Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (19 November 1917 – 31 October 1984) was the first female Prime Minister of India and central figure of the Indian National Congress party.
Indira Gandhi, who served from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984, is the second-longest-serving Prime Minister of India and the only woman to hold the office.
Indira Gandhi was the only child of the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She served as the Chief of Staff of her father’s highly centralised administration between 1947 and 1964 and came to wield considerable unofficial influence in government.
She was elected Congress President in 1959. Upon her father’s death in 1964, Gandhi refused to enter Congress party leadership contest and instead chose to become a cabinet minister in the government led by Lal Bahadur Shastri.
In Congress’ party parliamentary leadership election held in early 1966 upon the death of Shastri, she defeated her rival, Morarji Desai, to become leader and thus succeed Shastri as the prime minister of India.
As the Prime Minister of India, Gandhi was known for her political ruthlessness and unprecedented centralisation of power.
She went to war with Pakistan in support of the independence movement and war of independence in East Pakistan, which resulted in an Indian victory and the creation of Bangladesh, as well as increasing India’s influence to the point where it became the regional hegemon of South Asia.
Gandhi also presided over a controversial state of emergency from 1975 to 1977 during which she ruled by decree.
She was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards a few months after she ordered the storming of the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar to counter the Punjab insurgency.
Indira Gandhi was born Indira Nehru in a Kashmiri Pandit family on 19 November 1917 in Allahabad. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in India’s political struggle for independence from British rule, and became the first Prime Minister of the Union (and later Republic) of India. She was the only child (a younger brother was born, but died young), and grew up with her mother, Kamala Nehru, at the Anand Bhavan; a large family estate in Allahabad.
She had a lonely and unhappy childhood. Her father was often away, directing political activities or being incarcerated in prison, while her mother was frequently bed-ridden with illness, and later suffered an early death from tuberculosis. She had limited contact with her father, mostly through letters.
Gandhi was mostly taught at home by tutors, and intermittently attended school until matriculation in 1934. She was a student at the Modern School in Delhi, St Cecilia’s and St Mary’s Christian convent schools in Allahabad, the Ecole Internationale in Geneva, the Ecole Nouvelle in Bex, and the Pupils’ Own School in Poona and Bombay.
She went on to study at the Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan. It was during her interview that Rabindranath Tagore named her Priyadarshini, and she came to be known as Indira Priyadarshini Nehru. A year later, however, she had to leave university to attend to her ailing mother in Europe. While there, it was decided that Gandhi would continue her education at the University of Oxford.
After her mother died, she briefly attended the Badminton School before enrolling at Somerville College in 1937 to study history. Gandhi had to take the entrance examination twice, having failed at her first attempt with a poor performance in Latin. At Oxford, she did well in history, political science and economics, but her grades in Latin—a compulsory subject—remained poor.
During her time in Europe, Gandhi was plagued with ill-health and was constantly attended by doctors. She had to make repeated trips to Switzerland to recover, disrupting her studies.
She was being treated there in 1940, when the Nazi armies rapidly conquered Europe. Gandhi tried to return to England through Portugal but was left stranded for nearly two months. She managed to enter England in early 1941, and from there returned to India without completing her studies at Oxford. The university later awarded her an honorary degree. In 2010, Oxford further honoured her by selecting her as one of the ten Oxasians, illustrious Asian graduates from the University of Oxford.
During her stay in Great Britain, young Gandhi frequently met her future husband Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), whom she knew from Allahabad, and who was studying at the London School of Economics. The marriage took place in Allahabad according to Adi Dharm rituals though Feroze belonged to a Zorastrian Parsi family of Gujarat.
In the 1950s, Indira, now Mrs. Indira Gandhi after her marriage, served her father unofficially as a personal assistant during his tenure as the first Prime Minister of India. Towards the end of the 1950s, Indira Gandhi served as the President of the Congress. In that capacity, she was instrumental in getting the Communist led Kerala State Government dismissed in 1959. That government had the distinction of being India’s first ever elected Communist Government.
After her father’s death in 1964 she was appointed as a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and became a member of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. In 1966, after Shastri’s death, the Congress legislative party elected Indira Gandhi over Morarji Desai as their leader. Congress party veteran, Kamaraj was instrumental in achieving Indira’s victory.
Following a poor showing in the 1967 general election, Indira Gandhi started progressively moving to the left in the political spectrum. In 1969, after falling out with senior party leaders on a number of issues, the party president S. Nijalingappa expelled her from the party.
Gandhi, in turn floated her own faction of the Congress party and managed to retain most of the Congress MPs on her side with only 65 on the side of Congress (O) faction. The policies of the Congress under Indira Gandhi, prior to the 1971 elections, also included proposals for the abolition of Privy Purse to former rulers of the Princely states and the 1969 nationalization of the fourteen largest banks in India.
Gandhi called snap out elections for March 1971. In this election, her Congress (R) Party scored a landslide victory on a platform of progressive policies such as poverty elimination (Garibi Hatao) against the United opposition aliance’s “Indira Hatao” ( Remove Indira) Manifesto.,
The internal structure of the Congress Party had withered following its numerous splits, leaving it entirely dependent on her leadership for its election fortunes. Garibi Hatao (Eradicate Poverty) was the theme for Gandhi’s 1971 bid. The slogan and the proposed anti-poverty programs that came with it were designed to give Gandhi an independent national support, based on rural and urban poor.
This would allow her to bypass the dominant rural castes both in and of state and local governments; likewise the urban commercial class. And, for their part, the previously voiceless poor would at last gain both political worth and political weight. The programs created through Garibi Hatao, though carried out locally, were funded and developed by the Central Government in New Delhi.
The program was supervised and staffed by the Indian National Congress party. “These programs also provided the central political leadership with new and vast patronage resources to be disbursed… throughout the country.”
