Indira Gandhi has been and still is India’s best known politician and leader in the International community. Born into a political family and being the only daughter of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira was exposed to international affairs and geo-politics long before she got an exposure to the realities of Indian politics. For understanding her polices and its impact on India, it is best to look at various phases of her career from the time she came became a minister.
Minister of Information and Broadcasting, 1964-1966
With the sudden demise of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, Indira Gandhi was a natural choice to take over power, as she was already the Congress Party President appointed in 1959. She, however, refused to take over the party leadership, instead chose to serve as Minister of I&B under the Prime Ministership of Lal Bahadur Shastri. In 1965, war broke out between India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, PM Shastri suffered a heart attack and passed away just after signing the Ceasefire Agreement with Pakistani President General Ayub Khan in Tashkent, USSR. Gulzarilal Nanda took over as caretaker Prime Minister.
Indira Gandhi takes over as Prime Minister in 1966
There was a power struggle within the Congress party for the leadership and in a closely contested Congress Part Parliamentary election in 1966, Indira Gandhi defeated Morarji Desai to become the leader and thus took over as the Prime Minister on 24 January 1966. She remained the Prime Minister until 1977, but the period in between was an important phase in her life as that of India’s.
The Food Crisis and PL-480 days
When she took office, India was reeling under severe drought and famine across the country and inflation was very high. From the beginning Indira Gandhi’s beliefs were basically anti-imperialist and socialist, and looked upon the Soviet Union as a model to take inspiration from. But the prevailing conditions in 1966 forced her to reach out to President Lyndon Johnson of the U.S.A for food and financial aid. Her meeting with Lyndon Johnson was fruitful wherein he committed to supply wheat under the PL-480 program and extend financial aid, but he set tough conditions, which Indira was not willing to accept. As a result, the PL-480 shipments were delayed by the U.S. administration.
Her Expulsion from the Party
This not only exacerbated India’s economic situation but party members, who initially supported her candidature for the PM’s post. They began to revolt against her. In 1969, S. Nijalingappa, the then Congress Party President, expelled her from the party. Indira retaliated by forming her own Congress party, with support of most MPs from the former party.
In 1971, she called for snap polls with the ‘Garibi Hatao’ campaign and won with a sweeping margin. By 1972, in the aftermath of the ’71 war victory, there was an ‘Indira Wave’ sweeping across the country. This gave her a new found confidence and she took several major decisions that were to give shape to India’s future direction for development.
Indira: The Socialist
Between ’69 and ’71, she took several major policy decisions. First, she fast forwarded the ‘Green Revolution’ program for self-sufficiency in food. Next, she removed the Privy Purse given to rulers of various princely states. She also devalued the Indian Rupee. Lastly and perhaps the most significant, she nationalized 14 of India’s largest banks at that time. She further consolidated industrial policies started under Nehru’s time, with emphasis on developing heavy industries by the public sector. However, she also introduced the infamous ‘License Raj’ that was to hinder development of private business and industry in the years to come.
Bangladesh: Her Biggest Achievement
1971 saw heightened refugee flow into India from what was then East Pakistan that ultimately led to the 1971 war with Pakistan, and finally the creation of Bangladesh. This was to be her greatest foreign policy initiative that boosted her image in the comity of nations. The Indian Army became the first army to win a decisive battle since World War II and gained in stature and confidence. Indira followed this up with exploding India’s first nuclear device in 1974, in Pokhran, Rajasthan.
But on the economic front, India was under severe strain. With India just coming out of a costly war with Pakistan in ’71, the world ran into the OPEC-led oil crisis in 1973 and the global economy entered a period of recession. India too came under great strain as inflation rose significantly and people began to protest. It was in this background that Jayaprakash Narayan came out of retirement in 1974 to lead the ‘Indira Hatao’ campaign.
Emergency: Her Nemesis
As the campaign gained support across the country, another parallel development was taking shape in the form of a judgment by the Allahabad High Court, in response to a PIL filed by Raj Narain, terming her election illegal and was banning her from holding any office for six years. Indira refused to step down that led to further protests all across the country. She retaliated by getting all opposition leaders arrested and jailed and declared Emergency on 25 June 1975 that till date, is referred to as a Black Day in Indian democracy.
1980: Return to Power
This was also a time when her younger son, Sanjay, was emerging as a powerful political influence and many said was being groomed to take over Indira’s political legacy. She lifted the Emergency in 1977 and called for fresh elections, grossly misreading people’s sentiment against her. She lost badly and the Janata Party came to power under the Prime Ministership of Morarji Desai. It was to be short lived as the alliance soon broke up and Indira Gandhi was to come back to power in January 1980.
This was to be a crucial phase in Indira Gandhi’s life and in many ways India’s. The movement for Khalistan was gaining ground in Punjab and militancy led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a onetime prop of the Congress, was at its peak. This led to the Indian Army launching Operation Bluestar, with the storming of the Golden Temple Complex and killing of Bhindranwale and his associates, along with scores of civilians. In a retaliatory action, two of her personal security guards shot her dead on 31 October 1984. Her assassination triggered retaliatory attacks on Sikhs in Delhi and other places.
Indira Gandhi took India’s stature to another level with the creation of Bangladesh and making India self-sufficient in food. Her left-leaning socialist policies during the ’69-’74 period was perhaps right under the given circumstances, but doing so at the cost of developing India’s natural entrepreneurship, resulted in India groaning under a decade and a half of stunted growth.
Her strong personality did not allow for other leaders to develop politically and her penchant for dynasty politics has left a legacy that her party suffers till date.
That said, Indira Gandhi will continue to remain the best known political leader India has produced. And Narendra Modi is a still a long way away before history can start judging him.