Indira Gandhi was the first woman to be elected prime minister of the world’s most populous democracy, India. Her leadership was both long and controversial.
She was born in 1917 to Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru and was the heir to a distinguished political family history. Her grandfather, parents, and aunts were all active in the Indian nationalist movement. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, became independent India’s first prime minister. As a child, Indira joined the nationalist movement by forming the “Monkey Brigade” a group of children who assisted their political parents by secretly carrying documents and spying on the British. Her education was intermittent because of her parents’ political activism and her mother’s failing health. Indira attended schools in Switzerland and spent a brief time in Somerville College, Oxford, before she married Feroze Gandhi, a politician and journalist, in 1942.
Her marriage to Feroze was troubled because she was torn between her private life and the call of public service in support of her father. The Gandhis had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay. After India’s independence in 1947, Indira Gandhi served as Prime Minister Nehru’s hostess and continued her political work. She was elected a member of Parliament in 1964 and became minister of information and broadcasting in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s government. With the sudden death of Shastri, Congress Party politicians elected Indira prime minister in 1966 because they perceived her as weak and susceptible to their authority. She soon proved them wrong.
As prime minister, Indira Gandhi is remembered for several achievements. She nationalized Indian banks, abolished the privy purse of Indian princes and reduced their power, increased India’s grain production, developed India’s nuclear program and exploded the first nuclear device in 1974, and triumphed in the war against Pakistan and rendered military support to Bangladesh during its independence struggle in 1971. She was known to be an astute politician and a shrewd diplomat. However, she also increasingly centralized power in the executive branch, attempted to reduce judicial power through controversial constitutional reforms, and encouraged corruption and nepotism. In 1975, a regional judge declared her election null and void because of minor legal infractions, and people called for her resignation. However, she declared a state of emergency in 1975 and suspended the powers of the state governments, jailed several thousand dissidents without due process, and severely censored the press, citing grave internal security problems as cause for the emergency. In 1977, she called for national elections and was defeated.
In 1980, she returned to power after a major electoral victory and had to deal with several internal separatist movements including the Khalistan movement advocated by Sikh militants in Punjab. Because Sikh militants were staging their violence from and storing their weapons in the Golden Temple complex, their holiest shrine, she commanded the army to storm the temple. In the battle that ensued, many soldiers, civilians, and Sikh militants (including the leader of the movement, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale) were killed. Her choice to invade the Temple outraged many Sikhs, and in October 1984, she paid a huge price for her action when her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. After her death, her son Rajiv continued the Gandhi-Nehru democratic dynasty and became prime minister of India, only to be assassinated himself by a Sri Lankan Tamil separatist in 1991. Indira Gandhi inspired many young women around the world by leading a large democracy for many years, but her career also illustrates the problems of power and corruption inherent in many democracies.
Asaf Ali, Aruna; Naidu, Sarojini
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