The biggest achievement of Indira Gandhi after the 1971 election was the victory against Pakistan that led to the formation of independent Bangladesh. At that time she was hailed as Goddess Durga by opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
In the elections held for State assemblies across India in March 1972, the Congress(R) swept to power in most states riding on the post-war “Indira wave”.
Despite the victory against Pakistan, the Congress government faced numerous problems during this term. Some of these were due to high inflation which was in turn caused by war time expenses, drought in some parts of the country and more importantly, the 1973 oil crisis. The opposition to Gandhi in 1973-75 period, after the Indira wave had receded, was strongest in Bihar and Gujarat. In Bihar, Jayaprakash Narayan, the veteran leader came out of retirement to lead the protest movement there.
On 12 June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad declared Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha void on grounds of electoral malpractice. In an election petition filed by Raj Narain (who later on defeated her in 1977 parliamentary election from Rae Bareily), he had alleged several major as well as minor instances of using government resources for campaigning. The court thus ordered her stripped of her parliamentary seat and banned from running for any office for six years.
The Prime Minister must be a member of either the Lok Sabha (the lower house in the Parliament of India) or the Rajya Sabha (the upper house). Thus, this decision effectively removed her from office. Gandhi had asked one of her colleagues in government, Mr Ashoke Kumar Sen to defend her in court.
But Gandhi rejected calls to resign and announced plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. The verdict was delivered by Mr Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha at Allahabad High Court. It came almost four years after the case was brought by Raj Narain, the premier’s defeated opponent in the 1971 parliamentary election. Gandhi, who gave evidence in her defence during the trial, was found guilty of dishonest election practices, excessive election expenditure, and of using government machinery and officials for party purposes. The judge,however, rejected more serious charges of bribery against her.
Gandhi insisted that the conviction did not undermine her position, despite having been unseated from the lower house of parliament, Lok Sabha, by order of the High Court. She said: “There is a lot of talk about our government not being clean, but from our experience the situation was very much worse when [opposition] parties were forming governments”. And she dismissed criticism of the way her Congress Party raised election campaign money, saying all parties used the same methods.
The prime minister retained the support of her party, which issued a statement backing her. After news of the verdict spread, hundreds of supporters demonstrated outside her house, pledging their loyalty. Indian High Commissioner BK Nehru said Gandhi’s conviction would not harm her political career. “Mrs Gandhi has still today overwhelming support in the country,” he said. “I believe the prime minister of India will continue in office until the electorate of India decides otherwise”.
Gandhi moved to restore order by ordering the arrest of most of the opposition participating in the unrest. Her Cabinet and government then recommended that President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declare a state of emergency because of the disorder and lawlessness following the Allahabad High Court decision. Accordingly, Ahmed declared a State of Emergency caused by internal disorder, based on the provisions of Article 352(1) of the Constitution, on 25 June 1975.
Within a few months, President’s Rule was imposed on the two opposition party ruled states of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu thereby bringing the entire country under direct Central rule or by governments led by the ruling Congress party. Police were granted powers to impose curfews and indefinitely detain citizens and all publications were subjected to substantial censorship by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Finally, the impending legislative assembly elections were indefinitely postponed, with all opposition-controlled state governments being removed by virtue of the constitutional provision allowing for a dismissal of a state government on recommendation of the state’s governor.
Indira Gandhi used the emergency provisions to change conflicting party members.
Unlike her father Jawaharlal Nehru, who preferred to deal with strong chief ministers in control of their legislative parties and state party organizations, Mrs. Gandhi set out to remove every Congress chief minister who had an independent base and to replace each of them with ministers personally loyal to her…Even so, stability could not be maintained in the states…
President Ahmed issued ordinances that did not require debate in the Parliament, allowing Gandhi to rule by decree.
The Emergency saw the entry of Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay, into Indian Politics. Sanjay wielded tremendous power during the emergency without holding any Government office. According to Mark Tully, “His inexperience did not stop him from using the Draconian powers his mother, Indira Gandhi, had taken to terrorise the administration, setting up what was in effect a police state.”
It was said that during the Emergency he virtually ran India along with his friends, especially Bansi Lal. It was also quipped that Sanjay Gandhi had total control over his mother and that the government was run by the PMH (Prime Minister House) rather than the PMO (Prime Minister Office).
In 1977, after extending the state of emergency twice, Indira Gandhi called elections to give the electorate a chance to vindicate her rule. Gandhi may have grossly misjudged her popularity by reading what the heavily censored press wrote about her.
In any case, she was opposed by the Janata alliance of Opposition parties. Janata alliance, with Jai Prakash Narayan as its spiritual guide, claimed the elections were the last chance for India to choose between “democracy and dictatorship.” The Congress Party split during the election campaign of 1977: veteran Gandhi supporters like Jagjivan Ram, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy were compelled to part ways and form a new political entity, CFD (Congress for Democracy), primarily due to intra-party politicking and also due to circumstances created by Sanjay Gandhi.
The prevailing rumour was that Sanjay had intentions of dislodging Gandhi and the trio stood between that. Gandhi’s Congress party was crushed soundly in the elections. The public realized the statement and motto of the Janata Party alliance. Indira and Sanjay Gandhi both lost their seats, and Congress was cut down to 153 seats (compared with 350 in the previous Lok Sabha), 92 of which were in the South. The Janata alliance, under the leadership of Morarji Desai, came into power after the State of Emergency was lifted.
The alliance parties later merged to form the Janata Party under the guidance of Gandhian leader, Jayaprakash Narayan. The other leaders of the Janata Party were Charan Singh, Raj Narain, George Fernandes and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Since Gandhi had lost her seat in the election, the defeated Congress party appointed Yashwantrao Chavan as their parliamentary party leader. Soon afterwards, the Congress party split again with Gandhi floating her own Congress (I) faction. She won a bye-election from the Chikamagalur constituency to the Lok sabha in 1978.
