Popularly known as the ‘Iron Lady of India,’ Indira Gandhi earned a formidable reputation across the globe as a stateswoman. Her sheer sense of politics and exceptional skills catapulted her position in the Indian politics, so much so that she went on to become the first woman elected to lead a democratic country. Till date, she is the only woman to have held the office in India. Born in a politically influential dynasty and growing up in an intense political atmosphere, Indira Gandhi had learned the trick of the trade quite early in her life. She possessed an authoritarian streak and became the central figure of the ‘Indian National Congress’ party, post her father’s death. She was known for her political ruthlessness and extraordinary centralization of power. It was during her premiership that India became the regional power in South Asia with considerable political, economic, and military clout. She also presided over a state of emergency and made considerable changes to the Indian Constitution. She used the army to resolve numerous internal disputes and encouraged a culture of sycophancy and nepotism, due to which she rubbed many Indians the wrong way. Gandhi initialized ‘Operation Blue Star,’ which gave her a critical reputation and eventually scripted her assassination.
Childhood & Early Life
Indira Gandhi was born Indira Priyadarshini Nehru on 19 November 1917, in Allahabad, British India, to Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamala Nehru. Jawaharlal Nehru would later become independent India’s first prime minister. Indira was the only child to her parents as her younger brother died in infancy.
Unlike others, her childhood wasn’t a happy one. Her father was mostly away from home due to his political commitments and her mother frequently suffered from bouts of illness.
She received her preliminary education at home after which she briefly attended school to complete her matriculation. She was enrolled at the ‘Vishwa Bharati’ in Santiniketan but had to drop out a year later due to the ailing health of her mother in Europe.
Post the death of her mother, Indira attended the ‘University of Oxford’ in Britain, where she studied history, political science, and economics. However, due to her constant ill-health, she returned to India without a degree.
Indira was conferred with the Honorary Degree of Doctor at the ‘University of the South Pacific’ in Fiji on 26 September 1981.
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After the death of her father in 1964, Indira Gandhi was appointed as a member of the ‘Rajya Sabha.’ She also became one of the members of Lal Bahadur Shastri's cabinet, serving as the minister of Information and Broadcasting.
The untimely death of Lal Bahadur Shastri saw numerous contenders for the position of the prime minister. However, unable to come to a conclusion, Indira Gandhi was chosen as the compromised candidate. She became the prime minister of India in January 1966.
Indira Gandhi continued to serve as the prime minister of India until 1977. As the prime minister, she showed exceptional political skills. She drove out many senior Congressmen out of the party and power. This led to internal dissent in the party, leading to a split in the ‘Indian National Congress’ in 1969.
As Prime Minister
During her term as prime minister, Gandhi brought about a radical change in the country’s economic, political, international, and national policies. She oversaw the implementation of more than three five-year-plans – two of which were successful in meeting the targeted growth.
One of her crucial decisions included the nationalization of 14 major commercial banks. The move proved to be fruitful as it improved the geographical coverage of banks, with the number of branches rising from 8200 to 62000. Furthermore, the nationalization of banks increased household savings and saw investment in small and medium-sized enterprises and agricultural sector.
She then nationalized the coal, steel, copper, refining, cotton textiles, and insurance industries. The main aim of this move was to protect employment and secure the interest of the organized labor. As for the private sector industries, she brought them under strict regulatory control.
Gandhi even nationalized the oil companies after the 1971 war against Pakistan when India faced oil crises. With this, ‘Indian Oil Corporation’ (IOC), the ‘Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited,’ (HPCL) and the ‘Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited’ (BPCL) were formed. The oil companies had to keep a minimum stock level of oil, to be supplied to the military at the time of need.
It was during Gandhi’s premiership that ‘Green Revolution’ brought remarkable change in the agricultural production of India. She changed the course of the nation - from an import-dependent country to a country that could now manage a decent portion of its demands from domestic production. She mainly targeted growth with stability and progressive achievement of self-reliance.
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In 1971, Gandhi supported East Pakistan in the ‘Pakistan Civil War,’ which led to the formation of Bangladesh. This helped India bring the Himalayan states under the influence of the country. While Nepal and Bhutan remained aligned to India, Sikkim was incorporated as an Indian state in 1975, through a referendum.
Under the administrative policy of Gandhi, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Haryana, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh were given statehood. As for Chandigarh and Arunachal Pradesh, both were declared a union territory.
While Indira Gandhi shared strong ties with Soviet Union, her relationship with the US was a strained one. During her premiership, she also maintained close ties with Bangladesh which continued only until 1975. Post the assassination of Bangladesh Prime Minister, Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, the ties between India and Bangladesh soured.
During her term as the prime minister, Gandhi worked hard to normalize relations and reopen diplomatic establishments between India and Pakistan. Though Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had agreed for the same, the rise to power of General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan in 1978 marred all efforts of better relations between the two countries.
Gandhi’s ties with the Southeast Asian countries were strained due to her pro-Soviet tilt and ASEAN’s pro-American ties. However, her relation with the Southeast Asian countries was revived following Gandhi's endorsement of the ZOPFAN declaration and the disintegration of the SEATO alliance, but it did not do much to strengthen the ties.
Gandhi also brought in social reforms by introducing clauses related to wages in the Indian Constitution - equal pay for equal work to both men and women.
State of Emergency & Loss at 1977 Elections
After the 1971 elections, the opposition parties accused her of using unlawful methods and electoral fraud to win the elections. Due to this, a case was filed in the Allahabad High Court which found Gandhi guilty of using state machinery for election campaign.
The court, on June 1975, declared the elections null and void and unseated Indira Gandhi from the ‘Lok Sabha.’ Additionally, she was banned from contesting for the next six years.
