She was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. She was not related to Mahatma Gandhi; she took her last name from her husband Feroze Gandhi, who changed his surname to "Gandhi" for political reasons.
A brilliant political strategist and thinker, Indira also possessed an extraordinary desire for political power. As a woman occupying the highest position of government in, what was at that time, a very patriarchal society, Indira was expected to be a passive leader, but her actions proved her otherwise.
When her father died in 1964, she was pressured to take up a career in politics. She was elected as a member of Parliament in her father's Indian National Congress Party, and was appointed a minister in the cabinet of Congress Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri died in office in 1966, and Indira successfully ran to succeed him as party leader, and thus Prime Minister of India. Initially she was dubbed as goongi gudiya (Hindi for dumb doll), as people thought that she would be a puppet in the hands of other Congress leaders. But she proved them all wrong as she emerged to be one of the strongest leaders in the history of the independent India.
As Prime Minister, Indira carefully used every tool available at her disposal to consolidate her power and authority. By using her powers of appointment, she created "notoriously weak" cabinets. She created her own governing Congress (R) party following the November 1969 split within the governing Indian National Congress.Re-elected in 1971 -- after campaigning fiercely on her well-known socialist platform, with the famous garibi hatao (drive out poverty) slogan -- she proceeded to boost her government's fortunes through a successful war that December against U.S.-backed neighbouring Pakistan in East Bengal, where India's intervention enabled local separatists to crown their nine-month war of independence with the creation of the independent republic of Bangladesh. After invading eastern Pakistan, the Indian armies almost overran western Pakistan, and could have completed their conquest had not the United States intervened. President Nixon in a message to Indira, threatened India with a nuclear strike if the Indian armies advanced any further, and dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal. Cold War prism -- Pakistan being a close South Asian ally of the U.S. and India being close to Moscow (though officially non-aligned). India subsequently withdrew its forces from west Pakistan, but the independent Republic of Bangladesh was created out of Pakistan. This humiliating Pakistani defeat, despite the efforts of the United States on its behalf, led to a surge in Indian pride and Indira was deified by the masses following this victory; according to one Gallup poll, Indira became the world's most admired person in public office.
She is also credited with nationalizing the banks in India, a move severely derided by economists at the time, but for which she received immediate approval from the masses. The move reflected the anger of ordinary people at the time as several private banks had collapsed with depositors getting back only a fraction of their money. Moreover a large number of private banks were actually operated by holding companies with wide-ranging business interests and the common man felt the deposited money was being used inappropriately. The nationalized network of banks Gandhi created are successful and widely trusted institutions today. She also took the bold initiative of discontinuing privy purses -- personal allowance payments to India's princely states, which she felt were anachronistic given India's democratic post-independence character.
Her efforts at achieving self-sufficiency for India in food grain production -- the Green Revolution -- achieved consummate success. Her government's initiatives in diversifying and increasing crop yields throughout the country ended India's reliance on foreign food grain imports. It was the success of this Green Revolution that led to her party, the Congress, sweeping the state legislative assembly elections in a number of states in 1972.
Indira Gandhi is considered the initiator of India's nuclear program; India carried out its first nuclear tests in 1974, supposedly for peaceful purposes. (The second series of tests in 1997 led to the recognition of India's nuclear-weapons capability).
Opponents had long made allegations that her party had practiced electoral fraud to win the 1971 elections. In June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad found the sitting Prime Minister guilty of election fraud, and ordered her to be removed from her seat in Parliament and banned from running for an additional six years. Rather than face the charges, Indira declared a State of Emergency, and in her own words brought democracy "to a grinding halt". Invoking article 352 of the Indian Constitution, she granted herself extraordinary powers and launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition. This move was endorsed by Mother Teresa.
Rival party leaders were jailed, and electricity was cut off to opposition newspapers. Opposition-controlled state legislatures were dissolved and suspended indefinitely. The Prime Minister pushed a series of increasingly harsh bills and constitutional amendments through parliament, all which were approved with little discussion or debate.
Indira attempted to re-write the nation's laws with the help of the parliament, thus protecting herself from legal prosecution once emergency rule was revoked. As massive as these reforms were, Indira did not feel her powers were amassing quickly enough, so she utilized President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to issue "extraordinary laws" that bypassed parliament altogether, allowing her to rule by decree.
Indira's emergency rule lasted nineteen months. In spite of the controversy involved, India made significant strides in economic and industrial progress during this period. India was badly in need of economic recovery after the strain of the 1971 Indo-Pak war on the exchequer. Also communal Hindu-Muslim riots, which had been surfacing again in the 1960s and 70s virtually ceased, and during the initial stages of the Emergency the government seemed to be working with vigor. However with the stringent measures imposed during Emergency, the Indian public and opposition grew increasingly resentful.
In 1977, greatly misjudging her own popularity, she called elections and was roundly defeated. To the surprise of some observers, she agreed to step down without much objection. Three years later she would be re-elected, although her second term would be much less authoritarian.
Indira's later reign was most marked by a serious breakdown in Hindu-Sikh relations that would eventually lead to her own assassination. Alarmed at the rise in popularity of the highly political Sikh missionary and leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, India's leaders were disturbed by his proclamation that Sikhs were a sovereign and self-ruling community.
Fearing Pakistani support for the movement, in June 1984 Gandhi ordered Operation Blue Star, a military assault on Amritsar's holy Harmindar Sahib or Golden Temple, the central Sikh place of prayer, which had been occupied by Jarnail Singh and his militant supporters with a heavy cache of arms. Gandhi ordered the army to fight its way into the main shrine where Sikh terrorists had established their headquarters. The occupiers refused to depart peacefully and a firefight ensued - with 83 soldiers and 493 occupiers -- including the main terrorist leaders -- killed, and many more injured.
Sikhs everywhere were outraged at the desecration and their alienation was deep and had dramatic consequences: on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh. She died shortly after arriving at the All India Institute for Medical Sciences, AIIMS, in New Delhi. Beant Singh was fatally shot during the assassination, and Satwant Singh was sentenced to death by hanging in 1988. In New Delhi, anti-Sikh riots broke out after her death, leaving nearly 20,000 innocent Sikhs dead. Many members of the ruling Congress party were implicated for their role in the riots, and many related cases are still pending judgement in Indian courts. Some believe that Indira had a premonition of her death. The very night before the day she was assasinated she said in a speech, "I don't mind if my life goes in the service of the nation. If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation."
To this day, Indira's legacy as Prime Minister remains mixed. Though she had a strong personality, and her reign was popular with many segments of India's population, especially the youth and the poor, her decision to declare a state of emergency solely to escape prosecution remains controversial, and many Sikhs resent what they see as the country's bloodiest genocide ever.
Her two sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, were both involved in politics. Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash in June 1980. Rajiv Gandhi entered politics in February 1981 and became prime minister on his mother's death, later (May 1991) himself meeting a similar fate, this time at the hands of foreign LTTE militants. Rajiv's widow and Indira's daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, led a Congress led "coalition" (which by itself was history for the Congress party) to a surprise electoral victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha, dethroning Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Sonia Gandhi declined the opportunity to assume the office of Prime Minister. Dr Manmohan Singh now heads the nation.
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