Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India from 1966-77 and 1980-84 was a progressive, idealistic, and the most powerful woman in India’s political history. She was also the 2nd longest-serving PM after her father Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru who was the first PM of independent India. During her tenure, Indira Gandhi enjoyed greater public support and love, was admired and also hated for many reasons. Sometimes her party saw a landslide victory, while at other times it witnessed a decline. However, she managed to stand strong during political turmoil and allegations and was able to raise her party to the top. In this article, we present the biography of Indira Gandhi which includes her early years, family, education life, political career, and death. We have also discussed the achievements of India’s woman leader, controversies and the book and films that portrayed her life. Plus, we have an FAQ section where some of the compelling questions concerning the first woman Prime Minister of India are answered.
Indira Gandhi’s Early Years and Family
- Indira Nehru was the only daughter of the first Prime Minister of independent India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and the granddaughter of Motilal Nehru, an Indian National Congress leader and a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi.
- Her mother Swarup Rani Nehru was a strong advocate of civil disobedience against the Britishers and played an active role in India’s freedom movement.
- Thus, Indira Nehru grew up in an environment dedicated to the struggle for India’s independence. She was exposed to international affairs and geopolitics quite early.
- At the age of eleven, Indira formed the Bal Charkha Sangh (1930) to teach children to spin and weave. She also formed the Vanar Sena (1930) to help Congress during the Non-Cooperation movement by spying on the police and distributing Indian flags.
- Indira’s mother died in 1938 surrounded by family.
- Indira Gandhi’s husband was Feroze Gandhi whom she married in 1942. Feroze was an Indian freedom fighter and a journalist. They had two sons together, Sanjiv Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, both of whom were contesting for the Prime Ministerial position to be filled in after their mother’s tenure was over.
- Feroz Gandhi died in the year 1960 from a second cardiac arrest. While Sanjay Gandhi died from wounds in a plane crash, Rahul Gandhi was assassinated in a suicide bombing attack.
Indira Gandhi’s Education
Indira Gandhi studied in schools like Ecole Nouvelle, Bex (Switzerland), Ecole Internationale, Geneva, Pupils’ Own School, Poona and Bombay, and Badminton School, Bristol.
She attended Visvabharati University in Shantiniketan, Bolpur, in West Bengal, and was tutored by Rabindranath Tagore. While speaking about the place, Indira recalls, “I think what I learnt most at Santiniketan was the ability to live quietly within myself, no matter what was happening outside.” During her interview, Rabindranath Tagore named her Priyadarshini, meaning “delightful to look at”. Thus, she came to be called Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi.
She pursued further studies at Oxford University in England with subjects like history, political science, economics, etc.
Indira Gandhi and Politics
Timeline of Indira Gandhi’s Political Journey to Become the Prime Minister of India and her Re-election to the Position
- Indira Gandhi joined Congress in 1938.
- She was imprisoned on September 1942 and worked in the riot-affected locations of Delhi under the support of Mahatma Gandhi.
- She became a part of the Congress Working Committee in 1955.
- Indira Gandhi was appointed as the Chairperson of the National Integration Council in 1956.
- She became the President of the All India Youth Congress in 1956.
- She was chosen as the President of the Women’s Dept. A.I.C.C in 1956.
- Indira Gandhi became a Member of the Central Parliamentary Board of Congress in 1958.
- Indira Gandhi became the Party President of the Indian National Congress in 1959 and remained there until 1960. This was her first official introduction to Indian politics.
- After her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s demise on 27 May 1964, she became a member of the Rajya Sabha from August 1964 and served until Feb 1967. Indira was also the Minister of Information and Broadcasting from 1964 to 1966 as she declined to take on the leadership of the INC party.
- Later, she became the Leader of the Congress Party in 1966 and went on to become the second Prime Minister of India on January 19 after defeating Morarji Desai. She remained in office until 1977.
- She acquired a seat in the Lok Sabha for the fourth, fifth, and sixth sessions (1967, 1971, 1977).
- Indira became the Minister for Atomic Energy and served from September 1967 to March 1977.
- She was appointed as the Minister of External Affairs from September 5 1967 to February 14, 1969.
- Indira Gandhi was re-elected as the Prime Minister of India in 1967.
- She assumed the position of the Ministry of Home Affairs from June 1970 to November 1973.
- She served as the Minister for Space from June 1972 to March 1977.
- Gandhi remains the President of the Indian National Congress in 1978. Indira Gandhi, a member of the Parliament was imprisoned on December 20, 1978, by the House with 279 votes in favor and 138 against. She was jailed for committing a breach of privilege and contempt of the Indian Parliament and released on December 26, 1978.
- Under pressure from the Syndicate, Indira Gandhi was compelled to make Morarji Desai the Deputy Prime Minister on 13 March 1967 who served until 16 July 1969.
