for not extracting the Pakistan-occupied portion of Kashmir from a humiliated Pakistan, whose 93,000 POWs were under Indian control. But the agreement did remove immediate United Nations and third party interference, and much reduced the likelihood of Pakistan launching a major attack in the near future. By not demanding total capitulation on a sensitive issue from Bhutto, Indira had allowed Pakistan to stabilize and normalize. Trade relations were also normalized, though much contact remained frozen for years. In 1974, India successfully conducted an underground nuclear test near the desert village of Pokhran in Rajasthan. Describing the test as for "peaceful purposes," India nevertheless became the world's youngest nuclear power. This move naturally prompted Pakistan's nuclear program.

Special agricultural innovation programs and extra government support launched in the 1960s had finally resulted in India's chronic food shortages gradually being transformed into major production surpluses of wheat, rice, cotton and milk. The country became a food exporter, and diversified its commercial crop production as well, in what has become known as the Green Revolution. At the same time, the White Revolution was an expansion in milk production which helped to combat malnutrition, especially amidst young children. Indira's economic policies, while socialistic, brought major industrialization as well.

The PM's Personal Life

Indira Gandhi, heroine and icon that she had become after 1971, just like her father was now more emotionally isolated than ever. The instability of her childhood had prevented her from developing her own independent personal interests and lifestyle. It had been her sense of duty and pride in her father and family legacy that had brought her into politics, but she had never been given the space to develop as a person. Through the 1950s and 1960s, she had corresponded with Dorothy Norman, a New York-based journalist, who became a very close friend via correspondence. But apart from political associates, she had no personal friends, and with her sons studying in England, no family life in the true sense. She was fond of Rajiv's Italian-born wife, Sonia Gandhi, and adored her grandchildren. But she grew ever more close to her younger son, Sanjay, who is accused by many historians of misusing his mother's emotional dependence. Indira may have seen traits of Feroze in Sanjay and was ever-anxious to please him, as she perceived that Sanjay blamed her for his father's death. While Rajiv developed as an independent young man free from politics, Sanjay's reckless youth induced a need in his mother to take care of her son under all circumstances. The outcome was a political partnership that eventually resulted in abrogation of democracy, corruption and abuse of power on a previously unwitnessed scale. Rajiv Gandhi is believed to have said that he would never forgive his brother for what he had done to their mother at a time when Indira was isolated, depressed and humiliated after her defeat in the 1977 elections.


Main References: Indian Emergency, Jaya Prakash Narayan, Sanjay Gandhi

Indira's government faced major problems after 1971. Sycophancy enveloped her administration, leaving the Congress Party entirely dependent on her leadership for its election fortunes. Socialism and a burgeoning bureaucracy brought major inefficency and corruption into the national economy and administration. The Green Revolution was transforming the lives of India's vast underclasses, but not with the speed promised under Garibi Hatao. Job growth was not strong enough to curb the widespread unemployment. A government contract to build India's first indigenous car was awarded to Sanjay Gandhi, whose Maruti company subsequently failed to produce a single unit.

Indira had stood accused of authoritarianism before. Using her strong parliamentary majority, she had amended the Constitution and stripped power from the states granted under the federal system. The Congress Party government had repeatedly imposed President's Rule by deeming states ruled by opposition parties as "lawless and chaotic", thus winning administrative control of those states. Elected officials resented the growing influence of Sanjay Ghandi, who had become Indira's close political advisor at the expense of men like P.N. Haksar, the architect of Indira's political ascendancy. Renowned public figures and former freedom-fighters like Jaya Prakash Narayan and Acharya Jivatram Kripalani now spoke actively against her Government.

