Sunday, March 19, 2017

Women in Power: Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi with President Richard Nixon
Since India declared their independence, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty ruled the biggest democracy in the world. Jawaharlal Nehru served as the first Prime Minister of the independent India. Following in Nehru’s footsteps, her daughter Indira, succeeded in becoming Prime Minister and became one of the most powerful woman in the modern world.

Name: Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi
Country: India
Position: Prime Minister of India 
Tenure: 1966-1977/ 1980-1984
  • Launched the Green Revolution
  • Defeated Pakistan and supported the independence of Bangladesh
  • Promoted nationalism, industrialization, and socialism

Early Life

Indira Gandhi served as India’s Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977 and again in 1980 till 1984, until her tragic assassination. Born in November 19, 1917 in Allahabad, India, she was Jawaharlal Nehru’s only child. Being Nehru’s only child, she received excellent education, finishing early schooling in India before studying in Switzerland, attending the Ecole Nouvelle Bex and Ecole Internationale in Geneva. She also studied in England, becoming a student in Somerville College in Oxford.

She also helped in his father’s advocacy for Indian independence. For example, she helped to form the Bal Charkha Sangh that promoted for the youth to support the Charkha Sangh campaign of Gandhi to produce their own textile. She also formed the Vanar Sena or Army of Monkeys, gathering children to demonstrate and call for India’s independence. She officially joined the Congress Party in 1938.

Personally, she coped with the usual absence of his father, who suffered numerous counts of incarceration by the British. She lose her mother to tuberculosis in 1936.

During the 1930’s, while studying and joining her father’s activities, she sought comfort to a Parsi friend, Feroze Gandhi. The two fell decided to marry on March 1942, but faced opposition from Jawaharlal Nehru. Nonetheless, his father finally agreed when Mahatma Gandhi himself refused to dissuade the couple. The marriage resulted to 2 sons: Sanjay and Rajiv. Sanjay passed away in 1980 in a plane crush, while Rajiv served as Prime Minister as well. Few months after their wedding, however, the Gandhi couple were imprisoned during the Quit India Campaign.

Early Political Life

In 1947, her father assumed the position of Prime Minister of India, and she served as the hostess - somewhat India’s first lady. She helped her father to welcome foreign dignitaries, and attended summits, meetings, and other political events. Through this experience, she observed and furthered her knowledge of diplomacy and politics that helped her future political career.
Indira with his father in the United Nations

Her career in politics, meanwhile, officially started in 1955 when she joined the Working Committee as well as Central Election of his father’s Indian Congress Party. She experienced a meteoric rise, taking several positions such as Chair of the National Integration Council of the All India Congress Committee and President of the All India Youth Group as well as the Women’s Department of the Party. After 4 years, she took the position of Party President, a largely ceremonial position.

When her father Jawaharlal Nehru succumbed to a heart attack in 1964, she took a seat in the upper house of India’s parliament, the Rajya Sabha. She also received the position of Minister of Information and Broadcasting under the government of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Luckily for her, Prime Minister Shastri passed away in 1966, paving the way for Indira to succeed as Prime Minister. Many in party sought to influence and control her, believing her to be easily manipulated. They only needed her name. But soon, Indira proved them wrong.

Prime Minister Gandhi

As Prime Minister, she also took into her hands the position of Minister of Atomic Energy (September 1967 – March 1977), Minister of External Affairs (September 5, 1967 – February 14, 1969), Minister of Home Affairs (June 1970 – November 1973), and Minister for Space (June 1972 to March 1977).

Indira constantly defended her position. She faced constant opposition from the faction of elder party members led by Morarji Desai. In elections, she secured a slim electoral victory in 1967 and sought to gain the support of the people by enacting socialist and nationalist policies that her father began. In 1967, she nationalized India’s financial sector. She also initiated the so called Green Revolution to expand India’s agricultural production and cement India’s food security. It also meant to reduce India’s reliance on food aid, in particular, from the United States. She used the slogan Garibi Hatao or Eradicate Poverty to sum up her economic policies. She used populism as her way to keep opposition within her party silent. But Desai and other conservatives continued to oppose Gandhi and in 1969, she found herself expelled. Her expulsion led her to establish her own party – the “New” Congress Party.

In 1971, her party won a landslide victory in the elections and continued to serve as India’s Prime Minister.

Foreign Affairs

Indira showed incredible determination and sheer will in foreign affairs. She proved herself as a tough leader as she never feared conflict. Especially in 1971, when she dragged India into the conflict of Bangladesh war for independence. Just after her election, she began to support East Pakistani struggle for independence from Pakistan, India’s arch nemesis. For starters, she granted refuge to millions of East Pakistanis fleeing their country due to the rising violence. When Pakistan launched a military campaign to crush the independence movement, she did not hesitate to send the Indian army in support, starting another Indo-Pakistani War. By the end of the year, Indira’s decision to intervene proved to correct as the coalition of Indian and East Pakistani armies won a decisive victory when the last stronghold of Pakistan in Dhaka surrendered.