However, the Janata government’s Home Minister, Choudhary Charan Singh, ordered the arrest of her and Sanjay Gandhi on several charges, none of which would be easy to prove in an Indian court. The arrest meant that Indira Gandhi was automatically expelled from Parliament. These allegations included that she “‘had planned or thought of killing all opposition leaders in jail during the Emergency’”.
In response to her arrest, Indira Gandhi’s supporters hijacked an Indian Airlines jet and demanded her immediate release. However, this strategy backfired disastrously. Her arrest and long-running trial gained her great sympathy from many people.
The Janata coalition was only united by its hatred of Gandhi (or “that woman” as some called her). The party included right wing Hindu Nationalists, Socialists and former Congress party members. With so little in common, the Morarji Desai government was bogged down by infighting.
In 1979, the government started to unravel over the issue of dual loyalties of some members to Janata and the RSS. The ambitious Union Finance minister, Charan Singh, who as the Union Home Minister during the previous year had ordered arrest of Gandhi, took advantage of this and started courting the Congress (I). After a significant exodus from the party to Charan Singh’s faction, Desai resigned in July 1979.
Charan Singh was appointed Prime Minister, by President Reddy, after Indira and Sanjay Gandhi promised Singh that Congress (I) would support his government from outside on certain conditions., The conditions included dropping all charges against Indira and Sanjay. Since Charan Singh refused to drop the charges, Congress (I) withdrew its support and President Reddy dissolved Parliament in August 1979.
Before the 1980 elections Gandhi approached the then Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Abdullah Bukhari and entered into an agreement with him on the basis of 10-point programme to secure the support of the Muslim votes. In the elections held in January, Congress returned to power with a landslide majority.
In 1979, when she visited Madurai, some hooligans attacked her. Nedumaran saved her from the attacks.
The Congress (I) under Gandhi swept back to power in January 1980. Elections soon after to State assemblies across the country also brought back Congress ministries in the state with Sanjay Gandhi choosing loyalists to lead the states. Sanjay soon died in an air crash early into this term. Gandhi by this stage only trusted her family members and therefore decided to bring in her reluctant pilot son, Rajiv into politics.
In the 1977 elections, a coalition led by the Sikh-majority Akali Dal came to power in the northern Indian state of Punjab. In an effort to split the Akali Dal and gain popular support among the Sikhs, Indira Gandhi’s Congress helped bring the orthodox religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to prominence in Punjab politics.
Later, Bhindranwale’s organisation Damdami Taksal became embroiled in violence with another religious sect called the Sant Nirankari Mission, and he was accused of instigating the murder of the Congress leader Jagat Narain.
After being arrested in this matter, Bhindranwale disassociated himself from Congress and joined hands with the Akali Dal. In July 1982, he led the campaign for the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which demanded greater autonomy for the Sikh-majority state. Meanwhile, a small section of the Sikhs, including some of Bhindranwale’s followers, turned to militancy after being targeted by government officials and police in support of the Resolution.
After several futile negotiations, Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian army to enter the Golden Temple in order to subdue Bhindranwale and his followers. In the resulting Operation Blue Star, the shrine was damaged and many civilians were killed.
The State of Punjab was closed to international media, its phone and communication lines shut. To this day the events remain controversial with a disputed number of victims; Sikhs seeing the attack as unjustified and Bhindrawale being declared the greatest Sikh martyr of the 20th century by Akal Takht (Sikh Political Authority) in 2003.
The day before her death Indira Gandhi visited Orissa on 30 October 1984 where she gave her last speech:
I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow…I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say, that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.
Indira Gandhi delivered her last speech at the then Parade Ground in front of the Secretariat of Orissa. After her death, the Parade Ground was converted to the Indira Gandhi Park which was inaugurated by her son, Rajiv Gandhi.
On 31 October 1984, two of Gandhi’s bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, shot her with their service weapons in the garden of the Prime Minister’s residence at 1 Safdarjung Road, New Delhi. The shooting occurred as she was walking past a wicket gate guarded by Satwant and Beant.
She was to have been interviewed by the British actor Peter Ustinov, who was filming a documentary for Irish television. Beant Singh shot her three times using his side-arm and Satwant Singh fired 30 rounds.
Beant Singh and Satwant Singh dropped their weapons and surrendered. Afterwards they were taken away by other guards into a closed room where Beant Singh was shot dead. Kehar Singh was later arrested for conspiracy in the attack. Both Satwant and Kehar were sentenced to death and hanged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
Indira Gandhi was brought at 9:30 AM to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where doctors operated on her. She was declared dead at 2:20 PM. The post-mortem examination was conducted by a team of doctors headed by Dr. T.D. Dogra. Dr. Dogra stated that as many as 30 bullet wounds were sustained by Indira Gandhi, from two sources, a Sten gun and a pistol.
The assailants had fired 31 bullets at her, of which 30 had hit; 23 had passed through her body while 7 were trapped inside her. Dr. Dogra extracted bullets to establish the identity of the weapons and to correlate each weapon with the bullets recovered by ballistic examination.
The bullets were matched with respective weapons at CFSL Delhi. Subsequently Dr. Dogra appeared in the court of Shri Mahesh Chandra as an expert witness (PW-5), and his testimony lasted several sessions. The cross examination was conducted by Shri P. N. Lekhi, the defence counsel.
Salma Sultan gave the first news of assassination of Indira Gandhi on Doordarshan’s evening news on 31 October 1984, more than 10 hours after she was shot.
