Indira Gandhi was the first woman ever elected to lead a democracy. She was the Prime Minister from 1966-77 and then again
between 1980-84 till her death at the hands of her own bodyguards. A paradox she may seem for during the time that she served
India as a Prime Minister, she was known as a dictator as well as one of the most charismatic leaders of India.
Indira Gandhi was born on November 19, 1917 and was the only child of Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. The active participation of
both her parents in India’s independence struggle of India from the British, Indira Gandhi was drawn to politics at an early age. It
was as if politics and politicians always surrounded her.
By the time she was about twelve years old, she headed what came to be known as the Monkey Brigade. The monkey brigade
consisted of children who warned the independence movement leaders of their arrest. Being its leader, she delivered speeches while
other children actually warned the people who were going to be arrested. The Congress figured that the British would not suspect
children of participating in such involvement.
She was soon sent to England for her studies where she joined the Somerville college, Oxford. She also spent time in Switzerland
primarily because her mother needed to be there due to her ill health. But her mother passed away in 1936.
In 1938, Indira returned to India and joined the Indian National Congress Party. Soon afterwards in 1942, she married journalist
Feroze Gandhi with whom she eventually had two sons-Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi. Soon after the couple was married, they were sent
to prison on charges of subversion by the British. Her one and only imprisonment lasted from September 11, 1942 until May 13,
1943 at the Naini Central Jail in Allahabad.
India won its independence from Britain in 1947. In that same year, Indira’s father Jawaharlal Nehru became India’s first Prime
Minister. Since her mother’s death, Indira acted as her father’s hostess and confidante and traveled with Nehru. Simultaneously,
she was steadily making her way presence felt in the political arena. She began to associate herself with numerous organizations.
From 1953-57 she was Chairman of the Central Social Welfare Board. In 1955, she became a member of the Working Committee
and Central Election Committee, the Central Parliamentary Board from 1956, and was the President of the All India Youth Congress
from 1956 to 1960.
After the death of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru in1964, the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appointed Indira Gandhi as
the Minister of Information and Broadcasting. This position was the fourth highest-ranking position in the Cabinet as radio and
television were an important source to disseminate information to the largely illiterate population of India. As a minister, She
encouraged the making of inexpensive radios and started a family planning program.
But Lal Bahadur Shastri suddenly died of a heart attack in 1966. The contenders for Prime Minister’s post could not agree among
themselves and therefore felt that Indira Gandhi would be the best for the position as a prime minister. Hence, she became the
Prime Minister in 1966 till India held the next elections in 1967. She won that election— in 1967, she became the first woman
ever elected to lead a democracy. In 1971, Gandhi was re-elected by campaigning with the slogan “Garibi Hatao” (Abolish Poverty).
Indira Gandhi She rode a wave of success in 1971 with India’s victory in the Indo-pak war and the launching of the India’s first
satellite into space. And with the testing of a nuclear device in 1974, she earned the reputation of a tough and shrewd politician
among the middle class.
Simultaneously, by 1973, large-scale demonstrations were taking place across Delhi and north India. A large section of the
population felt that she was not living up to her promises of “Garibi Hatao”. High inflation, rampant corruption and poor standards of
living were leading to social unrest.
In an attempt to control population growth, she implemented a voluntary sterilization program. But her adversaries criticized it. She
began to face a strong opposition to her administration in general.
By 1975, Indira Gandhi had to face charges of corruption. In June 1975, the High Court of Allahabad found her guilty of using
illegal practices during the last election campaign. She was ordered to vacate her seat. There were demands for her resignation.
She responded by declaring a state of emergency on June 25, 1975. During this emergency, the Supreme Court of India overturned
the Allahabad High Court’s judgment. Through the powers ensured to her through the emergency, she ordered the arrests of the
main opposition leaders. In her opinion, she declared an emergency for the good of India. The constitutional rights of the citizens
were limited and the press was under strict censorship overnight. Meanwhile, her eldest son, Sanjay Gandhi, ordered the removal of
slum dwellings, and in an attempt to curb India’s growing population, initiated a highly resented program of forced sterilization.
In early 1977, she thought she had eliminated her opposition and called for fresh elections. Her Congress party lost badly at the
polls. She was voted out of power and a newly formed coalition of political parties came to power. Many declared that she was a
spent force. But, three years later, she was to return as Prime Minister of India.
Indira Gandhi came to power again as the prime minister in 1980. The same year, however, her son Sanjay was killed in an airplane
In the post-emergency period, as a prime minister Indira Gandhi was preoccupied by efforts to resolve the political problems in the
state of Punjab. In her attempt to crush the secessionist movement of Sikh militants, led by Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, she ordered
an assault upon the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar, the “Golden Temple”. It was from here that Bindranwale and his armed
supporters waged their campaign. “Operation Bluestar”, waged in June 1984, led to the death of Bindranwale, and the Golden
Temple was stripped clean of Sikh terrorists. However, the Golden Temple was damaged, and Mrs. Gandhi earned the undying hatred
of Sikhs who bitterly resented her action in their sacred space. In November of the same year, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated, at
her residence, by two of her own Sikh bodyguards, who claimed to be avenging the insult heaped upon the Sikh nation.
Her death led to sectarian violence across India during which over a 1000 people died of which many were Sikhs.
Indira Gandhi was remarkable for her ambition for personal power, her endurance and political tenacity. Mrs. Gandhi acquired a
formidable international reputation as a “statesman”, and there is no doubt that she was extraordinarily skilled in politics. On the
international front, she insisted on India’s independence, gradually loosened ties with the former USSR that were developed in the
early 1970s when China seemed menacing. She was proved to be a forceful spokeswoman for the rights of poorer nations. On the
domestic front, however, her autocratic methods often clashed with her democratic principles. She had an authoritarian streak and
rarely tolerated dissent. In many respects, Indian democracy was irreparably harmed during her rule. Apart from her infamous
imposition of the internal emergency, the use of the army to resolve internal disputes greatly increased in her time.
After her death, her second son, Rajiv Gandhi, was sworn in as head of the Congress party and Prime Minister.


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