Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi Biography:

Nehru’s long tenure in office gave continuity and cohesion to India’s domestic and foreign policies, but as his health deteriorated, concerns over who might inherit his mantle or what might befall India after he left office frequently surfaced in political circles. After his death, the Congress Caucus, also known as the Syndicate, chose Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister in June 1964. A mild-mannered person, Shastri adhered to Gandhian principles of simplicity of life and dedication to the service of the country. His short period of leadership was beset with three major crises: widespread food shortages, violent anti-Hindi demonstrations in the state of Madras (as Tamil Nadu was then called) that were quelled by the army, and the second war with Pakistan over Kashmir. Shastri’s premiership was cut short when he died of a heart attack on January 11, 1966, the day after having signed the Soviet-brokered Tashkent Declaration. The agreement required both sides to withdraw all armed personnel by February 26, 1966, to the positions they had held prior to August 5, 1965, and to observe the cease-fire line.

Indira Gandhi held a cabinet portfolio as minister of information and broadcasting in Shastri’s government. She was the only child of Nehru, who was also her mentor in the nationalist movement. The Syndicate selected her as prime minister when Shastri died in 1966 even though her eligibility was challenged by Morarji Desai, a veteran nationalist and long-time aspirant to that office. The Congress “bosses” were apparently looking for a leading figure acceptable to the masses, who could command general support during the next general election but who would also acquiesce to their guidance. Hardly had Indira Gandhi begun in office than she encountered a series of problems that defied easy solutions: Mizo tribal uprisings in the northeast; famine, labor unrest, and misery among the poor in the wake of rupee devaluation; and agitation in Punjab for linguistic and religious separatism.

In the fourth general election in February 1967, the Congress majority was greatly reduced when it secured only 54 percent of the parliamentary seats, and non-Congress ministries were established in Bihar, Kerala, Orissa, Madras, Punjab, and West Bengal the next month. A Congress-led coalition government collapsed in Uttar Pradesh, while in April Rajasthan was brought under President’s Rule–direct central government rule (see The Executive, ch. 8). Seeking to eradicate poverty, Mrs. Gandhi pursued a vigorous policy in 1969 of land reform and placed a ceiling on personal income, private property, and corporate profits. She also nationalized the major banks, a bold step amidst a growing rift between herself and the party elders. The Congress expelled her for “indiscipline” on November 12, 1969, an action that split the party into two factions: the Congress (O)–for Organisation–under Desai, and the Congress (R)–for Requisition–under Gandhi. She continued as prime minister with support from communists, Sikhs, and regional parties.

Indira Gandhi campaigned fiercely on the platform “eliminate poverty” (garibi hatao ) during the fifth general election in March 1971, and the Congress (R) gained a large majority in Parliament against her former party leaders whose slogan was “eliminate Indira” (Indira hatao ). India’s decisive victory over Pakistan in the third war over Kashmir in December 1971, and Gandhi’s insistence that the 10 million refugees from Bangladesh be sent back to their country generated a national surge in her popularity, later confirmed by her party’s gains in state elections in 1972. She had firmly established herself at the pinnacle of power, overcoming challenges from the Congress (O), the Supreme Court, and the state chief ministers in the early 1970s. The more solidified her monopoly of power became, the more egregious was her intolerance of criticisms, even when they were deserved. As head of her party and the government, Gandhi nominated and removed the chief ministers at will and frequently reshuffled the portfolios of her own cabinet members. Ignoring their obligations to their constituencies, party members competed with each other in parading their loyalty to Gandhi, whose personal approval alone seemed crucial to their survival. In August 1971, Gandhi signed the twenty-year Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation with the Soviet Union because ties with the United States, which had improved in Nehru’s later years, had eroded (see Russia, ch. 9).

Neither Gandhi’s consolidation of power, nor her imperious style of administration, nor even her rhetoric of radical reforms was enough to meet the deepening economic crisis spawned by the enormous cost of the 1971 war. A huge additional outlay was needed to manage the refugees, the crop failures in 1972 and 1973, the skyrocketing world oil prices in 1973-74, and the overall drop in industrial output despite a surplus of scientifically and technically trained personnel. No immediate sign of economic recovery or equity was visible despite a loan obtained from the International Monetary Fund (IMF–see Glossary) in 1974. Both Gandhi’s office and character came under severe tests, beginning with railroad employee strikes, national civil disobedience advocated by J.P. Narayan, defeat of her party in Gujarat by a coalition of parties calling itself the Janata Morcha (People’s Front), an all-party, no-confidence motion in Parliament, and, finally, a writ issued by the Allahabad High Court invalidating her 1971 election and making her ineligible to occupy her seat for six years.

What had once seemed a remote possibility took place on June 25, 1975: the president declared an Emergency and the government suspended civil rights. Because the nation’s president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974-77), and Gandhi’s own party members in Parliament were amenable to her personal influence, Gandhi had little trouble in pushing through amendments to the constitution that exonerated her from any culpability, declaring President’s Rule in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu where anti-Indira parties ruled, and jailing thousands of her opponents. In her need to trust and confide in someone during this extremely trying period, she turned to her younger son, Sanjay, who became an enthusiastic advocate of the Emergency. Under his watchful eyes, forced sterilization as a means of birth control was imposed on the poor, increased numbers of urban squatters and slum dwellers in Delhi were evicted in the name of beautification projects, and disgruntled workers were either disciplined or their wages frozen. The Reign of Terror, as some called it, continued until January 18, 1977, when Gandhi suddenly relaxed the Emergency, announced the next general election in March, and released her opponents from prison.

With elections only two months away, both J.P. Narayan and Morarji Desai reactivated the multiparty front, which campaigned as the Janata Party and rode anti-Emergency sentiment to secure a clear majority in the Lok Sabha (House of the People), the lower house of Parliament (see The Legislature, ch. 8). Desai, a conservative Brahman, became India’s fourth prime minister (1977-79), but his government, from its inception, became notorious for its factionalism and furious internal competition. As it promised, the Janata government restored freedom and democracy, but its inability to effect sound reforms or ameliorate poverty left people disillusioned. Desai lost the support of Janata’s left-wing parties by the early summer of 1979, and several secular and liberal politicians abandoned him altogether, leaving him without a parliamentary majority. A no-confidence motion was about to be introduced in Parliament in July 1979, but he resigned his office; Desai’s government was replaced by a coalition led by Chaudhury Charan Singh (prime minister in 1979-80). Although Singh’s life-long ambition had been to become prime minister, his age and inefficiency were used against him, and his attempts at governing India proved futile; new elections were announced in January 1980.

Gandhi and her party, renamed Congress (I)–I for Indira–campaigned on the slogan “Elect a Government That Works!” and regained power. Sanjay Gandhi was elected to the Lok Sabha. Unlike during the Emergency, when India registered significant economic and industrial progress, Gandhi’s return to power was hindered by a series of woes and tragedies, beginning with Sanjay’s death in June 1980 while attempting to perform stunts in his private airplane. Secessionist forces in Punjab and in the northeast and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979 consumed her energy. She began to involve the armed forces in resolving violent domestic conflicts between 1980 and 1984. In May 1984, Sikh extremists occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar, converting it into a haven for terrorists. Gandhi responded in early June when she launched Operation Bluestar, which killed and wounded hundreds of soldiers, insurgents, and civilians (see Insurgent Movements and External Subversion, ch. 10). Guarding against further challenges to her power, she removed the chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh just months before her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. The news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination plunged New Delhi and other parts of India into anti-Sikh riots for three days; several thousand Sikhs were killed.