Gandhi was cremated on 3 November near Raj Ghat. The site where she was cremated is today known as Shakti Sthala. Her funeral was televised live on domestic and international stations, including the BBC. Following her cremation, millions of Sikhs were displaced and nearly three thousand were killed in anti-Sikh riots. Rajiv Gandhi on a live TV show said of the carnage, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”
In 1971, Gandhi intervened in the Pakistani Civil War in support of East Pakistan. India emerged victorious in the resulting conflict to become the regional hegemon of South Asia. India had signed a treaty with the Soviet Union promising mutual assistance in the case of war, while Pakistan received active support from the United States during the conflict. U.S. President Richard Nixon disliked Gandhi personally, referring to her as a “witch” and “clever fox” in his private communication with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Relations with the U.S. became distant as Gandhi developed closer ties with the Soviet Union after the war. The latter grew to become India’s largest trading partner and its biggest arms supplier for much of Gandhi’s premiership. Nixon later wrote of the war: “[Gandhi] suckered [America]. Suckered us…..this woman suckered us.”
India’s new hegemonic position as articulated under the “Indira Doctrine” led to attempts to bring the Himalayan states under the Indian sphere of influence. Nepal and Bhutan remained aligned with India, while in 1975, after years of building up support, Gandhi annexed Sikkim to India. This was denounced as a “despicable act” by China.
India maintained close ties with neighbouring Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) following the Liberation War.
Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman recognized Gandhi’s contributions to the independence of Bangladesh. However, Mujibur Rahman’s pro-India policies antagonised many in Bangladeshi politics and the military, who feared that Bangladesh had become a client state of India. The Assassination of Mujibur Rahman in 1975 led to the establishment of Islamist military regimes that sought to distance the country from India.
Gandhi’s relationship with the military regimes was strained, due to her alleged support of anti-Islamist leftist guerrilla forces in Bangladesh. Generally, however, there was a rapprochement between Gandhi and the Bangladeshi regimes, although issues such as border disputes and the Farakka Dam remained an irritant in bilateral ties.
In 2011, the Government of Bangladesh conferred its highest state award posthumously on Gandhi for her “outstanding contribution” to the country’s independence.
Gandhi’s approach to dealing with Sri Lanka’s ethnic problems was initially accommodating. She enjoyed cordial relations with Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In 1974, India ceded the tiny islet of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka in order to save Bandaranaike’s socialist government from a political disaster.
However, relations soured over Sri Lanka’s turn away from socialism under Junius Jayewardene, whom Gandhi despised as a “western puppet.” India under Gandhi was alleged to have supported LTTE militants in the 1980s to put pressure on Jayewardene to abide by Indian interests.
Nevertheless, Gandhi rejected demands to invade Sri Lanka in the aftermath of Black July 1983, an anti-Tamil pogrom carried out by Sinhalese mobs. Gandhi made a statement emphasizing that she stood for the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, although she also stated that India cannot “remain a silent spectator to any injustice done to the Tamil community.”
India’s relationship with Pakistan remained strained following the Shimla Accord in 1972. Gandhi’s authorization of the detonation of a nuclear device at Pokhran in 1974 was viewed by Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as an attempt to intimidate Pakistan into accepting India’s hegemony in the subcontinent. However, in May 1976, Gandhi and Bhutto both agreed to reopen diplomatic establishments and normalize relations.
Following the rise to power of General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan in 1978, India’s relations with its neighbour reached a nadir. Gandhi accused General Zia of supporting Khalistani militants in Punjab. Military hostilities recommenced in 1984 following Gandhi’s authorization of Operation Meghdoot. India was victorious in the resulting Siachen conflict against Pakistan.
Gandhi remained a staunch supporter of Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict and was critical of the Middle East diplomacy sponsored by the United States.Israel was viewed as a religious state and thus an analogue to India’s arch rival Pakistan. Indian diplomats also hoped to win Arab support in countering Pakistan in Kashmir.
Nevertheless, Gandhi authorized the development of a secret channel of contact and security assistance with Israel in the late 1960s. Her lieutenant, Narasimha Rao, later became Prime Minister and approved full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992.
India’s pro-Arab policy had mixed success. Establishment of close ties with the socialist and secular Baathist regimes to some extent neutralized Pakistani propaganda against India.
However, the Indo-Pakistani war in 1971 put the Arab and Muslim states of the Middle East in a dilemma as the war was fought by two states both friendly to the Arabs. The progressive Arab regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Algeria chose to remain neutral, while the conservative pro-American Arab monarchies in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates openly supported Pakistan. Egypt’s stance was met with dismay by the Indians, who had come to expect close co-operation with the Baathist regimes.
But, the death of Nasser in 1970 and Sadat’s growing friendship with Riyadh, and his mounting differences with Moscow, constrained Egypt to a policy of neutrality.Gandhi’s overtures to Muammar Gaddafi were rebuffed. Libya agreed with the Arab monarchies in believing that Gandhi’s intervention in East Pakistan was an attack against Islam.
The 1971 war temporarily became a stumbling block in growing Indo-Iranian ties. Although Iran had earlier characterized the Indo-Pakistani war in 1965 as Indian aggression, the Shah had launched an effort at rapprochement with India in 1969 as part of his effort to secure support for a larger Iranian role in the Persian Gulf.
Gandhi’s tilt towards Moscow and her dismemberment of Pakistan was perceived by the Shah as part of a larger anti-Iran conspiracy involving India, Iraq, and the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Iran had resisted Pakistani pressure to activate the Baghdad Pact and draw in the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) into the conflict.
Gradually, Indian and Iranian disillusionment with their respective regional allies led to a renewed partnership between the nations. Gandhi was unhappy with the lack of support from India’s Arab allies during the war with Pakistan, while the Shah was apprehensive at the growing friendship between Pakistan and the Gulf states, specially Saudi Arabia, and the growing influence of Islam in Pakistani society.