These were trying times for India. The country was still recuperating from its war against Pakistan, and faced drought and oil crises. To add to the woes, the strikes and political protests affected the economy and created disorder across the country. To curb the same, Gandhi advised President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of emergency.
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The period of emergency in India lasted for 21 months, from June 1975 until March 1977. It bestowed on Gandhi the power to rule by decree, thereby suspending elections and all civil liberties. The entire country came under the rule of the central government.
During the emergency, all publications were subjected to censorship by the ministry of Information and Broadcasting. As such, no one could raise their voice against the act of the government.
Gandhi extended the state of emergency twice, before the elections of March 1977. ‘The Janata Party,’ led by Moraji Desai and Jai Prakash Narayan, appealed to the people, saying that it was the last chance to choose between democracy and dictatorship.
The result of the election was not much of a surprise. The ‘Congress Party’ was defeated convincingly, winning just 153 seats. Both Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi lost their respective positions.
The ‘Janata Party,’ led by Moraji Desai, ordered the arrest of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi on charges of planning to kill the opposition leaders during emergency. The move, however, proved to be futile as none of the charges were proved. What’s more, Indira Gandhi gained sympathy from the people.
The ‘Janata Party’ leaders had little in common except for their united hatred towards Indira Gandhi. As such, the government did not function well. The division in the ‘Janata Party’ resulted in Desai’s stepping down and Charan Singh’s appointment as the new prime minister. However, this also did not work for long and the Parliament was dissolved in the winter session of 1979 and election was announced in 1980.
Second Term as Prime Minister
Most of Indira Gandhi’s premiership during her second term was spent resolving the political problems of Punjab. A secessionist movement had been initiated by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who along with his troops had found base at the Golden Temple, the sacred place of worship for the Sikhs.
Bhindranwale, along with his supporters, had started a campaign against the government, moderate Sikhs, and Hindus.
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To avoid Bhindranwale from gaining power, Gandhi commenced ‘Operation Blue Star.’ The main aim of the operation was to get rid of the terrorists from the precinct of the Golden Temple and subdue Bhindranwale and his men. ‘Operation Blue Star’ successfully subdued Bhindarwale and his team but several civilians lost their lives and the shrine was ruefully damaged. Due to this, Gandhi earned the hatred of the Sikhs who declared Bhindranwale a martyr of the 21st century.
Personal Life & Legacy
Indira and Feroze Gandhi knew each other since childhood - this acquaintance gradually matured into a relationship when they were in the UK for their studies. They got married in March 1942 and were later blessed with two sons - Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi.
‘Operation Blue Star’ eventually caused her death as two of her Sikh bodyguards, deeply hurt by the insult heaped upon the Sikh, shot her to death, in order to avenge the insult.
Though Gandhi was taken to the ‘All India Institute of Medical Sciences’ where doctors tried to revive her, she failed to survive and was declared dead. She was cremated near Raj Ghat - the spot is now known as ‘Shakti Sthal.’ Her funeral was televised live on numerous domestic and international channels.
In an attempt to honor and pay tribute to the great political leader, the central government launched the low-cost housing program for the rural poor. The program, ‘Indira Awaas Yojana,’ was named after her.
The international airport at New Delhi is named ‘Indira Gandhi International Airport’ in her honor. One of the largest universities in the world, ‘Indira Gandhi National Open University,’ is named after her.
‘Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration,’ an annual award given to those who promote national integration, was conceptualized and established by the ‘Indian National Congress’ in 1985.
She was voted as the greatest Indian Prime Minister in a poll organized by ‘India Today.’ She was also named ‘Woman of the Millennium’ in a poll conducted by the ‘BBC’ in 1999.
‘The University of Oxford’ conferred Gandhi with an honorary degree. It also selected her as one of the ten Oxasians (illustrious Asian graduates) from the ‘University of Oxford.’
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The government of Bangladesh bestowed upon Gandhi its highest state award for her ‘outstanding contribution’ to the country's independence.
She imposed a ‘State of Emergency’ in India in June 1975, which lasted for 21 months until March 1977. She ruled by decree during the emergency and brought the entire country under the rule of the central government.
She initiated ‘Operation Blue Star’ to get rid of the terrorists, who were supporting Bhindranwale, from the precinct of the Golden Temple. It eventually led to her assassination.
Top 10 Facts You Did Not Know About Indira Gandhi
As a young girl, she played her part in India’s struggle for freedom by forming a ‘Monkey Brigade’ which spied on police and distributed flags.
She was imprisoned for 13 months in 1942 by the British for her part in nationalist political demonstrations against British rule.
Her father Jawaharlal Nehru strongly opposed her marriage with Feroze Gandhi, but she bravely faced all the opposition to marry him.
Contrary to the popular perception, there is absolutely no relation between Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi.
It is said that Indira Gandhi had many love affairs during her lifetime. Katherine Frank in her book ‘The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi’ mentions that Indira’s first love affair was with her German teacher at Shantiniketan. Later, she had affairs with M. O. Mathai (Jawaharlal Nehru's secretary), Dhirendra Brahmachari (her yoga teacher), and Dinesh Singh, a Congress leader who later served as the Foreign Minister of India.
Indira Gandhi was elected Congress president in 1959, when her father was the prime minister.
She was the second female head of government in the world after Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka.
The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with whom she had friendly relations, cried bitterly at her funeral.
Indira Gandhi’s last rites were attended by top Bollywood stars like Raj Kapoor, Sunil Dutt, and Amitabh Bachchan.
In 2011, she was honored posthumously with the highest award in Bangladesh—the ‘Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona’ (Bangladesh Freedom Honor).