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.
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.