There was an increase in Indian economic and military co-operation with Iran during the 1970s. The 1974 India-Iranian agreement led to Iran supplying nearly 75 percent of India’s crude oil demands. Gandhi appreciated the Shah’s disregard of Pan-Islamism in diplomacy.
One of the major developments in Southeast Asia during Gandhi’s premiership was the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. Relations between ASEAN and India was mutually antagonistic. ASEAN in the Indian perception was linked to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and it was therefore, seen as a pro-American organisation.
On their part, the ASEAN nations were unhappy with Gandhi’s sympathy for the Viet Cong and India’s strong links with the USSR. Furthermore, they were also apprehensions in the region about Gandhi’s future plans, particularly after India played a big role in breaking up Pakistan and facilitating in the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign country in 1971. India’s entry into the nuclear weapons club in 1974 contributed to tensions in Southeast Asia.
Relations only began to improve following Gandhi’s endorsement of the ZOPFAN declaration and the disintegration of the SEATO alliance in the aftermath of Pakistani and American defeats in the region. Nevertheless, Gandhi’s close relations with reunified Vietnam and her decision to recognize the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1980 meant that India and ASEAN were not able to develop a viable partnership.
Although independent India was initially viewed as a champion of anti-colonialism, its cordial relationship with the Commonwealth of Nations and liberal views of British colonial policies in East Africa had harmed its image as a staunch supporter of the anti-colonial movements. Indian condemnation of militant struggles in Kenya and Algeria was in sharp contrast to China, who had supported armed struggle to win African independence.
After reaching a high diplomatic point in the aftermath of Nehru’s role in the Suez Crisis, India’s isolation from Africa was complete when only four nations; Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Libya supported her during the Sino-Indian War in 1962. After Gandhi became Prime Minister, diplomatic and economic relations with the states which had sided with India during the Sino-Indian War were expanded.
Gandhi began negotiations with the Kenyan government to establish the Africa-India Development Cooperation. The Indian government also started considering the possibility of bringing Indians settled in Africa within the framework of its policy goals to help recover its declining geo-strategic influence. Gandhi declared the people of Indian origin settled in Africa as “Ambassors of India.”
Efforts to rope in the Asian community to join Indian diplomacy, however, came to naught, partly because of the unwilligness of Indians to remain in politically insecure surroundings and partly due to the exodus of African Indians to Britain with the passing of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1968. In Uganda, the African Indian community even suffered presecution and eventually expulsion under the government of Idi Amin.
Foreign and domestic policy successes in the 1970s enabled Gandhi to rebuild India’s image in the eyes of African states. Victory over Pakistan and India’s possession of nuclear weapons showed the degree of India’s progress.
Furthermore, the conclusion of the Indo-Soviet treaty in 1971 and threatening gestures by the major western power, the United States, to send its nuclear armed Task Force 74 into the Bay of Bengal at the height of the East Pakistan crisis had enabled India to regain its anti-imperialist image. Gandhi firmly tied Indian anti-imperialist interests in Africa to those of the Soviet Union.
Unlike Nehru, she openly and enthusiastically supported liberation struggles in Africa. At the same time, Chinese influence in Africa had declined owing to its incessant quarrels with the Soviet Union. These developments permanently halted India’s decline in Africa and helped reestablish its geo-strategic presence.
Gandhi presided over three Five-Year plans as Prime Minister, two of which succeeded in meeting the targeted growth.
There is considerable debate regarding whether Gandhi was a socialist on principle or out of political expediency. S. K. Datta-Ray described her as “a master of rhetoric…often more posture than policy”, while The Times journalist, Peter Hazelhurst, famously quipped that Gandhi’s socialism was “slightly left of self-interest.”
Critics have focused on the contradictions in the evolution of her stance towards communism; Gandhi being known for her anti-communist stance in the 1950s with Meghnad Desai even describing her as “the scourge of [India’s] Communist Party.” Yet, she later forged close relations with Indian communists even while using the army to break the Naxalites.
In this context, Gandhi was accused of formulating populist policies to suit her political needs; being seemingly against the rich and big business while preserving the status quo in order to manipulate the support of the left at times of political insecurity, such as the late 1960s. Although Gandhi came to be viewed in time as the scourge of the right-wing and reactionary political elements of India, leftist opposition to her policies emerged.
As early as 1969, critics had begun accusing her of insincerity and machiavellism. The Indian Libertarian wrote that: “it would be difficult to find a more machiavellian leftist than Mrs Indira Gandhi…for here is Machiavelli at its best in the person of a suave, charming and astute politician.” Rosser wrote that “some have even seen the declaration of emergency rule in 1975 as a move to suppress [leftist] dissent against Gandhi’s policy shift to the right.”
In the 1980s, Gandhi was accused of “betraying socialism” after the beginning of Operation Forward, an attempt at economic reform.
Nevertheless, others were more convinced of Gandhi’s sincerity and devotion to socialism. Pankaj Vohra noted that “even the late prime minister’s critics would concede that the maximum number of legislations of social significance was brought about during her tenure…[and that] she lives in the hearts of millions of Indians who shared her concern for the poor and weaker sections and who supported her politics.”
In summarizing the biographical works on Gandhi, Blema S. Steinberg concluded she was decidedly non-ideological. Only 7.4% (24) of the total 330 biographical extractions posit ideology as a reason for her policy choices. Steinberg noted Gandhi’s association with socialism was superficial; only having a general and traditional commitment to the ideology, by way of her political and family ties.
Gandhi personally had a fuzzy concept of socialism. In one of the early interviews she had given as Prime Minister, Gandhi had ruminated: “I suppose you could call me a socialist, but you have understand what we mean by that term…we used the word [socialism] because it came closest to what we wanted to do here – which is to eradicate poverty. You can call it socialism; but if by using that word we arouse controversy, I don’t see why we should use it.
