Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi served as the Prime Minister of India, and was the first female to hold this position in India. Gandhi is distinguished for both the work she did while in office, and as a figure of female strength and agency in the political field. Indira Gandhi was elected to the position of Prime Minister of the Republic of India on four separate occasions. She served three consecutive terms from 1966 to 1977. She was later elected for a fourth term in 1980, which she served until her assassination on 31 October 1984.
Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was born on 19 November 1917. The daughter of prominent Indian political figure Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi seemed destined for life in the political field. During her childhood, Indira Gandhi and her family were visited by the hugely influential Mahatma Gandhi, under whose leadership her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, participated in the Indian Independence Movement. She would later join in the movement as well.
During the time of her education at the University of Oxford, England, Indira Gandhi participated in political activism, including the pro-independence movement called the India League. In 1941, she married activist Feroze Gandhi, with whom she later had two children. In 1947, she assisted in organizing refugee camps for Pakistani refugees during the Partition of India. This was, perhaps, her first substantial act of public service.
India later gained autonomy from official British rule, adopting a Constitution 26 January 1950, which proclaimed the country a Republic. Indira Gandhi’s father, Nehru, became the first Prime Minister of the newly formed Republic of India. During his term, she acted as an assistant to her father, surely learning much that she would eventually put to use during her own terms as Prime Minister.
Gandhi was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1960, and following the death of her father in 1964, became a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament. She was appointed to this position by then President Kamaraj, who would later be a source of support in her campaign to become Prime Minister.
In 1966, Indira Gandhi became the third Prime Minister of India, after winning a landslide election. Shortly following her election, the Indian National Congress split, and Gandhi gained popularity with Socialist parties. She nationalized banks, and received praise surrounding the 1971 victory of the Indo-Pakistani War. It was during this time that India became the world’s newest nuclear power. Another major achievement in India, the Green Revolution, also occurred during this time. The Green Revolution of the 1960’s, officially known as the Intense Agricultural District Programme (IADP), converted India from a country in need of food aid from outside, to a major exporter of food.
In 1971, Indira Gandhi campaigned for a second term as Prime Minister, and continued to make the fight against hunger poverty one of her top priorities. Her cry for Garibi Hatao, which means “Abolish Poverty,” was a major factor in her eventual election, though the efficacy of the Garibi Hatao programs have since been questioned.
Gandhi’s domestic policies came under attack, as some considered her borderline authoritarian. Inflation and a weak economy led to widespread demonstrations in criticism of Gandhi’s government. In June of 1975, Gandhi was charged with using illegal practices during her previous election campaign, and was found guilty by the High Court of Allahabad.
Amidst calls for her resignation, Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India, which resulted in the jailing of her political enemies, the negation of Constitutional rights, and the censorship of the press. Indira Gandhi called for a new election in 1977, but was defeated by opposing political parties. Now in power, enemies of Gandhi’s government ordered the arrest of both Gandhi and her son, Sanjay, who had also been criticized for his support and execution of unpopular social and political activities.
The arrest resulted in the expulsion of Gandhi from Parliament, but ended up gaining her sympathy during her extended trial. Indira Gandhi called upon her long established social skills, and began working to turn public opinion back in her favor. She began making speeches, in which she apologized for her previous wrongs. She not only restored her own popularity, but the former power of Congress, and became Prime Minister for a fourth term in 1980. She ruled until 1984, when she was assassinated by two of her own bodyguards, thought to have been Sikh rebels.