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Indira Gandhi: The First and the Only Woman Prime Minister of India


Indira Gandhi: The First and the Only Woman Prime Minister of India


Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was one of the most well-known personalities in Indian politics, a great stateswoman and the first and, to date, the only female Prime Minister of India. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the first prime minister of India.

She herself became Prime Minister of India from January 1966 to March 1977 and from January 1980 until her death by assassination in October 1984.

She was the second longest-serving Prime Minister of India, after her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the PM from 1947 to 1964.

She was the third Prime Minister of India, after Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Prior to becoming the PM, Indira Gandhi served as her father’s personal assistant and was elected as the President of the Indian National Congress in 1959.

After her father’s death in 1964, she became a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and was made the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet. In 1966, after the death of Shastri, she succeeded him as the Prime Minister of India.

As Prime Minister, Gandhi was known for her strong will and political acumen. In 1971, she went to war with Pakistan in support of the independence movement in East Pakistan, which after India’s victory led to the creation of Bangladesh. The same year, she was honored with the highest civilian award of India, the Bharat Ratna.

In 1975, Indira Gandhi declared a state of internal emergency, which lasted till 1977, during which civil liberties were suspended and the press was censored. This led to her defeat in the 1977 General elections.

In 1980, she came to power again. In 1984, she ordered the Operation Blue Star, to free the Golden Temple from terrorists. On 31st October 1984, she was assassinated by her own bodyguards and both the assassins Beant Singh and Satwant Singh were caught. The former was shot to death while the latter was executed after being convicted of murder.

Below you will find her brief life history and the policies that she formulated and implemented which led to the rise of India as a developing country and a major regional force in South East Asia.

Quick Facts about Indira Gandhi

    • Name at Birth: Indira Nehru
    • Born On: 19 November 1917
    • Place of Birth: Allahabad, erstwhile United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, British India
    • Died On: 31 October 1984 (aged 66)
    • Died At: New Delhi, India
    • Cause of Death: Assassination
    • Resting Place: Shakti Sthal
    • Political Party: Indian National Congress
    • In Office as PM of India: 14 January 1980 – 31 October 1984;
      24 January 1966 – 24 March 1977 (2 terms)
    • Spouse: Feroze Gandhi
    • Children: Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi
    • Parents: Father – Jawaharlal Nehru, Mother – Kamala Nehru
    • Alma Mater: Visva-Bharati University, Somerville College, Oxford
    • Books:  My Truth (1981), Eternal India (1981) – co-authored.
    • Occupation: Politician
    • Awards: Bharat Ratna (1971)
Indira Gandhi – Childhood and Early Life
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Childhood and Early Life

Mrs. Indira Gandhi was born on 19 November 1917 in Allahabad. Her given name at birth was Indira Nehru. At the time of her birth, her father Jawaharlal Nehru was a well-known personality, along with Mahatma Gandhi and others in India’s freedom struggle from British rule. Later Nehru became the first Prime Minister of the Dominion, and then the Republic of India.

Indira Gandhi was the only child and grew up with her mother, Kamala Nehru, at the family estate of Anand Bhavan in Allahabad. While her father was always busy either in political activities or in the British jails; her mother was frequently ill and later died due to TB.

A lonely and unhappy child, Indira studied at home from tutors while attending school in between, till she passed her matriculation examination in 1934. She studied at Modern School in Delhi, St Cecilia’s and St Mary’s Christian convent schools in Allahabad. She also studied for some time at the International School of Geneva, the Ecole Nouvelle in Bex, and the Pupils’ Own School in Poona and Mumbai.

She also studied at the Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan. Rabindranath Tagore named her Priyadarshini. One year later she left India to attend to her ailing mother in Europe.

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Stay in Europe in the 1930s to 1940s

She attended the University of Oxford. After the death of her mother, she attended the Badminton School and later Somerville College in 1937 to study history.

At Oxford, she did well in subjects like history, political science, and economics. She also participated in extra-curricular activities like becoming a member of the Oxford Majlis Asian Society.

While staying in Europe, Indira suffered ill-health and was constantly under treatment, which disrupted her studies. In 1940, while she was in Switzerland for treatment, Germany conquered Europe. Indira tried to go to England through Portugal, but she was left stranded for two months, finally reaching England in 1941.

She returned to India without completing her degrees. Later she was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford.