Opponents had long alleged that Indira's party fraudulently won the 1971 elections. In June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad found the sitting Prime Minister guilty of employing a government servant in her election campaign and Congress Party work. Technically, this constituted election fraud, and the court thus ordered her to be removed from her seat in Parliament and banned from running in elections for six years. Although Indira immediately appealed the decision, the opposition parties rallied en masse calling for her resignation. Strikes by unions, and protest rallies, paralyzed life in many states. J.P. Narayan's Janata coalition even called upon the military services to disobey orders and eject the PM from power. Public disenchantment combined with hard economic times and an unresponsive government. A huge rally surrounded the Parliament building and Indira's residence in Delhi, demanding her resignation.

After consultation with the USSR representative, KGB agent Leonid Shebarshin, Indira ordered President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of emergency. This move was endorsed by Vinoba Bhave (who called it Anushasan Parva [Time for discipline]), and also by Mother Teresa. Indira then called out the police and the Army to break up the strikes and protests, ordering the arrest of all opposition leaders. Many of these were men who had first gone to jail fighting the British in the 1930s and 1940s. Curfews, indiscriminate charges and unlimited powers of detention were granted to police, while all publications were directly censored by the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting. Elections were indefinitely postponed, and non-Congress state governments were dismissed. The Prime Minister pushed a series of increasingly harsh bills and constitutional amendments through parliament with little discussion or debate. Indira attempted to re-write the nation's laws to protect herself from legal prosecution once emergency rule was revoked. Still, Indira did not feel her powers were amassing quickly enough, so she utilized President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, an Indira loyalist, to issue "extraordinary laws" that bypassed parliament altogether, allowing her to rule by decree. Inder Kumar Gujral, future Prime Minister but then Indira's Minister for Information and Broadcasting, resigned protesting Sanjay Gandhi's interference in his Ministry's work.

Indira's emergency rule lasted nineteen months. During this time, in spite of the controversy involved, the country made significant economic and industrial progress. This was primarily due to the end of strikes in factories, colleges and universities, and the disciplining of trade union and student unions power. Production and government work become more efficient. Tax evasion was reduced by zealous government officials, although corruption was resilient. Agricultural and industrial production expanded considerably under Indira's 20-point Programme; revenues increased, and so did India's financial standing in the international community. Against this must be counted the arrest and torture of thousands of political activists, the ruthless clearing of slums around Delhi's Jama Masjid area ordered by Sanjay Gandhi which left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and thousands killed, and the family planning program which forcibly imposed vasectomy on thousands of fathers and was often maladministered, nurturing a public anger against family planning that persists into the 21st century.

In 1977, greatly misjudging her own popularity, Indira called elections and was roundly defeated. To the surprise of some observers, she meekly agreed to step down, although the theory has been proposed that Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, Chief of Army Staff, threatened her by suggesting the possibility of forcible removal.

Detailed article: Indian Emergency

Ouster, Arrest and Return

The unwieldy Janta Party coalition came to power in the 1977 elections. Morarji Desai, Indira's long-time opponent, became Prime Minister and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the establishment choice of 1969, became President of the Republic. Indira had lost her seat and found herself without work, income or residence. The Congress Party split, and veteran Indira supporters like Jagjivan Ram abandoned her for Janata. The Congress (Indira) Party was now a much smaller group in Parliament, although the official opposition. Unable to govern owing to fractious coalition warfare, the Janata governement's Home Minister, Choudhary Charan Singh, ordered the arrest of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi on a slew of charges. Her arrest and long-running trial, however, projected the image of a helpless woman being victimized by the Government, and this triggered Indira's political rebirth.

The people were already dissatisfied with a dysfunctional government, a stagnant economy, disorderly coalition governments at the state levels, near-continuous strikes and disorder, and frustratingly stalled trials of Emergency-era culprits. Millions of poor people recalled their former icon, and the middle classes recalled the order, peace and progress of the Emergency. They were disenchanted by the return of elections and freedom of expression, noting the disorder it caused. Indira began giving speeches again, tacitly apologizing for "mistakes" made during the Emergency, and garnering support from icons like Vinoba Bhave. Desai resigned in June 1979, and Charan Singh was appointed Prime Minister by the President.

