Indira Gandhi

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (1917-1984), a prime minister of India, was the most effective and powerful politician of her day in that country.

Indira Gandhi was born in the northern Indian city of Allahabad on November 19, 1917. She was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, a dominant figure in the nationalist movement and India's first prime minister. This association placed her at the center of India's struggle for freedom. After independence in 1947, she served as her father's hostess and confidante until his death. Throughout the period of her political association with her father, one of Gandhi's primary interests was social welfare work, particularly children's welfare.

Indira Gandhi attended Santiniketan University and Somerville College, Oxford University, in England. She married Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) in March 1942. Shortly thereafter they were both imprisoned for a period of 13 months for their part in the nationalist political agitation against British rule. Feroze Gandhi was a lawyer and newspaper executive and became an independent member of Parliament. He died in 1960. They had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay.

Gandhi became president of the Indian National Congress in 1959. The Congress had led the country to freedom and had then become its major political party. She had joined the Congress in 1938 and subsequently served as a member of its Youth Advisory Board and chairman of its Woman's Department. Prior to assuming the presidency of the organization, Gandhi was named to its 21-member executive Working Committee and was elected with more votes than any other candidate to the powerful 11-member Central Election Board, which named candidates and planned electoral strategy.

In June 1964, following her father's death, Gandhi became minister for information and broadcasting in the Cabinet of Lal Bahadur Shastri and instituted an Indian television system. In January 1966, when Shastri died, she was elected leader of the Congress party in Parliament and became the third prime minister of independent India. She assumed office at a critical time in the history of the country. A truce had ended the 1965 war between India and Pakistan only a week before. The nation was in the midst of a two-year drought resulting in severe food shortages and a deepening economic crisis with rising prices and rising unemployment. The political repercussions of these difficulties were profound. In the fourth general elections of 1967 the Congress retained majority control (and reelected Gandhi as its leader) but lost control in half the state legislatures. After 20 years of political dominance, the Congress party experienced serious difficulty.

Gandhi immediately set about reorganizing the party to make it a more effective instrument of administration and national development. Her goal was to achieve a wider measure of social and economic justice for all Indians. As her left-of-center policies became clear, the Congress party split, with the younger, more liberal elements coalescing around Gandhi and the older, more conservative party leaders opposing her. This division came to a head in July 1969 when she nationalized the country's 14 leading banks in a highly popular move meant to make credit more available to agriculture and to small industry.

The split was formalized when Gandhi's candidate for the presidency of India, V.V. Giri, won over the party's official nominee. Although Gandhi took 228 members of Parliament with her into the New Congress, this was not a majority in the 521-member house, and she held power only with support from parties of the left. In December 1970 when Gandhi failed to get the necessary support to abolish the privy purses and privileges of the former princes, she called on the President to dissolve Parliament. Midterm elections were set for March 1971, one full year ahead of schedule.

A coalition of three parties of the right and an anti-Congress socialist party opposed Gandhi, who made alliances with parties of the left and some regional parties. Her platform was essentially one of achieving social and economic change more rapidly in an effort to improve the quality of life of India's people. Her party won a massive victory with over a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Gandhi faced major problems in the areas of food production, population control, land reform, regulation of prices, unemployment, and industrial production. The problems were exacerbated by the influx of almost 10 million refugees as a result of the civil turmoil in East Pakistan. In November 1971 Indian troops crossed into East Pakistan to fight Pakistani forces. On December 6 Gandhi announced diplomatic recognition of the Bangla Desh government set up by East Pakistani rebel leaders. Ten days later Pakistan's commander in East Pakistan surrendered to India.

In the state elections held in India in March 1972, Gandhi's New Congress party scored the most overwhelming victory in the history of independent India; however, her opponent accused her of violating election laws, and a high court upheld the charge in 1975. Because of this development, as well as domestic unrest, Gandhi declared a state of emergency and postponed elections. In the 1977 elections Gandhi and her party suffered major defeats; Gandhi lost her seat and the premiership.

The following year she headed the Congress party faction as she returned to Parliament. In 1979 she again became Prime Minister. In efforts to prove India's nonalliance in the global community, she visited both the United States and the USSR. Internally, riots broke out among Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh religious sects. Sikh separatists secured weapons within their sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar, assuming religious protection. Gandhi ordered government troops to storm the temple, leading to many Sikh deaths. This led to her assassination on the grounds of her own residence and office October 31, 1984, by her own Sikh security guards.

Further Reading on Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi

Biographies of Gandhi include Tariq Ali, An Indian Dynasty: The Story of the Nehru-Gandhi Family, Putnam, 1985; and Pupu Jayakar, Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography, Pantheon Books, 1993.