While staying in England, Indira met Feroze Gandhi who was studying at the London School of Economics, whom she had known from Allahabad. They got married in Allahabad in an Adi Dharm ritual as Feroze was a Zoroastrian (Parsi) whose family belonged to Gujarat. They had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, born in 1944 and 1946 respectively.

Indira Gandhi – Early Career in Politics
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Early Career in Politics

After her return to India and during the 1950s, Mrs. Indira Gandhi worked as a personal assistant to her father Jawaharlal Nehru, when he was the Prime Minister of India.

In 1959, she was elected as the President of the Indian National Congress. After the death of PM Nehru in 1964 she was appointed as a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and became the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet.

After Shastri’s unfortunate death in January 1966, Congress Party’s parliamentary leadership elections were held in early 1966. She defeated her rival Morarji Desai to become the leader, and thus succeeded Shastri as Prime Minister of India. The Congress President Kamaraj helped in her selection as the Prime Minister.

First Term as Prime Minister (January 1966 to March 1977)

The eleven years of Indira Gandhi’s premiership were years of glory for her. During these years she consolidated her position in the party, and took hard decisions like going to war with Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh, while she focused on the removal of poverty and development of India.

Indira formed her government with Morarji Desai as deputy prime minister and finance minister. This was to keep everyone happy although initially she was thought of as “Goongi Goodiya” or a dumb doll.

In the 1967 general elections for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, the Congress Party won a reduced majority for the Lok Sabha. This was because of the rising prices of commodities, unemployment, food crisis, and many other reasons. The rupee got devalued and there was an import of wheat from the USA. The party also lost power in several states in the country.

In 1969, in the election for the President of India, Indira supported the independent candidate V.V. Giri in place of the official Congress party candidate Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. Another move which made her unpopular in the party was the announcement of Bank Nationalization.

The Party president S. Nijalingappa expelled her from the party for indiscipline. Indira Gandhi came up with her own faction in the party called Congress (R) and got most Congress MPs to support her, leaving only 65 MPs on the Congress (O) faction.

Though she lost the majority in the parliament, she retained power with the support of regional parties like DMK. During this period, she abolished Privy Purse to former rulers of the Princely states, and in 1969 the fourteen largest banks in India, were nationalized.

Indira Gandhi – First Term as Prime Minister (January 1966 to March 1977)
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Second Term as Prime Minister (1971–1977)

In the 1971 election campaign, Indira Gandhi came up with Garibi Hatao or Eradicate Poverty. The anti-poverty programs became very popular with the masses, and while being implemented locally, these were funded by the central government.

During this time, the war with Pakistan came up in December 1971. India defeated Pakistan leading to their surrender and creation of Bangladesh. Even the opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee praised her, calling her as Goddess Durga. The post-war Indira-Wave helped her win the State assemblies elections held across India in March 1972.

The Congress faced certain crises too, such as the high inflation caused by wartime efforts, drought in some parts of the country and to top it all – the 1973 oil crisis. There was opposition in Bihar, led by Jayaprakash Narayan, the veteran leader who came out of retirement to lead the protest movement.

On 12 June 1975, in a landmark judgment, the Allahabad High Court declared Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha in 1971 null and void. This was on grounds of electoral malpractice. The decision came after an election petition was filed by her 1971 opponent at Rae Bareilly, Raj Narain had alleged several instances of using government resources for campaigning.

Indira Gandhi persuaded the President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declared a State of Emergency caused by internal disorder, based on the provisions of Article 352(1) of the Constitution, on 25 June 1975. Opposition leaders were arrested or put in house arrest. Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, two states where opposition party ruled, were out under President’s rule.

Thus the entire country was under direct Central rule or by governments led by the ruling Congress party. Police were granted additional powers to impose curfews and indefinitely detain citizens. Publications including newspapers and magazines were subjected to censorship by the Information and Broadcasting ministry.

The legislative assembly elections were indefinitely postponed. Ordinances, which did not require passing by the Parliament, were issued by the President.

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Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi – Years in Opposition after 1977 Elections
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Years in Opposition after 1977 Elections

In 1977, after the state of emergency had been extended twice, Indira Gandhi declared General elections. The opposition was made of an alliance by the opposition parties comprising of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Congress (O), The Socialist parties, and Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal. This Janata Alliance was guided by Jai Prakash Narayan as its spiritual guide.

The Congress Party also split and Jagjivan Ram, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy formed a new political party, Congress for Democracy (CFD).