Singh attempted to form a government with his Janata (Secular) coalition but lacked a majority. Charan Singh bargained with Indira for the support of Congress (I) MPs, causing an uproar by his unhesitant coddling of his biggest political opponent. After a short interval, Indira withdrew her initial support and President Reddy dissolved Parliament, calling fresh elections in 1980. Indira's Congress (I) Party was returned to power with a landslide majority.

Terrorism and Assassination

Sanjay Gandhi was now officially an MP, and Indira groomed him to be her successor. His death in a plane crash in 1980, however, brought relief to many who saw him as the real problem of the Emergency. After long pleading, Indira eventually succeeded in getting her elder son Rajiv to enter politics. He was duly elected to his brother's seat in 1981. A stable government and a powerful PM now brought order and peace to the country's economy and administration once again; but the rise of an insurgent movement in the states of Assam and Punjab, and the continuing instability of Kashmir, were to have ominous consequences.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a young Sikh fundamentalist priest advocating a distinct Sikh identity, occupied the Golden Temple in Armritsar, the holiest shrine of Sikhism. Several months of negotiations led to the Indian Constitution being amended to recognize the independence of the Sikh religion, but failed to resolve the standoff. While the government did not want to storm a major religious shrine, a rise in sectarian violence by both Hindus and Sikhs across the Punjab region, along with growing fears that Pakistan might intervene militarily in support of the insurgency, pushed the government into action. In June 1984, Gandhi ordered Operation Blue Star, headed by Major General K. S. Brar, to storm the Golden Temple.[1]

Sikhs everywhere were outraged at the perceived desecration of their holiest shrine: on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh. She was cremated on 3 November, near Raj Ghat and the place was called Shakti Sthal. After her death, anti-Sikh riots engulfed New Delhi and spread across the country, killing more than 1,000 and leaving tens of thousands homeless.[2]

The Nehru-Gandhi Family

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 Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants. Rajiv's widow, Sonia Gandhi, a native Italian, led a novel Congress-led coalition to a surprise electoral victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, evicting Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from power. Sonia Gandhi controversially 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, have also entered politics. Sanjay Gandhi's widow, Menaka Gandhi, who had a falling out with Indira after Sanjay's death, as well as his son, Varun, are active in politics as members of the main opposition BJP party.


To this day, Indira's legacy as Prime Minister remains mixed. She was a strong, forceful personality and her reign was popular with some segments of India's population, especially the RSS. 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 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 polarised the country, and many Indians still resent her for Operation Bluestar and the human rights violations of the subsequent operations repressing the public freedom and being responsible for genocide in Punjab.

Some suggest that Indira, despite her heavy-handed tactics and mistakes, was vital for India's democracy and unity, citing the faith in democracy of hundreds of millions of people united only in poverty and ignorance depended upon iconic leaders and guardians. It is suggested that the only viable alternative for India was to trade democracy for a dictatorship in view of the national insecurity and economic deprivation that defined the 1960s for India. Indira united India's people and kept them enthusiastic about voting and involved in a government that represented the will of the people.

Indira's unhesitating war leadership reassured the people, increasing their faith in its future and security of their government, freedom and everyday lives. It kept the country united by showing that the nation was prepared to fight against any and all enemies. And that an Indian woman was the one making such tough decisions was only more discomforting to India's pessimists and enemies. Although most Sikhs and many Hindus denounced Operation Bluestar and Indira's brutal fight against non-Hindu movements, Indira's hard-nosed, zero-tolerance approach to secessionists was welcomed by many who were afraid of the uprising of non-Hindu freedom.


Preceded by:
Gulzarilal Nanda
Prime Minister of India
19 January 1966–24 March 1977
Succeeded by:
Morarji Desai
Preceded by:
Choudhary Charan Singh
Prime Minister of India
15 January 1980–31 October 1984
Succeeded by:
Rajiv Gandhi

Prime Ministers of India

NehruNandaShastriI. GandhiDesaiC. C. SinghR. GandhiV. P. SinghShekharRaoVajpayeeGowdaGujralM. Singh

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