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Indira Gandhi

[gahn-dee, gan-]

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (Indirā Priyadarśinī Gāndhī) (née: Nehru) (19 November 1917 - 31 October 1984) was the Prime Minister of the Republic of India for three consecutive terms from 1966 to 1977 and for a fourth term from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. She was India's first and to date only female Prime Minister. She is also the only Indian Prime Minister to be defeated in her own district in a general election.

Born in the politically influential Nehru dynasty, she grew up in an intensely political atmosphere. Her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was a prominent Indian nationalist leader. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a pivotal figure in the Indian independence movement and the first Prime Minister of Independent India. Returning to India from Oxford in 1941, she became involved in the Indian Independence movement.

In the 1950s, she served her father unofficially as a personal assistant during his tenure as India's first Prime Minister. After her father's death in 1964, she was appointed as a member of the Rajya Sabha by the President of India and became a member of Lal Bahadur Shastri's cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting.

The then Congress Party President K. Kamaraj was instrumental in making Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister after the sudden demise of Shastri. Gandhi soon showed an ability to win elections and outmaneuver opponents through populism. She introduced more left-wing economic policies and promoted agricultural productivity. A decisive victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan was followed by a period of instability that led her to impose a state of emergency in 1975; she paid for the authoritarian excesses of the period with three years in opposition. Returned to office in 1980, she became increasingly involved in an escalating conflict with separatists in Punjab that eventually led to her assassination by her own bodyguards in 1984.

Early life

Indira Priyadarshini, was born on 19 November 1917 to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his young wife Kamala Nehru. She was their only child. The Nehru family can trace their ancestry to the Brahmins of Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi. Indira's grandfather Motilal Nehru was a wealthy barrister of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. Nehru was one of the most prominent members of the Indian National Congress in pre-Gandhi times and would go on to author the Nehru Report, the people's choice for a future Indian system of government as opposed to the British system. Her father Nehru was a well-educated lawyer and was a popular leader of the Indian Independence Movement. At the time of Indira's birth, Nehru entered the independence movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

Growing up in the sole care of her mother, who was sick and alienated from the Nehru household, Indira developed strong protective instincts and a loner personality. Her grandfather and father continually being enmeshed in national politics also made mixing with her peers difficult. She had conflicts with her father's sisters, including Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and these continued into the political world.

Indira created the Vanara Sena movement for young girls and boys which played a small but notable role in the Indian Independence Movement, conducting protests and flag marches, as well as helping Congress politicians circulate sensitive publications and banned materials. In an often-told story, she smuggled out from her father's police-watched house an important document in her schoolbag that outlined plans for a major revolutionary initiative in the early 1930s.

In 1936, her mother, Kamala Nehru, finally succumbed to tuberculosis after a long struggle. Indira was 18 at the time and thus never experienced a stable family life during her childhood. She attended prominent Indian, European and British schools like Santiniketan, Badminton School and Oxford, but she showed no great aptitude for academics, and was detained from obtaining a degree.

While studying at Somerville College, University of Oxford, England, during the late 1930s, she became a member of the radical pro-independence London based India League.

In her years in continental Europe and the UK, she met a Parsi, Feroze Ghandhi, a Congress activist, and eventually married him on 16 March 1942 at Anand Bhawan Allahabad in a private Adi Dharm Brahmo Vedic ceremony still noted for its unconventionality. Just before the beginning of the Quit India Movement - the final, all-out national revolt launched by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party. In September 1942 they were arrested by the British authorities and detained without charge. She was ultimately released on 13 May 1943 having spent over 243 days in jail. In 1944, she gave birth to Rajiv Gandhi with Feroze Gandhi, followed two years later by Sanjay Gandhi.

During the chaotic Partition of India in 1947, she helped organize refugee camps and provide medical care for the millions of refugees from Pakistan. This was her first exercise in major public service.

The Gandhis later settled in Allahabad where Feroze worked with a Congress Party newspaper and an insurance company. Their marriage started out well, but deteriorated later when she moved to New Delhi to be at the side of her father, the Prime Minister at the time, who was living alone in a high-pressure environment at Teen Murti Bhavan. She became his confidante, secretary and nurse. Her sons lived with her, but she eventually separated from Feroze, though they remained legally married.

