INDIRA GANDHI is known as India’s first and only woman prime minister, and the world’s second democratically elected female head of government. These titles, however, mask a complex and fascinating personality. Gandhi, as prime minister, emerged as one of the most consequential and polarizing figures in Indian politics.
Derided initially as a “dumb doll,” Gandhi surprised her followers and detractors as a canny politician with a strong sense of realpolitik and an authoritarian bent. Her decisions helped both restore and tarnish India’s image in world politics.
She turned India from a food-scarce to a food-surplus country; her bold move to help establish Bangladesh strengthened India’s credentials as a major Asian power; and yet, her declaration of political emergency in 1975 delivered the first frontal attack to India’s democratic institutions since that nation gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
Gandhi became Prime Minister at a time when India faced one of its worst grain shortages since independence. The newly minted Prime Minister sought food aid from the United States, and in 1966, the Johnson administration provided 3.5 million tons of wheat.
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The subsequent politics—US exercising its leverage to force policy changes in India and Gandhi’s party pushing back on her—taught her a valuable lesson in self-reliance. It spurred her on to adopt agricultural policies that would end India’s reliance on others for food. Her policies modernized Indian farming through adoption of technology. By the late 1970s, India had become entirely self-sufficient in grain production. Today, India is one of the largest rice exporters globally.
The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 was another of Gandhi’s lasting legacies, and one that established India as a regional force to be reckoned with. In the early 1970s, as the Pakistani government waged a genocide against the Bengali-speaking population of what was then East Pakistan, the conflict brought millions of refugees to India.
Gandhi’s government provided political, diplomatic and economic support to the provisional government of Bangladesh, the new homeland the Bengali nationalists sought to establish. As the conflict intensified, Pakistan conducted air raids on Indian cities, drawing India into the war.
The Pakistani army, unable to execute a war on two fronts, surrendered to Indian forces in less than two weeks. Bangladesh’s creation not only changed the geopolitical balance in South Asia permanently but also led to the creation of another democracy in the region.
Gandhi’s decisions also paved India’s path to power when she decided to carry out a nuclear test in 1974, informing the world of India’s ambitions. Twenty-four years later, after the Indian government carried out five more tests, the United States, signed a nuclear deal with India recognizing India, de facto, as a nuclear state.
Gandhi’s image as a supporter of democracy, however, was short-lived. At home, when the courts declared her 1971 election invalid, she suspended Constitution-granted fundamental rights and declared a political emergency. Her government arrested political opponents, censored the press and governed by decree, abandoning due process. When she finally reversed these conditions in 1977, Indian voters voted her party out of power, only to bring her back in 1980.
During her second tenure, a movement for greater political autonomy emerged in the northern Indian state of Punjab, where a majority of the population follow the Sikh faith. After months of impasse in negotiations, Gandhi sent the Indian army to the Golden Temple, a preeminent religious site associated with the Sikh religion, where a number of militant members of the movement had taken refuge at the holy shrine.
The subsequent encounter between the Indian army and the militants led to numerous deaths and widespread damage to the physical structure. Barely four months later, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in an act to avenge the desecration of their holy shrine.
Gandhi was a strong woman in a man’s world at a time when women stayed mostly away from political limelight. As much as anything else, that might have led to her downfall and demise.
Dr. Surupa Gupta is professor of Political Science at the University of Mary Washington. She will discuss Gandhi as part of the 19th season of the William B. Crawley Great Lives lecture series at UMW. The lecture will be live-streamed at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 22, and can be accessed through the program website at umw.edu/greatlives.