I don’t believe in words at all.” Regardless of the debate over her ideology or lack of thereof, Gandhi remains a left-wing icon. She has been described as the “arguably the greatest mass leader of the last century.” Her campaign slogan, Garibi Hatao (Eng: Remove Poverty), has become the iconic motto of the Indian National Congress. To the rural and urban poor, untouchables, minorities and women in India, Gandhi was “Indira Amma or Mother Indira.”
Gandhi inherited a weak and troubled economy. Fiscal problems associated with the war with Pakistan in 1965, along with a drought-induced food crisis that spawned famines, had plunged India into the sharpest recession since independence. The government responded by taking steps to liberalize the economy, and by agreeing to the devaluation of the currency in return for the restoration of foreign aid.
The economy managed to recover in 1966 and ended up growing at 4.1% over 1966–1969. But, much of that growth was offset by the fact that the external aid promised by the United States government and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), meant to ease the short-run costs of adjustment to a liberalized economy, never materialized.
American policy makers had complained of continued restrictions imposed on the economy. At the same time, Indo-US relations were straining due to Gandhi’s criticism of the American bombing campaign in Vietnam, and because of President Johnson’s policy of withholding food grain shipments to coerce Indian support for the war. In light of the circumstances, liberalization became politically suspect and was soon abandoned.
Grain diplomacy and currency devaluation became matters of intense national pride in India. After the bitter experience with Johnson, Gandhi decided not to request food aid in the future. Moreover, Gandhi’s government resolved never again to become “so vulnerably dependent” on aid, and painstakingly began building up substantial foreign exchange reserves. When food stocks slumped after poor harvests in 1972, the government made it a point to use foreign exchange to buy US wheat commercially rather than seek resumption of food aid.
The period of 1967–75 was characterized by socialist ascendency in India which culminated in 1976 with the official declaration of state socialism. Gandhi not only abandoned the short lived liberalization programme but also aggressively expanded the public sector with new licensing requirements and other restrictions for industry. She began a new course by launching the Fourth Five-Year Plan in 1969.
The government targeted growth at 5.7% while stating as its goals, “growth with stability and progressive achievement of self-reliance.”
The rationale behind the overall plan was Gandhi’s Ten Point Programme of 1967. This had been her first economic policy formulation, six months after coming to office. The programme emphasized greater state control of the economy with the understanding that government control assured greater welfare than private control.
Related to this point were a set of policies which were meant to regulate the private sector. By the end of the 1960s, the reversal of the liberalization process was complete, and India’s policies were characterised as “protectionist as ever.”
To deal with India’s food problems, Gandhi expanded the emphasis on production of inputs to agriculture that had already been initiated by her father, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Green Revolution in India subsequently culminated under her government in the 1970s and transformed the country from a nation heavily reliant on imported grains and prone to famine to being largely able to feed itself, and become successful in achieving its goal of food security.
Gandhi had a personal motive in pursuing agricultural self-sufficiency, having found India’s dependency on the U.S. for shipments of grains humiliating.
The economic period of 1967–75 became significant for its major wave of nationalisations amidst the increased regulation of the private sector.
Some of the other objectives of the economic plan for the period was to provide for the minimum needs of the community through a rural works program and the removal of the privy purses of the nobility. Both these, and many other goals of the 1967 program were accomplished by 1974–75. Nevertheless, the success of the overall economic plan was tempered by the fact that annual growth at 3.3–3.4% over 1969–74 fell short of the targeted figure.
The Fifth Five Year Plan (1974–79) was enacted in the backdrop of the state of emergency and the Twenty Point Program of 1975. The latter was the economic rationale of the emergency, a political act which has often been justified on economic grounds.
In contrast to the reception of Gandhi’s earlier economic plan, this one was criticized for being a “hastily thrown together wish list.” Gandhi promised to reduce poverty by targeting the consumption levels of the poor and enact wide ranging social and economic reforms. The government additionally targeted an annual growth of 4.4% over the period of the plan.
The measures of the emergency regime was able to halt the economic trouble of the early to mid-1970s, which had been marred by harvest failures, fiscal contraction, and the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchanged rate; the resulting turbulence in the foreign exchange markets being further accentuated by the oil shock of 1973.
The government was even able to exceed the targeted growth figure with an annual growth rate of 5.0–5.2% over the five-year period of the plan (1974–79). The economy grew at the rate of 9% in 1975–76 alone, and the Fifth Plan, became the first plan during which the per capita income of the economy grew by over 5%.
Gandhi inherited a weak economy when she again became Prime Minister in 1980. The preceding year in 1979–80 under the Janata Party government had led to the strongest recession (−5.2%) in the history of modern India with inflation rampant at 18.2%. Gandhi proceeded to abrogate the Janata Party government’s Five Year Plan in 1980 and launched the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980–85).
The government targeted an average growth of 5.2% over the period of the plan. Measures to check the inflation were also taken; by the early 1980s inflation was under control at an annual rate of about 5%.
Although Gandhi continued professing socialist beliefs, the Sixth Five Year Plan was markedly different from the years of Garibi Hatao. Populist programs and policies were replaced by pragmatism. There was an emphasis on tightening public expenditures, greater efficiency of the State Owned Enterprises (SOE), which Gandhi qualified as a “sad thing”, and in stimulating the private sector through deregulation and liberation of the capital market.
The government subsequently launched Operation Forward in 1982, the first cautious attempt at reform. The Sixth Plan went on to become the most successful of the Five Year plans yet; showing an average growth of 5.7% over 1980–85.
During Lal Bahadur Shastri’s last full year in office (1965), inflation averaged 7.7%, compared to 5.2% at the end of Gandhi’s first stint in office (1977).