When India's first general election approached in 1951, Gandhi managed the campaigns of both Nehru and her husband, who was contesting the constituency of Rae Bareilly. Feroze had not consulted Nehru on his choice to run, and even though he was elected, he opted to live in a separate house in Delhi. Feroze quickly developed a reputation for being a fighter against corruption, exposing a major scandal in the nationalized insurance industry, resulting in the resignation of the Finance Minister, a Nehru aide.

At the height of the tension, Gandhi and her husband separated. However, in 1958, shortly after re-election, Feroze suffered a heart attack, which dramatically healed their broken marriage. At his side to help him recuperate in Kashmir, their family grew closer. But Feroze died on 8 September 1960, while Gandhi was abroad with Nehru on a foreign visit.

President of the Indian National Congress

During 1959 and 1960, Gandhi ran for and was elected the President of the Indian National Congress. Her term of office was uneventful. She also acted as her father's chief of staff. Nehru was known as a vocal opponent of nepotism, and she did not contest a seat in the 1962 elections.

Nehru died on 27 May 1964, and Gandhi, at the urgings of the new Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, contested elections and joined the Government, being immediately appointed Minister for Information and Broadcasting. She went to Madras when the riots over Hindi becoming the national language broke out in non-Hindi speaking states of the south. There she spoke to government officials, soothed the anger of community leaders and supervised reconstruction efforts for the affected areas. Shastri and senior Ministers were embarrassed, owing to their lack of such initiative. Minister Gandhi's actions were probably not directly aimed at Shastri or her own political elevation. She reportedly lacked interest in the day-to-day functioning of her Ministry, but was media-savvy and adept at the art of politics and image-making.

"During the succession struggles after 1965 between Mrs. Gandhi and her rivals, the central Congress [party] leadership in several states moved to displace upper caste leaders from state Congress [party] organizations and replace them with backward caste persons and to mobilize the votes of the latter castes to defeat its rivals in the state Congress [party] and in the opposition. The consequences of these interventions, some of which may justly be perceived as socially progressive, have nevertheless often had the consequences of intensifying inter-ethnic regional conflicts...

While the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 was ongoing, Gandhi was vacationing in the border region of Srinagar. Although warned by the Army that Pakistani insurgents had penetrated very close to the city, she refused to relocate to Jammu or Delhi and instead rallied local government and welcomed the media attention. Shastri died in Tashkent, hours after signing the peace agreement with Pakistan's Ayub Khan, mediated by the Soviets.

The Congress Party President K. Kamaraj was then instrumental in making Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister, despite the opposition from Morarji Desai who was later defeated by the members of the Congress Parliamentary Party,where Indira Gandhi beat Morarji Desai by 355 votes to 169 to become the fourth Prime Minister of India and the first woman to hold that position.

Prime Minister

First term

Domestic Policy and the 1971 War

When Mrs. Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966 the Congress was split in two factions, the socialists led by Mrs. Gandhi, and the conservatives led by Morarji Desai. Morarji Desai called her "Gungi Gudiya" which means 'Dumb Doll'. The internal problems showed in the 1967 election where the Congress lost nearly 60 seats winning 297 seats in the 545 seat Lok Sabha. She had to accommodate Desai as Deputy Prime Minister of India and Finance Minister of India. In 1969 after many disagreements with Desai, the Indian National Congress split. She ruled with support from Socialist and Communist Parties for the next two years. In the same year, in July 1969 she nationalised banks. In 1971, to solve the Bangladeshi refugee problem, she declared war, on Pakistan, on the side of the East Pakistanis, who were fighting for their independence. During the 1971 War, the US under President Richard Nixon sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal as a warning to India keep away from East Pakistan as a pretext to launch a wider attack against West Pakistan, especially over the territory of Kashmir. This move had further alienated India from the First World, and Prime Minister Gandhi now accelerated a previously cautious new direction in national security and foreign policy. India and the USSR had earlier signed the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Cooperation, resulting in political and military support contributing substantially to India's victory in the 1971 war.