Gandhi’s Congress party faced defeat, and was reduced to only 153 seats out of which 92 came from the South. The Janata alliance, which later formed the Janata Party came to power and Morarji Desai became the PM.

Since Indira Gandhi had lost in the election, the Congress party appointed Yashwantrao Chavan as their parliamentary party leader. The Congress party split again with Gandhi floating her own Congress faction – the Congress (I).

In November 1978, she won a by-election from the Chikmagalur Constituency to the Lok Sabha. However, Chaudhary Charan Singh, the Home Minister, ordered the arrest of her and Sanjay Gandhi on several charges.

Meanwhile, the Janata Party government suffered from infighting. Chaudhary Charan Singh’s faction, attracted more MPs and in July 1979, he was appointed Prime Minister. Later, Congress withdrew its support and President Reddy dissolved Parliament in August 1979.

Third Term as Prime Minister (1980-1984)

In the January 1980 elections, Congress returned to power with a landslide majority. In the ensuing assembly election in the states too, Congress governments were formed.

On 23rd June, her son Sanjay Gandhi was killed in an air crash in Delhi. Later that year, his company which wanted to manufacture an indigenous car, Maruti Udyog, was nationalized and as a joint venture with Suzuki of Japan launched its first Indian manufactured car in 1984. She also persuaded her pilot son Rajiv, to join politics.

In 1982, the orthodox religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had risen to prominence in Punjab politics, moved along with his 200 armed followers, to a guest house, the Guru Nanak Niwas, inside the Golden Temple complex. Within a year, the Temple complex was made a fort for a large number of militants who were armed with light machine guns and semi-automatic rifles.

In June 1984, Indira Gandhi took a tough stance and asked the Indian army to enter the Golden Temple and remove Bhindranwale and his supporters. In the Operation Blue Star, the army used heavy artillery, including tanks, and took control of the Golden Temple after hundreds of militants were killed. This action was criticized by Sikhs.

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The Assassination of Mrs. Gandhi

The day before her death on 30th October 1984, Indira Gandhi had visited Orissa where she gave her last speech, which turned out to be ominous. She said,

“I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow…I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say, that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it… Even if I died in the service of the nation, I would be proud of it. Every drop of my blood… will contribute to the growth of this nation and make it strong and dynamic.”

On 31st October 1984, Indira Gandhi was walking past a gate in the garden of the PM residence at 1 Safdarjung Road, New Delhi; to attend an interview by the British actor Peter Ustinov, for a documentary to be telecast on Irish television.

Two of Gandhi’s bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, shot her with their service weapons – a pistol and a Sterling submachine gun, firing 31 bullets at her. Beant Singh was shot dead, and Satwant Singh was arrested and later sentenced to death and hanged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

Indira Gandhi was brought to the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences at 9:30 am and declared dead at 2:20 pm.

She was cremated on 3rd November near Raj Ghat and the site is now known as Shakti Sthal. There was a live telecast of her funeral on domestic and international TV including the BBC. In the aftermath of her assassination, millions of Sikhs were displaced and about three thousand were killed in anti-Sikh riots which erupted all over the country.

Indira Gandhi's Contributions
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Indira Gandhi’s Contributions

Towards India’s Foreign Relations:

Indira Gandhi is remembered for her initiatives in promoting India’s interest. Some of the highlights of her foreign policy are given below.

India had given refuge to about 10 million refugees from East Pakistan and in December 1971, in the Indo-Pak war, India emerged victorious as an independent country Bangladesh was created. Later, India’s relationship with Pakistan remained strained Despite the 1972 Shimla accord.

India made a nuclear test at Pokhran in 1974. This was viewed by Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as an attempt to intimidate Pakistan. In 1978, when General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq grabbed power, India’s relations were strained. Military hostilities recommenced in 1984, with Operation Meghdoot, wherein India was victorious in the resulting Siachen conflict against Pakistan.

India had signed a treaty with the Soviet Union promising mutual assistance in the case of war, as Pakistan received active support from the United States.

The Soviets became the largest trading partner of India by the early 1980s, and also the main arms supplier by offering cheap credit and transactions in rupees rather than in dollars, applying it to even non-military goods.

Indira Gandhi resolutely refused to sign the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). Relations with the US strained badly under President Richard Nixon due to his favoring Pakistan during the Bangladesh liberation war.

With Iran, there was an increase in Indian economic and military co-operation during the 1970s and the 1974 Indo-Iranian agreement led to Iran supplying nearly 75 percent of India’s crude oil requirements.

