On 19 November 1917, Jawaharlal and Kamala’s daughter was born. She was named Indira after Motilal Nehru’s mother, Indrani. Since her childhood, Indira’s life was politicized to the extent that entering politics seemed an inevitable goal. Her father from the very beginning actively involved her in the politics. She accompanied him to meetings, attended meetings on his behalf, and became a part of Youth National Congress. Though she did not want to pursue or get involved in politics, her entire life moulded her for the position she was going to acquire in future. It is interesting to note that while the rest of the family was unhappy that a girl child was born, Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru were ecstatic. They never differentiated her or treat her different because she was a girl. Perhaps due to this Indira became the independent, bold girl that we know of.
Throughout her life, Indira tried to avoid entering politics. One excellent example could be when Indira was first approached to become Congress President in 1959. Indira was extremely reluctant, saying, “I couldn’t manage it…I was absolutely certain that I wouldn’t be able to handle it.” However, with the family that she was born into, it was not only expected but serving the country was made a duty for her. It is fascinating to note her rise to power. Born as a daughter of independent India's prime minister Nehru, her entire life was nurtured to become a prominent figure in Indian politics. She inherited the legacy of her father, her involvement in the freedom movement paved the way for her political life, and her father becoming the Prime Minister of India ensured that Indira Gandhi was to become a crucial Indian figure in Indian politics.
Though she was always involved during independence movements and working in Congress, her appointment for PM occurred because she was thought of as someone weak, who could be manipulated. Indira did not seek membership, but her inclusion came about at the insistence of Congress president U.N. Dhebar, and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Many Congress members viewed Indira as a means to get to the Prime Minister and a potentially useful tool in the future. Some Congress Party members wished to establish Indira as a ‘shadow’ political figure, someone with Nehru’s stature and position but without strong political ties.
However, Indira never allowed herself to become a puppet. Instead, she experienced a phenomenal rise to power followed by a dramatic fall and then an incredible political resurgence eventually leading to her assassination in 1984. Her rise to power was marred with controversy. People expected her to continue the legacy of Nehru where'as she was creating her own. Indira never sided with one ideology. She was leftist and then favourable to rightist. Her ideology was basically what she felt was right to do.
Indira’s personality is full of contradictions. She did not bind herself to any religious or social conventions; she took decisions based on her beliefs. This ability to make decisions on her own was both good and bad quality. Good quality because she was able to take hard decisions when no one else could and bad quality because it undermines the nature of democracy where any major decisions must be made unanimously or collectively. The opposition party and more often her own party members felt ignored because they were not included in the decision-making process.
One of the significant political achievements of Indira Gandhi was the war of 1971. The liberation of the Bangladesh people won Indira an immense amount of admiration. According to Malhotra, many Indians hailed her as Durga, the eight-armed, tiger riding, an invincible goddess in the Hindu pantheon, while others worshipped her as an incarnation of Shakti or female energy. Indira’s heroism did not last long, and she soon experienced a dismal decline in the eyes of the people.
Regardless of India’s victory one of many pitfalls of the war was the failure of rains. This put immense pressure on the government as once full granaries were now emptied to feed the millions of Bangladeshi refugees that had poured into India. The war had also strained the government’s finances causing economic discontent. The economic crisis was also exacerbated by the widespread corruption in Indira’s government. Since the Congress split, many expected Indira’s party to be honest, yet the corruption became even more apparent. Indira was also increasingly establishing supremacy and getting rid of anyone who could rival her power.
After having reached the pinnacle of her fame and popularity, her subsequent decline to power began. Despite Indira’s authoritarianism, her need for power increased which resulted in her worst political mistake. The emergency which was imposed in 1975 was a naked attempt to grab political power. In Ajit Roy’s article, ‘The Failure of Indira Gandhi’, he says “in her pursuit of… power, Indira Gandhi never hesitated to break any rule-moral-ethical or political-constitutional-without as much as batting an eyelid…legitimising amorality and corruption.” (Roy, 1896).
The Emergency allowed Indira to witness absolute power. Political leaders were arrested, press censorship, sterilisation programmes caused people to lose faith in Indira. The period of emergency is often called a black mark in Indian history. Indira contradictorily argued that to preserve democracy, she needed to suspend democratic institutions and procedures. Inder Malhotra calls the emergency “her worst and most catastrophic mistake, indeed her cardinal sin.” After that Indira’s political career revived one last time in 1980 with her re-election as PM of India. However, the desecration of a Sikh holy shrine due to the Blue Star Operation, resulted in Indira to lose her massive following. The Sikhs in particularly blamed Indira for the blue star operation which culminated in Indira being assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard on October 31, 1984.
Indira Gandhi was a dynamic and decisive leader. While she made decisions that acquired enemies, she always acted in a way that she felt best served India. Indira Gandhi led India into the modern world. She stood firm facing American pressure to defeat Pakistan and to liberate East Pakistan. She contributed to establishing India's position on the world stage. The power of Indira Gandhi's personality still influences Indian life today. Her ability to walk a fine line politically in a country dominated by deeply rooted religious and social traditions allowed her to be a representative for all of India. According to G. Parthasarathi, Indira had a wide constituency of “civilised people extending across all divisions and barriers and men and women of decency and vision in all countries.” Villain or champion of India, Indira Gandhi was arguably one of the most powerful women of the twentieth century.
Frank, K. (2001). Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. Delhi: Harper Collins.
Malhotra, I. (2006). Indira Gandhi. Delhi: National Book Trust.
Parthasarathi, G. (1985). Indira Gandhi: statesmen, scholars, scientists, and friends remember. Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust.
Roy, A. (1896). The Failure of Indira Gandhi. Economic and Political Weekly, 45.
Sahgal, N. (1982). Nehru's Quiet Daughter. The Wilson Quarterly, 160.
Image Credit: The Indian Wire
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