On average, inflation in India had remained below 7% through the 1950s and 1960s. But, it then accelerated sharply in the 1970s, from 5.5% in 1970–71 to over 20% by 1973–74, due to the international oil crisis. Gandhi declared inflation the gravest of problems in 1974 (at 25.2%) and devised a severe anti-inflation program. The government was successful in bringing down inflation during the emergency; achieving negative figures of −1.1% by the end of 1975–76.
Gandhi inherited a tattered economy in her second term; harvest failures and a second oil shock in the late 1970s had again caused inflation to rise.
During Charan Singh’s last year in office (1980), inflation averaged 18.2%, compared to 6.5% during Gandhi’s last year in office (1984). General economic recovery under Gandhi led to an average inflation at 6.5% from 1981–82 to 1985–86; the lowest since the beginning of India’s inflation problems in the 1960s.
Unemployment stayed constant at 9% over a nine-year period (1971–80) before declining to 8.3% in 1983.
Despite the provisions, control and regulations of Reserve Bank of India, most banks in India had continued to be owned and operated by private persons.
Businessmen who owned the banks were often accused of channeling the deposits into their own companies, and ignoring the priority sector.
Furthermore, there was a great resentment against class banking in India, which had left the poor (the majority population) unbanked. After becoming Prime Minister, Gandhi expressed the intention of nationalising the banks in a paper titled, “Stray thoughts on Bank Nationalisation” in order to alleviate poverty. The paper received the overwhelming support of the public.
In 1969, Gandhi moved to nationalise fourteen major commercial banks. After the nationalisation of banks, the branches of the public sector banks in India rose to approximate 800 percent in deposits, and advances took a huge jump by 11,000 percent.
Nationalisation also resulted in a significant growth in the geographical coverage of banks; the number of bank branches rose from 8,200 to over 62,000, most of which were opened in the unbanked, rural areas.
The nationalization drive not only helped to increase household savings, but it also provided considerable investments in the informal sector, in small and medium-sized enterprises, and in agriculture, and contributed significantly to regional development and to the expansion of India’s industrial and agricultural base.
Jayaprakash Narayan, who became famous for leading the opposition to Gandhi in the 1970s, was solid in his praise for her bank nationalisations.
Having been re-elected in 1971 on a nationalisation platform, Gandhi proceeded to nationalise the coal, steel, copper, refining, cotton textiles, and insurance industries. Most of these nationalisations were made to protect employment and the interest of the organised labour. The remaining private sector industries were placed under strict regulatory control.
During the 1971 war against Pakistan, foreign-owned private oil companies had refused to supply fuel to the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force. In response, Gandhi nationalised oil companies in 1973.
After nationalisation the oil majors such as the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation (HPCL) and the Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL) had to keep a minimum stock level of oil, to be supplied to the military when needed.
In 1966, Gandhi accepted the demands of the Akali’s to reorganize Punjab on linguistic lines. The Hindi-speaking southern half of Punjab became a separate state, Haryana, while the Pahari speaking hilly areas in the north east were joined to Himachal Pradesh. In doing so, she had hoped to ward off the growing political conflict between Hindu and Sikh groups in the region.
However, a contentious issue that was considered unresolved by the Akali’s was the status of Chandigarh, a prosperous city on the Punjab-Haryana border, which Gandhi declared a union territory to be shared as a capital by both the states.
Victory over Pakistan in 1971 consolidated Indian power in Kashmir. Gandhi indicated that she would make no major concessions on Kashmir. The most prominent of the Kashmiri separatists, Sheikh Abdullah, had to recognize India’s control over Kashmir in light of the new order in South Asia.
The situation was normalized in the years following the war after Abdullah agreed to an accord with Gandhi, by giving up the demand for a plebiscite in return for a special autonomous status for Kashmir.
In 1975, Gandhi declared the state of Jammu and Kashmir as a constituent unit of India. The Kashmir conflict remained largely peaceful if frozen under Gandhi’s premiership.
In 1972, Gandhi granted statehood to Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura, while the North-East Frontier Agency was declared a union territory and renamed Arunachal Pradesh. The transition to statehood for these territories was successfully overseen by her administration. This was followed by the annexation of Sikkim in 1975.
The principle of equal pay for equal work for both men and women was enshrined in the Indian Constitution under the Gandhi administration.
Gandhi questioned the continued existence of a privy purse for Indian monarchs. She argued the case for abolition based on equal rights for all citizens and the need to reduce the government’s revenue deficit. The nobility responded by rallying around the Jana Sangh and other right-wing parties that stood in opposition to Gandhi’s attempts to abolish royal privileges.
The motion to abolish privy purses, and the official recognition of the titles, was originally brought before the Parliament in 1970. It was passed in the Lok Sabha but felt short of the two-thirds majority in the Rajya Sabha by a single vote. Gandhi responded by having a Presidential proclamation issued; de-recognizing the princes; with this withdrawal of recognition, their claims to privy purses were also legally lost.
However, the proclamation was struck down by the Supreme Court of India. In 1971, Gandhi again motioned to abolish the privy purse. This time, it was successfully passed as the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India. Many royals tried to protest the abolition of the privy purse, primarily through campaigns to contest seats in elections. They, however, received a final setback when many of them were defeated by huge margins.
Gandhi claimed that only “clear vision, iron will and the strictest discipline” can remove poverty. She justified the imposition of the state of emergency in 1975 in the name of the socialist mission of the Congress. Armed with the power to rule by decree and without constitutional constraints, Gandhi embarked on a massive redistribution program.
The provisions included rapid enforcement of land ceilings, housing for landless labourers, the abolition of bonded labour and a moratorium on the debts of the poor. North India was at the centre of the reforms; millions of acres of land were acquired and redistributed.
