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Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (born November 19, 1917) was twice elected the prime minister of India and was the first woman to hold the position. Daughter of India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), she was introduced to the vagaries of political instability early in life. As someone who participated in the anticolonial national movement in the 1930s and 1940s as a youngster, and saw the carnage that accompanied the partitioning of British India into the independent nations India and Pakistan in 1947, Gandhi experienced firsthand the challenges and uncertainties experienced by a fledgling democracy. In this regard, her formative years introduced her to the political cultures that she would negotiate as one of independent India’s most charismatic and controversial figures.
After attending educational institutions in Europe and India, she married an Indian National Congress (INC) activist named Feroze Gandhi (1912–1960) in 1942. Her sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, were born in 1944 and 1946 respectively. Following the deterioration of her marriage, she moved to Delhi to support her father as he prepared to contest India’s first national election in 1951. The 1950s and early 1960s were a period of political education and preparation for Gandhi as she rose rapidly in the ranks of the INC, becoming a minister in the government formed by Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904–1966) soon after her father’s death on May 24, 1964. In 1965, when war with Pakistan broke out, she emerged as a strong contender for the INC leadership with the backing of a cohort of INC leaders named the Syndicate. Warding off challenges from numerous constituencies within the party, and with the backing of the Syndicate, she became India’s fifth prime minister.
From 1971 onward, Gandhi consolidated her dominance. In late 1971, civil war and the secessionist movement of East Pakistan led to the Indian Army’s invasion of East Pakistan in the third Indo-Pakistan war since 1947. With the creation of the independent nation-state of Bangladesh in 1971, Gandhi’s personality-centered political style became pronounced. Partly to underscore India’s growing geopolitical stature in the cold war, she encouraged the development of India’s nuclear program, which conducted a successful nuclear test in 1974. Even as India made economic gains in some areas, she undermined India’s constitutionally mandated federalism when, unlike her father, she steadily undercut the authority of regional political leaders in order to consolidate power at the center. Her regime witnessed the arrival of a distinctively populist style of government, most apparent from her use of the slogan “Garibi Hatao” (“remove poverty”). While these changes bolstered her authority, they also made her the brunt of popular discontent, which became strident in the 1973–1974 period because of food shortages and inflation. Popular unrest and legal assaults on Gandhi’s power precipitated, in June 1975, the declaration of a state of emergency by her government.
The only period of authoritarian rule in post-independence India and a phase denounced as one of the darkest of the postcolonial period, the state of emergency lasted from 1975 to 1977. Controversial constitutional amendments, censorship, and assaults on civil liberties were accompanied by the arrest of thousands of party workers, and perhaps most notoriously, the forced sterilization campaigns prompted by Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi (1946–1980). These policies raised severe discontent, but Prime Minister Gandhi misjudged the popular mood in 1977 and called parliamentary elections in which her party was comprehensively defeated.
The Janata Party government that came to power in 1977 under the prime ministership of Morarji Desai (1896–1995) did not survive for long, but the period after the state of emergency marked a decisive shift in Indian politics with the restoration of India’s parliamentary democracy and the reversal of many of the authoritarian policies adopted by Gandhi. The INC itself split in the wake of the election debacle, and Gandhi sought to build a new political base for herself, one drawn largely from ethnic and religious minorities. Her reemergence as a political leader coincided with infighting in the Janata Party government, and in 1980 Gandhi was voted back to power as India’s eighth prime minister.
Gandhi’s second term in office was weighed down with problems in the Punjab, where the rise of Sikh militancy accompanied Sikh demands for an independent state. Matters escalated in mid-1984 with Operation Bluestar, when she ordered the Indian Army to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar, one of the holiest Sikh shrines, to remove militants hiding in its premises. This act of desecration, accompanied by the excessive use of military force, has remained a source of enormous controversy. On October 31, 1984, Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards as she was walking out of her residence. The assassination triggered a pogrom against Sikhs in New Delhi and other northern Indian cities.
Gandhi’s political career has left a deep imprint on Indian politics, not least through her descendants. Her son Rajiv Gandhi (1944–1991) became prime minister in 1984, and his widow Sonia Gandhi emerged during the late 1990s as the leader of the Congress Party. “Votebank” politics, with which Indira Gandhi is often identified, has remained an enduring facet of Indian political culture long after her death.
- Brass, Paul R. 1994. The Politics of India since Independence. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Jayakar, Pupul. 1992. Indira Gandhi: A Biography. New Delhi: Viking.
- Malhotra, Inder. 1991. Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
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