Nepal and Bhutan remained aligned with India. Her relationship with Sri Lanka and its ethnic problems were accommodative.

Asia-Pacific Region – In 1967, the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was a major development.

In 1983, Mrs. Gandhi helped establish the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to keep the Soviet Union and the United States out of South Asia.

Gandhi’s endorsement of the ZOPFAN declaration and the disintegration of the SEATO alliance in the aftermath of Pakistani and American defeats in the region, improved relations with South East Asian nations. This was followed by recognition of Vietnam installed Government of Cambodia in 1980.

India hosted the 1983 Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in New Delhi.

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Economic Policy

Indira Gandhi presided over three Five-Year Plans as Prime Minister, the Fourth (1969-1974), Fifth (1974–79) and Sixth Five-year plans.

The Fourth Five-Year Plan – Indira Gandhi began a new course by launching the Fourth Five-Year Plan in 1969. The target growth rate was 5.7%.

When food stocks slumped after poor harvests in 1972, the government made it a point to use foreign exchange to buy US wheat commercially rather than seek resumption of food aid. This phase also started the Green Revolution. The plan period was significant for nationalizations amidst the increased regulation of the private sector.

The Fifth Five-Year Plan – It had the Twenty Point Program as its backdrop. The government targeted an annual growth of 4.4%. The turbulence in the foreign exchange markets worsened the oil crisis of 1973. Yet a growth rate of 5.0–5.2% annually, was achieved and in 1975–76 alone it was 9%. It was the first plan which raised the per capita income by over 5%.

The Sixth Five-Year Plan – In 1980, Indira Gandhi inherited a weak economy. Gandhi abrogated the Janata Party government’s Five-Year Plan in 1980 and launched the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1980–85). The average growth of 5.2% over the period of the plan was the target; and the annual rate of inflation came down to about 5%. The Sixth Five-Year Plan also tried to stimulate the private sector by deregulation and liberation of the capital market. Later in 1982, the government launched Operation Forward, the first attempt at reforms. The Sixth Plan was the most successful of the Five-Year Plans and resulted in a growth rate of 5.7%.

Domestic Policies

Nationalization – In 1969, Gandhi took the bold step to nationalize fourteen major Indian banks. This led to 800 percent expansion in the number of bank branches and huge 11,000 percent increase in bank’s businesses. It provided for considerable investments in the informal, small and medium-sized enterprises, and the agriculture sector. She also nationalized the coal, steel, copper, cotton textiles, and insurance industries. These helped protect employment and the interest of the organized labor.

In 1973, Indira Gandhi also nationalized the foreign-owned private oil companies as these oil companies had refused to supply fuel to the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force during the 1971 war with Pakistan.

Reorganization of States – In 1966, Haryana, the Hindi-speaking southern half of Punjab, became a separate state after Punjab was reorganized on linguistic lines. Chandigarh, a prosperous city on the Punjab-Haryana border, was declared a union territory to be shared as a capital by both the states.

In 1971, the Pahari speaking hilly areas in the north east were joined to make Himachal Pradesh. In 1975, Gandhi declared the state of Jammu and Kashmir as a constituent unit of India. In 1972, Gandhi granted statehood to Meghalaya, Manipur, and Tripura. The North-East Frontier Agency was declared a union territory and renamed Arunachal Pradesh. Mizoram was also made a UT. In 1975, Gandhi incorporated Sikkim into India, after a referendum in which a majority of Sikkimese voted to join India.

Social Reforms – Under the Gandhi administration, the principle of equal pay for equal work for both men and women was enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

The motion to abolish privy purses for former rulers of princely states, and the official recognition of the titles, was originally brought before the Parliament in 1970. In 1971, Gandhi again motioned to abolish the privy purse, which was successfully passed as the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India.

During the Emergency, armed with the power to rule by decree and without constitutional constraints, Gandhi embarked on a massive social reforms program. These included land ceilings, housing for landless laborers, the abolition of bonded labor and a moratorium on the debts of the poor. The long-term effects of the social changes gave rise to prominence of middle-ranking farmers.

Language Policy – “Under the Constitution of India of 1950, Hindi was to have become the official national language by 1965. In 1967, Gandhi made a constitutional amendment that guaranteed the de facto use of both Hindi and English as official languages. This established the official government policy of bilingualism in India and satisfied the non-Hindi speaking Indian states.” (En.wikipedia, 2019)

National Security – In 1966, the Mizo uprising spread in the entire Mizoram region. This was suppressed by the Indian Army and Air Force, and in 1973 Mizoram was made into a Union Territory.

