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At a time when women hadn’t officially strayed into the arena of active politics, Indira Gandhi managed to battle her way to the very top. The first and only female Prime Minister of our diverse and largely patriarchal society, Gandhi was on the receiving end of some of the most derogatory, misogynist comments from the old-schoolers and even the public at large. On her 99th birthday, we would like to remember her unflinching legacy.
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As the only daughter to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamala Nehru, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi watched her father declare India independent on 15 August, 1947 and then work his way into fulfilling his dream of realising a ‘modern India’. With an ancestry that lived, breathed, and spoke politics, Gandhi’s interest in the same was sparked from an extremely early age. However, keeping to the dominant male atmosphere in the Parliament at the time, she played more hostess than activist in all of her father’s diplomatic meetings and travels abroad. After receiving a stellar education in Swiss Schools and Somerville College, Oxford, Gandhi returned to her father’s side as his trusted right hand in all matters.
In the short period following her homecoming, she met Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi lawyer. The couple married, and a few years later, Indira Gandhi gave birth to two sons – Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi. Even in the midst of adjusting to married life, she was sure to never fail her father whenever he requested her presence or assistance in matters of Parliament. However, her first notable active contribution to the realm of Indian politics occurred with her nomination into a prominent 21-member working committee of the Congress Party, in 1955. From here, she worked her way up, securing connections with the right people. Four years later, she’d made an impression enough to be appointed the Congress President. Meanwhile, Lal Bahadur Shastri had been appointed Prime Minister of the nation following Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964.
Although Shastri was greatly respected throughout the nation, his tenure was cut short by a sudden heart attack two years later, leaving the hot-seat of India empty. At the time, many believed that the senior and highly respected minister, Morarji Desai, would set up camp in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. But a certain section of the Congress leaders had their sights set on Gandhi, who at the time was the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Shastri’s Cabinet. This extremely powerful branch of the Congress, under the guidance of Congress veteran K. Kamaraj, helped secure a massive win for Gandhi, who assumed the Prime Minister’s Office in 1966.
Although the upper sections of the Indian society welcomed her accession, there were many who were not ready to see a woman calling the shots for the country. Thus, in the first few years, Gandhi had quite a task winning over the masses. She also started some re-constructions inside the government, endorsing new trends and values, and expelling many older officials from the Parliament. Some of them were her father’s closest friends. For these ‘radical’ measures, she was expelled from the party by the Congress old guard, for gross “indiscipline”.
Undeterred, she launched a new branch of the Congress called Congress (I) and managed to recruit most of the senior MPs to her divide. Simultaneously, she worked towards changing the face of agriculture in the country and spent some years structuring and implementing new programmes. These included increasing crop diversification and food exports, which worked towards making the country self-sufficient in food grains and also helped in the creation of more job opportunities. This marked the beginning of the revolutionary ‘Green Revolution’.
Amid her soaring popularity due to a rapid improvement in the agricultural sector following her measures, Gandhi was faced with an international conflict. Several thousand refugees were clamouring into India from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to escape a deadly fate at the hands of the West Pakistani forces. At this point, Gandhi was faced with the diplomatic challenge of not offending the major powers of the UN, but at the same time providing support to the East Pakistanis. Their prolonged stay in India was an unsustainable option for the country. She thus declared war on the West Pakistani forces, and after an overwhelming Indian victory, she managed to negotiate the creation of Bangladesh as we know it today.
However, Gandhi had made her fair share of blunders, the devaluation of the rupee being one of them. The economy had suffered greatly and she was also accused of “illegal handling” in the 1975 elections, thus resulting in her opponents calling for her immediate resignation. However, Gandhi refused to be subdued into resignation. Instead of stepping down, she persuaded the then President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, to declare a state of National Emergency on 25 June, 1975.
Although Gandhi has been largely criticised for declaring the Emergency, one cannot deny that the country witnessed some major improvements under it. The elite Central Reserve Police Force was ordered to arrest Morarji Desai and the ailing and aged Jayaprakash Narayan, while she introduced press censorship and curtailed several civic liberties. To alleviate a growing agitation across the country in response to the Emergency, she introduced her famous Twenty-Point Program, with its primary goals aimed at reducing inflation and energising the economy by punishing tax evaders, black marketers, smugglers, and other criminals. Surprisingly, prices reduced, production indexes rose dramatically, and even the monsoon proved cooperative by bringing abundant rains on time for two years in a row.
However, the repressive theme of the Emergency did not sit well with majority of the masses. When she called it off and started preparing for the next General Elections, sure enough her party lost by a considerably wide margin. Morarji Desai was quick to secure the seat of Prime Minister for himself. However, under his reign, India witnessed laissez-faire capitalism in all its worst forms, causing a rapid rise in inflation. Smuggling, black-marketing, and every form of corruption endemic to any poor country with underpaid bureaucrats and undereducated police also reared its ugly head. It wasn’t too long before the public began to grow in dissent against him.
At the same time, he made the mistake of placing all blame on Gandhi and briefly imprisoning her, making her a martyr in the eyes of the public and gaining her sympathy for the same. Desai resigned mid-term, and soon after, the President dissolved the Parliament. The next General Elections, held in 1980, saw Congress (I) winning 351 of the 525 contested Lok Sabha seats, as against 31 for Janata. Gandhi was back to the Prime Minister’s chair and the continued to occupy it till her assassination in 1984 by two of her trusted Sikh body-guards, due to her decision to counter the Punjabi insurgency.
Indira Gandhi’s reign saw its share of highs and lows. But her bold spirit and the strength she exhibited in executing necessary, if sometimes unpopular, measures make her worthy of being called the Iron Lady of India.