The Iron Lady

In­dia’s third prime min­is­ter, Indira Gandhi, was one of the coun­try’s most pow­er­ful, con­tro­ver­sial and prom­i­nent politi­cians of her time.

Southasia - - Leadership series - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

The first woman to be In­dia’s prime min­ster as well as “the first woman ever to be elected to lead a democ­racy,” Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, was born at her fam­ily home Ananda Bhawan in Al­la­habad on 19 Novem­ber 1917. She was the only child of Jawa­har­lal and Ka­mala Nehru and grand­daugh­ter of the fa­mous bar­ris­ter-po­lit­i­cal leader, Moti­lal Nehru, a Kash­miri Brah­min.

She at­tended pri­mary school in sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions in In­dia and Europe, in­clud­ing Ecole In­ter­na­tionale in Geneva, Ecole Nou­velle in Bex, and St Ce­cilia’s and St Mary’s con­vent schools (both in Al­la­habad). Though she later en­rolled at Somerville Col­lege, Univer­sity of Ox­ford, she did not take any de­gree.

Con­trary to the per­cep­tion in some cir­cles, the “Gandhi” in her sur­name does not sig­nify any re­la­tion­ship to Ma­hatma Gandhi. This was her Parsi spouse, Feroz Gandhi’s sur­name. She knew him from Al­la­habad and dur­ing her stay in the UK fre­quently met him. Feroz was then study­ing at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. They mar­ried in 1942 and she bore him two sons, Ra­jiv and San­jay.

In 1936, Indira lost her mother, who died in Switzer­land af­ter fight­ing a long bat­tle with tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. Indira was then just nine­teen. Her fa­ther was dev­as­tated and she be­came his con­fi­dante, sec­re­tary and nurse.

It was as Indira Nehru, at the age of eleven when she first dis­played her lead­er­ship abil­ity, by cre­at­ing the Va­nara Sena (Army of Mon­keys) move­ment for young girls and boys. The chil­dren “con­ducted protests and flag marches, and helped Congress politi­cians cir­cu­late sen­si­tive pub­li­ca­tions and banned ma­te­ri­als,” be­cause, they were not sus­pected by the po­lice. Dur­ing the chaos at the par­ti­tion of In­dia in 1947, Indira helped or­ga­nize refugee camps and pro­vide med­i­cal care for the mil­lions of refugees coming from Pak­istan. This was her first ex­er­cise in ma­jor pub­lic ser­vice.

Af­ter in­de­pen­dence, when Jawa­har­lal Nehru be­came the first prime min­is­ter, Indira Gandhi man­aged the of­fi­cial res­i­dence of her fa­ther and ac­com­pa­nied him on his numer­ous for­eign trips.

Indira had joined the Congress in 1938. In 1959 she was elected Congress Pres­i­dent. Af­ter her fa­ther’s demise in 1964, she was of­fered the premier­ship but she de­clined and in­stead opted to be­come min­is­ter for in­for­ma­tion and broad­cast­ing in the government of Lal Ba­hadur Shas­tri.

Fol­low­ing Shas­tri’s death in 1966 when a split oc­curred within the party be­tween con­ser­va­tives and so­cial­ists, Indira emerged as the con­sen­sus can­di­date and con­sented to be­come prime min­is­ter. Party lead­ers de­cided upon her be­cause they ex­pected her to be pli­able. Ram Manohar Lo­hia la­belled her a gungi gudiya (dumb doll). But she proved them wrong as she took tough de­ci­sions such as na­tion­al­is­ing banks in 1969.

Indira Gandhi was elected a record four terms as Prime Min­is­ter from 1966–77 and again from 1980 un­til her as­sas­si­na­tion in 1984.

In 1971, Gandhi was re-elected us­ing the slo­gan, “Abol­ish Poverty.” In­dia’s tri­umph in the war against Pak­istan later in the same year gave her un­prece­dented pop­u­lar­ity among the masses, who be­gan to de­ify her. The ex­plo­sion of a nu­clear de­vice in 1974 and the an­nex­a­tion of Sikkim in 1975 boosted her pop­u­lar­ity fur­ther among her peo­ple as a tough and shrewd po­lit­i­cal leader, earn­ing her the ti­tle, “Iron Lady.”

In June 1975, the High Court of Al­la­habad found Prime Min­is­ter Gandhi guilty of em­ploy­ing a government ser­vant in her elec­tion cam­paign and Congress Party work. Since tech­ni­cally this con­sti­tuted elec­tion fraud, the court re­moved her from her seat in the Lok Sabha and banned her from run­ning in elec­tions for six years.

Not one to take it ly­ing down, she ap­pealed the de­ci­sion and at the same time de­clared a state of emer­gency. The emer­gency lasted two years un­til 1977. Dur­ing this pe­riod, “her po­lit­i­cal foes were im­pris­oned, con­sti­tu­tional rights ab­ro­gated, and the press placed un­der strict cen­sor­ship,” while she made some last­ing changes in the Con­sti­tu­tion of In­dia. The emer­gency, which was squarely con­demned by all prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in­clud­ing Jai Prakash Narayan, caused a se­vere dent to Indira’s po­lit­i­cal im­age.

In June 1984, some Sikhs started a se­ces­sion­ist move­ment. The Iron Lady re- sponded with the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion co­de­named Blue Star to dis­lodge them from the Golden Tem­ple where they had been hid­ing. Their leader, Jar­nail Singh Bhin­dran­wale was killed and the rebels sup­pressed. In the process the holi­est Sikh shrine was des­e­crated. Four months later, on 31 Oc­to­ber 1984, two of her Sikh body­guards shot Indira Gandhi to death, as she was leav­ing her res­i­dence.

Indira led by ex­am­ple. When the In­doPak­istan War of 1965 broke out, she was va­ca­tion­ing in Srinagar. Even af­ter the Army warned her that Pak­istani in­sur­gents had pen­e­trated very close to the city, she re­fused to move to a safer lo­ca­tion, demon­strat­ing her courage and re­solve thus re­as­sur­ing the na­tion. She strongly pro­moted sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. She also worked to im­prove re­la­tions with neigh­bors, in­clud­ing China and Pak­istan, when she re­leased Pak­istani PoWs as a friendly ges­ture. Gandhi’s agri­cul­tural in­no­va­tion pro­grams, launched in the 1960s, came to be known as the Green Rev­o­lu­tion. This trans­formed In­dia from suf­fer­ing from chronic food short­ages to be­com­ing an ex­porter of food. Sim­i­larly, the White Rev­o­lu­tion was an ex­pan­sion in milk pro­duc­tion that helped to com­bat mal­nu­tri­tion, es­pe­cially among young chil­dren.

Indira Gandhi was in­se­cure from her child­hood. She was four years old when her fa­ther and grand­fa­ther were first jailed for their po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties. There­after it be­came a reg­u­lar fea­ture in their lives, which left an im­pact on her par­tic­u­larly be­cause as the only child she was lonely. This also pre­vented her from de­vel­op­ing her own in­de­pen­dent per­sonal in­ter­ests and life­style. The world of pol­i­tics was where she felt most at home. Un­for­tu­nately, this did not make for a par­tic­u­larly healthy and well­rounded life. There­fore, ex­cept po­lit­i­cal as­so­ci­ates, she had no friends. Indira Gandhi was largely known for her po­lit­i­cal ruth­less­ness and un­prece­dented cen­tral­iza­tion of power. Though a cul­tured woman, she rarely tol­er­ated dis­sent.

Yet, withal, she has left as in­deli­ble a mark on In­dia’s his­tory as her fa­ther, Jawa­har­lal Nehru.

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