In case of insurgency in Nagaland, a massive crackdown was done during the Emergency on the insurgents and the Shillong Accord was signed in 1975.

India’s Nuclear Program – In 1974, India successfully conducted an underground nuclear test code-named  “Smiling Buddha“, at Pokhran in Rajasthan.

Family and Personal Life

In 1942, Indira Gandhi married Feroze Gandhi, who died in 1960. The couple had two sons, Rajiv, and Sanjay who were born in 1944 and 1946 respectively. After the death of her son Sanjay in an air crash in June 1980 in Delhi, Rajiv was persuaded to join politics.

Later, after the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi in 1984, in the ensuing election Rajiv became the PM and his term lasted till December 1989. On 21 May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber.

Being the first woman Prime Minister of India, her views on woman and womanhood are particularly significant. She believed that “motherhood was the most important part of her life.”

She also said, “To a woman, motherhood is the highest fulfillment…To bring a new being into this world, to see its perfection and to dream of its future greatness is the most moving of all experiences and fills one with wonder and exaltation.” (Books.Google)

Her  publications include ‘The Years of Challenge’ (1966-69), ‘The Years of Endeavour’ (1969-72), ‘India’ (London) in 1975; ‘Inde’ (Lausanne) in 1979, My Truth (1981), Eternal India (1981) – co-authored;  and numerous other collections of speeches and writings.

Awards and Honors

Indira Gandhi has been the recipient of several honors and awards. She has been conferred India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna.

In 1981, the University of the South Pacific in Fiji conferred her with an Honorary Doctorate degree.

In 2010, she was honored as one of the ten Oxasians, a recognition for illustrious Asian graduates from the University of Oxford.

In 2011, Bangladesh’s highest civilian honor, the Bangladesh Freedom Honour (Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona), was conferred on her posthumously, for her “outstanding contribution” to the country’s independence.

The two extreme points of India – the northernmost Indira Col and the southernmost Indira Point have been named after Indira Gandhi.

In 1999, in an online poll organized by the BBC, Indira Gandhi was named as the “Woman of the Millennium”.

Some of the landmark institutions, locations, landmark and programs named after her are given below:

    • The Indira Awaas Yojana –  a central government low-cost housing program for the rural poor
    • The international airport at New Delhi named Indira Gandhi International Airport
    • The Indira Gandhi National Open University, the largest university in the world
    • The annual Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration established by Indian National Congress in 1985 and the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust also constituted for the annual Indira Gandhi Prize.
Memorable Quotes by Indira Gandhi
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Memorable Quotes by Indira Gandhi

Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.

The power to question is the basis of all human progress.

Opportunities are not offered. They must be wrested and worked for. And this calls for perseverance… and courage.

Happiness is a state of mind, you know. I don’t think you are permanently happy. One is happy about certain things and not so happy about others.

Even if I died in the service of the nation, I would be proud of it. Every drop of my blood… will contribute to the growth of this nation and make it strong and dynamic.

My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people; those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.

Without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue. You have to have courage – the courage of different kinds: first, intellectual courage, to sort out different values and make up your mind about which is the one which is right for you to follow.

To be liberated, the woman must feel free to be herself, not in rivalry to man but in the context of her own capacity and her personality.

People tend to forget their duties but remember their rights.

My father was a statesman, I am a political woman. My father was a saint. I am not.

You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.

Winning or losing of the election is less important than strengthening the country.

One must beware of ministers who can do nothing without money, and those who want to do everything with money.

We always said that our struggle was not only against the British as representatives of colonialism, but it was also against all the evil that existed in India – the evil of the feudal system, the evil of the system based on caste, the evil of economic injustice.



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Raj Kumar Hansdah

Raj Kumar Hansdah, better known as RK, fell in love with books at his mother’s knees; and the fascination with the printed word kept growing over the years and still continues to be his passion. An alumnus of IIM-Indore and IISWBM-Kolkata, he had also attended IIM-Calcutta. He has more than two decades of corporate experience with companies in the public and private domain, namely SAIL, Jaypee Group, and Adani Group at the rank of General Manager in the Human Resources vertical. He loves to freelance as a literary consultant, a management consultant, and a writer. When he is not busy reading, ghostwriting or working on his debut thriller; not necessarily in that order; he loves to spend time with his wife and son.

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