Foreign Policy

She invited the new Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Shimla for a week-long summit. After the near-failure of the talks, the two heads of state eventually signed the Shimla Agreement, which bound the two countries to resolve the Kashmir dispute by negotiations and peaceful means. Due to her antipathy for Nixon, relations with the United States grew distant, while relations with the Soviet Union grew closer.

Indira Gandhi was criticized by some for not making the Line of Control a permanent border while a few critics even believed that Pakistan-administered Kashmir should have been extracted from Pakistan, whose 93,000 prisoners of war were under Indian control. But the agreement did remove immediate United Nations and third party interference, and greatly reduced the likelihood of Pakistan launching a major attack in the near future. By not demanding total capitulation on a sensitive issue from Bhutto, she had allowed Pakistan to stabilize and normalize. Trade relations were also normalized, though much contact remained frozen for years.

Devaluation of the Rupee

During the late 1960s, Indira's administration decreed a 40 per cent devaluation in the value of the Indian Rupee from 4 to 7 to the US Dollar to boost trade.

Nuclear Weapons Programme

A national nuclear programme, was started by Mrs. Gandhi, in 1967, which evolved from the nuclear threat from the People's Republic of China and the intrusive interest of the two major superpowers not conducive to India's stability and security. In 1974, India successfully conducted an underground nuclear test, unofficially code named as smiling Buddha, near the desert village of Pokhran in Rajasthan. Describing the test as for peaceful purposes, India became the world's youngest nuclear power.

Green Revolution

Special agricultural innovation programs and extra government support launched in the 1960s finally transformed India's chronic food shortages into surplus production of wheat, rice, cotton and milk. Rather than relying on food aid from the United States - headed by a President whom Mrs. Gandhi disliked considerably (the feeling was mutual: to Nixon, Indira was "the old witch), the country became a food exporter. That achievement, along with the diversification of its commercial crop production, has become known as the Green Revolution. At the same time, the White Revolution was an expansion in milk production which helped to combat malnutrition, especially amidst young children. 'Food security', as the programme was called, was another source of support for Mrs. Gandhi in the years leading up to 1975.

Established in the early 1960s, the Green Revolution was the unofficial name given to the Intense Agricultural District Programme (IADP) which sought to insure abundant, inexpensive grain for urban dwellers upon whose support Gandhi -- as indeed all Indian politicians -- heavily depended. The program was based on four premises: 1) New varieties of seed(s), 2) Acceptance of the necessity of the chemicalization of Indian agriculture, i.e. fertilizers, pesticides, weed killers, etc., 3) A commitment to national and international cooperative research to develop new and improved existing seed varieties, 4) The concept of developing a scientific, agricultural institutions in the form of land grant colleges. Lasting about ten years, the program was ultimately to bring about a tripling of wheat production, a lower but still impressive increase of rice; while there was little to no increase (depending on area, and adjusted for population growth) of such cereals as millet, gram and coarse grain, though these did, in fact, retain a relatively stable yield.

1971 Poll Victory , and Second term (1971-1975)

Gandhi's government faced major problems after her tremendous mandate of 1971. 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 (Stop 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 government; 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, developed, supervised, and staffed by New Delhi and 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. In the end, Garibi Hatao did little to help the poor: Only about 4% of all funds allocated for economic development went to the three main anti-poverty programs, and almost none of it ever reached the 'poorest of the poor'. So although the program failed to stop poverty it achieved its goal of getting Gandhi elected.

Accusations of authoritarianism

Gandhi had already been accused of authoritarianism. By using her strong parliamentary majority, her ruling Congress Party had amended the Constitution and altered the balance of power between the Centre and the States in favour of the Central Government. She had twice imposed President's Rule under Article 356 of the Constitution by declaring states ruled by opposition parties as "lawless and chaotic", and thus seizing control. In addition, elected officials and the administrative services resented the growing influence of Sanjay Gandhi, who had become Gandhi's close political adviser at the expense of men like P. N. Haksar, Gandhi's previous adviser during her rise to power. In response to her new tendency for authoritarian use of power, public figures and former freedom-fighters like Jaya Prakash Narayan, Satyendra Narayan Sinha and Acharya Jivatram Kripalani toured India, speaking actively against her and her government.