Indira’s intervention and East Pakistani victory resulted to the collapse of the government of Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan, resulting to the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as President. Indira and Bhutto then met in a summit in Simla where they negotiated for an end in the conflict. The Simla Agreement in 1972 resulted to an agreement where both countries committed in resolving territorial issue through peaceful means. Furthermore, it secured the independence of East Pakistan and gave birth to Bangladesh. Indira then earned the respect of the Bangladeshi for her support.

Although Indira sought peaceful relations with Pakistan, it did not deter her from supporting India’s development of its own nuclear weapons. She refused to commit India to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty in 1968, viewing it as detrimental to the development of India’s defense capability. By 1974, India launched the Smiling Buddha, the detonation of India’s first nuclear weapon. The program resulted to an arms race in the region, with Pakistan determined to follow India to prevent its domination of the region through its nuclear weapons.
1984 Commemorative Soviet Stamp

Meanwhile, Indira continued his father’s non alignment policy, nonetheless it did stop her from nurturing relations with the Soviet Union. The Soviets gave Indira numerous amounts of aids, aimed in developing industries. Moreover, both countries shared ideas of socialism and cynicism on the west.

As the relation with the Soviets strengthened, especially in August 1971 when two countries signed a Friendship Treaty, India’s relation with the United States declined. Indira herself detested American attempts to interfere with India’s affairs, especially in economics. She loathed the United States using their food aids to India as a bargaining chip for implementing reforms towards a free market economy. As a result, she determined to launch the Green Revolution as a means to avoid the need of American food aids. She earned the enmity of US President Nixon, who called for neutrality of India in the affairs of Bangladesh, and the relation worsened especially in the aftermath of the Smiling Buddha incident.


Although a woman, Indira showed a ruthlessness of a male leader. Although a democracy, during Indira’s tenure in the 1970’s, India plunged into authoritarianism. She stifled opposition within her party. Opposition, on the other hand, accused her of corruption and election fraud. The allegations smeared Indira’s image, and furthered in 1975, when the Allahabad Supreme Court decided her as guilty of cheating in the elections and stealing public funds.

Indira reacted with might, she sought the support from her ally India’s President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. The President issued a declaration placing India under state of emergency in June 25, 1975. In effect, Indira remained in her pose and ruled by decree. With such powers, she purged her opponents, filling up prisons by the thousands. She suspended civil rights and imposed censorship. She continued to govern the country like before but began to lose popularity when her government launched a massive sterilization program aimed in reducing India’s population growth.

Prime Minister Moraji Desai
Nonetheless, Indira believed that even with the state of emergency along with unpopular policies, she hoped for an electoral victory in 1977. But, she lose the election to Morarji Desai and the Janata Party. She was force to resign from her position for the meantime. The opposition took power and she was imprisoned for the following year for the charges she was found guilty.

In 1978, the New Congress Party reformed itself, changing the name to Congress (I) Party (the “I” meaning Indira). During the elections in November of the same year, Indira won a seat in the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha.

The magic of the Nehru-Gandhi name continued to be strong, and in 1980, she won yet again another election, with the Congress (I) winning a sweeping victory that brought her back as Prime Minister. After then, all cases against her disappeared.

Second Premiership

One event hallmarked Indira’s second term as Prime Minister was the issue of Sikh autonomy and separatism. Sikhs of Punjab felt discontented over Hindu rule of India and desired greater powers, if not total independence. In 1984 a group of extreme separatist led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale took control of the sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar. Indira took the challenge head on but handle it with too much strength. In June 1984, she allowed the Indian Army under the code name Operation Blue Star to storm the temple, even bringing in tanks inside, to quell Bhindranwale’s resistance. The temple suffered tremendously from bullet holes and shots from the tanks. The effort resulted to hundreds killed including Bhindranwale.

Following the crisis, Indira ordered a clamped down on Sikh separatist of Punjab, causing allegations of wrongful arrest, torture, and even killings. Sikhs saw the destruction of the temple as sacrilege, and the aftermath as persecution. Two of Indira’s two Sikh bodyguards plotted against her.

On October 31, 1984, as Indira walked from her residence to her office, the two Skih bodyguards fired shots on her. Indira Gandhi succumbed to the shot and died. Her son Rajiv placed the fire over her funeral pyre. But as he held the torch in her funeral, he did not just held the fire that cremated his mother’s body but also took the torch of the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty by succeeding her mother as Prime Minister.
Bibliography: Editors. “Indira Gandhi Biography.” In The website. Accessed on March 12, 2017. URL: Staff. “Indira Gandhi.” In Accessed on March 12, 2017. URL:

“Smt. Indira Gandhi.” In PMINdia. Accessed on March 12, 2017. URL:

The Editors of Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. “Indira Gandhi.” In Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. Accessed on March 12, 2017. URL:

Prabhu, Jaideep. “Gandhi, Indira.” In Encyclopedia of the Cold War. Edited by Ruud van Dijk et. al. New York, New York: Routledge, 2008.

Sonnad, Subhash. “Gandhi, Indira.” In Encyclopedia of the Developing World. Edited by Thomas M. Leonard. New York, New York: Routledge, 2008.

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