- Syndicate (non-Hindi speaking group within Congress party led by K Kamaraj) member Nijalingappa expells Indira Gandhi from Congress Party on 12 November 1969 for violating party discipline and for fostering a “cult of personality”.
- The Syndicate comprised party leaders who took reigns wielding tremendous influence after Nehru’s demise.
- Indira Gandhi was re-elected as Prime Minister in 1980 and her tenure was cut short by her death on October 1984.
Indira Gandhi’s “New” Congress Party
- Indira Gandhi split from the Congress party owing to political tensions.
- Indira Gandhi feared that with Neelam Sanjiva Reddy’s becoming President, she will be replaced by Morarji Desai as the new Prime Minister.
- Indira Gandhi declined to issue whips to Congress members and V.V Giri was appointed to Lok Sabha which created an open rift between Gandhi and the Syndicate.
- Indira Gandhi strongly supported the freedom fighters of Bangladesh (East Pakistan) and liberated the country in the 1971 war. It was a perfectly executed political, military, and diplomatic strategy that helped her emerge victorious. The war was an excellent move that is lauded to date.
- The New Congress Party underwent a landslide victory in the elections to State Legislative Assemblies.
Turmoil in Indira Gandhi’s Political Career and her Imposition of the Emergency
- India Gandhi was accused of election violations and malpractice by her political contestant, the socialist leader Raj Narain for which she was banned from the Parliament by the High Court of Allahabad. However, she managed to regain her position based on public favor and support.
- Indira Gandhi upon being released from prison declares the infamous State of Emergency (25 June 1975- 21 March 1977) where she ruthlessly suppressed opposition, violated human rights, jailed political opponents, and muzzled media for 19 months.
- During the Emergency, Indira Gandhi implemented unpopular policies, introduced draconian laws, and elaborate red tape (excessive bureaucracy) that hobbled the economy and administration.
Indira Gandhi’s Fall and Return to Power
- After the Emergency period was over, Indira was defeated in the Parliamentary elections that were held in 1977.
- On the other hand, the new elections saw the rise of the Janata Party.
- New PM Morarji Desai became the new Prime Minister on 24 March 1977 and resigned from office on 28 July 1979.
- This led to the formation of the Indian National Congress (R) Party by Indira Gandhi where R stands for Requisitionists. Through the formation of the new party, she demonstrated the support that she received from the public. The Syndicate was known as Congress (O) where O stands for Organisation.
- There was a gradual rise of the Congress (R) Party which later became the Congress (I) party where I stood for “Indira”.
- After losing three seats in the 1977 elections, the Congress (O) party merged with several parties to form the Janata Party in 1977.
- The Janata Party declined on August 1979.
- With that, the Congress (I) party underwent a landslide victory in 1980.
- Sanjay Gandhi, the youngest son of Indira Gandhi wins a seat in the Lok Sabha.
Indira Gandhi’s Unfavorable Encounter with Sikh Separatists
- The Sikhs of Punjab wanted an autonomous state.
- As a result, Sikhs separatist militants led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale fortified The Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple). They threatened to blow up the holiest shrine rather than capitulate.
- Indian Army led by commander Lieutenant-General Sunderji was brought in to resist the militants under Operation Blue Star. 450-500 Sikh extremists and pilgrims were killed in the violent confrontation. Also, the Akal Takht was considerably damaged during the conflict.
How did Indira Gandhi Die?
- Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31st October 1984 at 9.30 a.m. at her residence in Safdarjung Road, New Delhi by her Sikh bodyguards and nationalists (Satwant Singh, Beant Singh).
- She was shot 36 times by guns that the bodyguards carried. She was killed as an act of revenge after operation Blue Star claimed the lives of both Sikh militants and civilians.
- Following her death, riots took place where more than 3000 Sikhs were killed.
- Her bungalow in Delhi where she was assassinated is now a memorial that attracts 10,000 visitors per day.
What are Indira Gandhi’s Achievements and Contributions?
Achievements of Indira Gandhi
- Indira Gandhi receive India’s most prestigious award, Bharat Ratna in 1972.
- She also received the Mexican Academy Award for Liberation of Bangladesh in 1972.
- Indira was also a recipient of the 2nd Annual Medal, FAO in 1973.
- The Iron Lady of India was awarded the Sahitya Vachaspati by Nagarini Pracharini Sabha in 1976.
- This was followed by the Mothers’ Award, USA in 1976.
- Indira Gandhi was a recipient of the Islbella d’Este award of Italy for her outstanding contribution to diplomacy.
- She also was awarded Yale University’s Howland Memorial Prize.
- She received her Honorary Doctoral Degree, Citation of Distinction from Columbia University.
- She was also rewarded with the Diploma of Honour by the Argentine Society 1971 for the Protection of Animals.
- In several polls conducted, she emerged as the most admired person in the world.