Charges

On 12 June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad declared Indira Gandhi's election to the Lok Sabha void on grounds of alleged malpractices in an election petition filed by Raj Narain (who had repeatedly contested her Parliamentary constituency of Rae Bareli without success). The court thus ordered her to be removed from her seat in Parliament and banned from running in elections for six years. The Prime Minister must be a member of either the Lok Sabha (lower house in the Parliament of India) or the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Parliament). Thus, this decision effectively removed her from office.

When Gandhi appealed the decision; the opposition parties and their supporters, eager to gain political capital from the situation, rallied en masse calling for her resignation. The sheer number of strikes by unions and protesters paralyzed life in many states. To strengthen this movement, J. P. Narayan called upon the police to disobey orders if asked to fire on unarmed crowds. Public disenchantment with her government combined with hard economic times and huge crowds of protestors surrounded the Parliament building and her residence in Delhi, demanding her resignation.

State of Emergency (1975-1977)

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 of the Constitution, on 26 June 1975.

Rule by Decree

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. 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.Inder Kumar Gujral, a future prime minister himself, resigned as Minister for Information and Broadcasting to protest Sanjay Gandhi's interference in his work. Finally, 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.

Gandhi used the emergency provisions to grant herself extraordinary powers.

"Unlike her father [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...

It is alleged that she further moved President Ahmed to issue ordinances that did not need to be debated in Parliament, allowing her to rule by decree.

Simultaneously, Gandhi's government undertook a campaign to stamp out dissent including the arrest and detention of thousands of political activists; Sanjay was instrumental in initiating the clearing of slums around Delhi's Jama Masjid under the supervision of Jag Mohan, later Lt. Governor of Delhi, which allegedly left thousands of people homeless and hundreds killed, and led to communal embitterment in those parts of the nation's capital; and the family planning program which forcibly imposed vasectomy on thousands of fathers and was often poorly administered.

Third term

Elections

In 1977, Gandhi called elections. One factor was the economic gains, though there may have been political considerations at play. Gandhi may have grossly misjudged her popularity by reading what the heavily censored press wrote about her, or may have feared a military coup had she attempted to rule by decree any longer (There were reports that the Armed Forces would forcibly remove her from power and hold elections. See Tapishwar Narain Raina). In any case, she was soundly defeated by the Janata Party. Janata, led by her long-time rival, Desai and with Jai Prakash Narayan as its spiritual guide, claimed the elections were the last chance for India to choose between "democracy and dictatorship." 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.

Removal, Arrest, and Return

Desai became Prime Minister and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy became the President, the establishment choice of 1969, became President of the Republic. Gandhi found herself without work, income or residence until winning a by-election in 1978. The Congress Party split during the election campaign of 1977 with veteran Gandhi supporters like Jagjivan Ram abandoning her for Janata. The Congress (Gandhi) Party was now a much smaller group in Parliament, although the official opposition.

Unable to govern owing to fractious coalition warfare, the Janata government's Home Minister, Choudhary Charan Singh, ordered the arrest of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi on several charges, none of which would be easy to prove in an Indian court. The arrest meant that Indira was automatically expelled from Parliament. However, this strategy backfired disastrously. Her arrest and long-running trial, however, gained her great sympathy from many people who had feared her as a tyrant just two years earlier.

The Janata coalition was only united by its hatred of Mrs. Gandhi (or "that woman" as some called her). With so little in common, the government was bogged down by infighting and Gandhi was able to use the situation to her advantage. She began giving speeches again, tacitly apologizing for "mistakes" made during the Emergency. Desai resigned in June 1979, and Charan Singh was appointed Prime Minister by Reddy after Mrs. Gandhi promised that Congress would support his government from outside.

After a short interval, she withdrew her initial support and President Reddy dissolved Parliament in the winter of 1979. In elections held the following January, Congress was returned to power with a landslide majority.

Indira Gandhi was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize (for 1983-84).

Currency crisis

During the early 1980s, Indira's administration failed to arrest the 40 per cent fall in the value of the Indian Rupee from 7 to 12 to the US Dollar.