The government was also successful in procuring houses for landless labourers; according to Frankel, three-fourths of the targeted four million houses was achieved in 1975 alone. Nevertheless, others have disputed the success of the program and criticized Gandhi for not doing enough to reform land ownership. The political economist, Jyotindra Das Gupta, cryptically questioned “…whether or not the real supporters of land-holders were in jail or in power?” Critics also accused Gandhi of choosing to “talk left and act right”, referring to her concurrent pro-business decisions and endeavours.
Rosser wrote that “some have even seen the declaration of emergency rule in 1975 as a move to suppress dissent against Gandhi’s policy shift to the right.” Regardless of the controversy over the nature of the reforms, the long-term effects of the social changes gave rise to prominence of middle-ranking farmers from intermediate and lower castes in North India. The rise of these newly empowered social classes challenged the political establishment of the Hindi Belt in the years to come.
Under the Indian Constitution of 1950, Hindi was to have become the official national language by 1965. This was not acceptable to many non-Hindi speaking states, who wanted the continued use of English in government. In 1967, Gandhi made a constitutional amendment that guaranteed the de facto use of both Hindi and English as official languages. This established the official government policy of bilingualism in India and satisfied the non-Hindi speaking Indian states.
Gandhi thus put herself forward as a leader with a pan-Indian vision. Nevertheless, critics alleged that her stance was actually meant to weaken the position of rival Congress leaders from the northern states such as Uttar Pradesh, where there had been strong, sometimes violent, pro-Hindi agitations. Gandhi came out of the language conflicts with the strong support of the south Indian populace.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Gandhi had the Indian army crush militant Communist uprisings in the Indian state of West Bengal. The communist insurgency in India was completely suppressed during the state of emergency.
Gandhi considered the north-eastern regions important, because of its strategic situation. In 1966, the Mizo uprising took place against the government of India and overran almost the whole of the Mizoram region. Gandhi ordered the Indian army to launch massive retaliatory strikes in response.
The rebellion was suppressed with the Indian Air Force even carrying out airstrikes in Aizawl; this remains the only instance of India carrying out an airstrike in its own civilian territory. The defeat of Pakistan in 1971 and the secession of East Pakistan as pro-India Bangladesh led to the collapse of the Mizo separatist movement.
In 1972, after the less extremist Mizo leaders came to the negotiating table, Gandhi upgraded Mizoram to the status of a union territory. A small-scale insurgency by some militants continued into the late 1970s but was successfully dealt with by the government. The Mizo conflict was definitively resolved during the administration of Gandhi’s son Rajiv. Today, Mizoram is considered as one of the most peaceful states in the north-east.
Responding to the insurgency in Nagaland, Gandhi “unleashed a powerful military offensive” in the 1970s. Finally, a massive crackdown on the insurgents took place during the state of emergency ordered by Gandhi.
The insurgents soon agreed to surrender and signed the Shillong Accord in 1975. While the agreement was considered a victory for the Indian government and ended large-scale conflicts, there has since been spurts of violence by rebel holdouts and ethnic conflict amongst the tribes.
Gandhi contributed and further carried out the vision of Jawarharalal Nehru, former Premier of India to develop the program. Gandhi authorised the development of nuclear weapons in 1967, in response to the Test No. 6 by People’s Republic of China. Gandhi saw this test as Chinese nuclear intimidation, therefore, Gandhi promoted the views of Nehru to establish India’s stability and security interests as independent from those of the nuclear superpowers.
The program became fully mature in 1974, when Dr. Raja Ramanna reported to Gandhi that India had the ability to test its first nuclear weapon. Gandhi gave verbal authorisation of this test, and preparations were made in a long-constructed army base, the Indian Army Pokhran Test Range.
In 1974, India successfully conducted an underground nuclear test, unofficially code named as “Smiling Buddha”, near the desert village of Pokhran in Rajasthan. As the world was quiet by this test, a vehement protest came forward from Pakistan.
Great ire was raised in Pakistan and its Prime Minister, Zulfi Ali Bhutto, described this test as “Indian hegemony” to intimidate Pakistan. Gandhi directed a letter to Bhutto and, later to the world, describing the test for peaceful purposes and India’s commitment to develop its programme for industrial and scientific use.
A member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, she was married to Feroze Gandhi at the age of 25, in 1942. Their marriage lasted for 18 years, until Feroze died after a heart attack in 1960. They had two sons – Rajiv (b. 1944) and Sanjay (b. 1946).
Her younger son Sanjay had initially been her chosen heir; but after his death in a flying accident in June 1980, Gandhi persuaded her reluctant elder son Rajiv to quit his job as a pilot and enter politics in February 1981. Over a decade later, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.
Gandhi’s yoga guru, Dhirendra Brahmachari, helped her in making certain decisions and also executed certain top level political tasks on her behalf, especially from 1975 to 1977 when Gandhi declared a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties.”
After leading India to victory against Pakistan in the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, President V. V. Giri awarded Mrs. Gandhi India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna., In 2011, the Bangladesh Freedom Honour (Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona ), Bangladesh’s highest civilian award, was posthumously conferred on Indira Gandhi for her outstanding contributions to Bangladesh’s Liberation War.
Indira Gandhi is associated with fostering a culture of nepotism in Indian politics and in India’s institutions.
She is also almost singularly associated with the period of Emergency rule and the dark period in Indian Democracy that it entailed, the period of conflict with Khalistan militants in the western state of Punjab, and being the face of a progressive Indian electorate owing to her being the first woman elected to hold the office of the Prime Minister of India.
The Indira Awaas Yojana, a central government low-cost housing programme for the rural poor, is named after her. The international airport at New Delhi is named Indira Gandhi International Airport in her honour. The Indira Gandhi National Open University, the largest university in the world, is also named after her.
Indian National Congress established the annual Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration in 1985, given in her memory on her death anniversary. The Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust also constituted the annual Indira Gandhi Prize.