Contributions by Indira Gandhi Toward the Nation
- Indira Gandhi was particularly concerned for the poor or underprivileged and worked for their welfare through various Social Welfare Programmes. Critics claim it to be an obsequious behavior for political fame.
- She was also associated with committees that were dedicated to children like Bal Sahyog, Bal Bhavan Board, and Children’s National Museum.
- During the 1960s, food security was threatened and Indian agriculture that grew only commercial crops for the British Raj was in shambles. India, under the leadership of PM Indira Gandhi, introduced the US-led Green revolution in India.
- In a telephonic conversation, she had appealed to US President Lyndon Johnson, “I don’t ever want us to have to beg for food again”. C. Subramaniam, B. Sivaraman, and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan played crucial roles through the combined arsenal of science, diplomacy, and political courage to bring food security to the country.
- Indira Gandhi nationalized 14 banks in the country.
- She brought about important developments in the field of science and technology.
- Indira Gandhi introduced several economic provisions like rapid enforcement of land ceilings, abolition of bonded labor, houses for landless laborers, and postponement of debts of the poor.
- Indira Gandhi framed foreign policies with South Asia, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, and Africa and solved international issues.
What are Some Indira Gandhi Controversies?
- Indira Gandhi was accused of electoral malpractice for manipulating the election results in her favor.
- She is alleged to promote dynasticism as she wanted her sons, Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi to succeed in her position as the next Prime Minister of India.
- Gandhi introduced the Emergency which was one of the darkest moments in Indian politics as the opposition was trampled ruthlessly.
Famous Books Written by Indira Gandhi, Biographies and Films
Some of the famous books written by Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi are:
- The Years of Endeavour (1966-69)
- India (1975)
- Inde (Laussane) 1979
- My Truth (1980)
The biographies of the first woman Prime Minister of India are:
- “Indira: A Personal and Political Biography”; Author: Mr. Inder Malhotra
- Indira Gandhi: A Biography; Author: Zareer Masani
- Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister; Author; Sagarika Ghose
- Indira Gandhi: A Biography; Author: Pupul Jayakar
- Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature; Author: Jairam Rames
- Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi Author: Katherine Frank
Some of the films portraying Indira Gandhi’s life are:
- Indira Gandhi: The Death of Mother India (documentary in 2004) directed by Nick Read
- “Emergency”, which is set to release in 2023 is written and directed by Bollywood actress and filmmaker Kangana Ranaut. She is seen to be essaying the role of India’s first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi.
When one comes across the biography of the first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, one can’t help but feel admiration for this Iron Lady of India who was strong, enterprising, and one of the most dynamic leaders that India has ever witnessed. For her bold political aura, she was hailed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as “Goddess Durga“. The Syndicate truly underestimated her when they snided her with the remark “gungi gudiya” or “dumb doll”. Concerning politics, she believed that “winning or losing of the election is less important than strengthening the country”. Under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, economic policies, socialism, and Indian politics prospered. Although her actions are controversial and are prone to debate both inside and outside India, Indira Gandhi continues to be revered and inspires countless Indians for her colossal resilience and character.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is the second longest-term Prime Minister?
Indira Gandhi was the second longest term Prime Minister and the first woman Prime Minister of India.
What is Indira Gandhi’s full name?
Indira Gandhi’s (née Nehru) full name was Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, where the name Priyadarshini was given by the Bengal polymath, Rabindranath Tagore during an interview at Shantiniketan.
Why was Indira Gandhi so important?
Indira Gandhi was a central figure in the Indian National Congress that shaped Indian politics after India’s independence in 1947. She played a major role in the independence of Bangladesh (East Pakistan) from Pakistan in 1971. Indira Gandhi not only bolstered politics well but she was associated with different organizations and provided immense support to the poor, underprivileged, and children. She also imposed the Emergency which remains the darkest and most controversial decision to date.
Why was Indira Gandhi removed from Congress?
Indira Gandhi was removed from Congress for violating party discipline and for fostering a “cult of personality”.
What did Indira Gandhi do for Bangladesh?
Indira Gandhi supported the freedom fighters of Bangladesh (East Pakistan) and liberated the country from Pakistan in 1971.
What is the slogan of Indira Gandhi?
Garibi Hatao Desh Bachao (“Remove poverty, rescue the country”) was the slogan of the Iron lady of India (Indira Gandhi).
Why was Indira Gandhi assassinated?
Indira Gandhi took the help of the Indian army to repel the Sikh terrorists that fortified the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Punjab for the want of an autonomous state. Gandhi’s bodyguards killed her as an act of revenge against the 450 Sikhs whose lives were claimed in the violent confrontation.
Who became the prime minister of India after Indira Gandhi?
Indira Gandhi was succeeded by his eldest son Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister of India. He remained in office from 31 October 1984 to 2 December 1989.