Operation Blue Star and assassination

Gandhi's later years were bedeviled with problems in Punjab. In September 1981, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale 's separatist Sikh militant group took up positions within the precincts of the Golden Temple, Sikhism's holiest shrine. Despite the presence of thousands of civilians in the Golden Temple complex at the time, Gandhi ordered the Army into the shrine in an attempt to clear it of the militants. Accounts differ in the number of military and civilian casualties. Government estimates include four officers, seventy-nine soldiers, and 492 militants; other accounts are much higher, perhaps 500 or more troops and 3,000 others, including many pilgrims caught in the crossfire.. While the exact figures related to civilian casualties are disputed, the timing and method of the attack remain controversial.

Indira Gandhi had numerous bodyguards, two of whom were Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, both Sikhs. On 31 October 1984 they assassinated Indira Gandhi with their service weapons in the garden of the Prime Minister's Residence at No. 1, Safdarjung Road in New Delhi. As she was walking to be interviewed by the British actor Peter Ustinov filming a documentary for Irish television, she passed a wicket gate, guarded by Satwant and Beant. According to information available immediately following the incident, Beant Singh shot her thrice using his side-arm and Satwant Singh fired twenty-two rounds into her using a Sten submachine gun. Beant Singh was shot dead and Satwant Singh was shot and arrested by her other bodyguards.

Gandhi died on her way to the hospital, in her official car, but she was not declared dead until many hours later. She was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where doctors operated on her. Official accounts at the time stated as many as 29 entry and exit wounds and some reports stated 31 bullets were extracted from her body. She was cremated on 3 November, near Raj Ghat and the place was called Shakti Sthal. After her death, sectarian unrest engulfed New Delhi and several other cities in India, including Kanpur, Asansol and Indore, leading to the death of thousands of Sikhs. Gandhi's friend and biographer Pupul Jayakar would later reveal Indira's tension, and her premonition about what might happen in the wake of Operation Blue Star.

Personal life

Nehru-Gandhi family

Initially Sanjay had been her chosen heir; but after his death in a flying accident, his mother persuaded a reluctant Rajiv Gandhi to quit his job as a pilot and enter politics in February 1981.

After Indira Gandhi's death, Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister. In May 1991, he too was assassinated, this time at the hands of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam militants. Rajiv's widow, Sonia Gandhi, led the United Progressive Alliance to a surprise electoral victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

Sonia Gandhi declined the opportunity to assume the office of Prime Minister (though some debate if a foreign born could have been the prime minister) but remains in control of the Congress' political apparatus; Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, formerly finance minister, now heads the nation. Rajiv's children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, have also entered politics. Sanjay Gandhi's widow, Maneka Gandhi - who fell out with Indira after Sanjay's death and was famously thrown out of the Prime Minister's house - as well as Sanjay's son, Varun Gandhi, are active in politics as members of the main opposition BJP party.

Indira Gandhi in popular culture

  • Her assassination is mentioned by Tom Clancy in his novel Executive Orders.
  • Although never mentioned by name, Indira Gandhi is clearly the prime minister in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.
  • In Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children, Indira is responsible for the eponymous characters' downfall, referred to throughout the novel as "The Widow." This portrayal of Indira Gandhi raised controversy in some circles for its harsh depiction both of her and of her policies.
  • In Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, the character of Priya Duryodhani clearly refers to Indira Gandhi.
  • Aandhi, a Hindi feature film directed by Gulzar, is a partly fictionalized adaptation of some events in Indira's life, particularly her (played by Suchitra Sen) difficult relationship with her husband (played by Sanjeev Kumar).
  • In Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Indira Gandhi is noted several times as "Mrs. Gandhi" when referring to the political climate of India in the mid 1970s.

External links

References

Further reading

  • Ved Mehta, A Family Affair: India Under Three Prime Ministers (1982) ISBN 0-19-503118-0
  • Pupul Jayakar, Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography (1992) ISBN 9780679424796
  • Katherine Frank, Indira: the life of Indira Nehru Gandhi (2002) ISBN 0-395-73097-X

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