Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India
We are going to head further east now, and look at the extraordinary life of one of the modern era’s most powerful and enduring stateswomen, Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India for fifteen years.
First of all, to correct a common misconception, Indira Gandhi was not in any way related to the great spiritual and political leader Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. She was, in fact, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, and she simply happened to marry a man by the name of Feroze Jehangir Ghandy. He changed the spelling of his name to ‘Gandhi’ when he joined the freedom struggle, in deference to the great elder statesman of Indian independence.
Indira Gandhi is often referred to as the ‘Iron Lady of India’, a nod to Margaret Thatcher, for whom the epithet was originally coined. In a society as nakedly patriarchal as India, her rise to national leadership required above-average gumption and a great deal of ruthlessness. She certainly displayed dictatorial tendencies, and part of her legacy remains the determined centralization of power that occurred in India during her terms of office. She also established a dynasty, following more or less immediately in her father’s footsteps, and her final term was followed by the premiership of her son, Rajiv Gandhi.
Probably her most memorialized achievement was taking India to war with Pakistan in support of East Pakistan, which was engaged in a separatist war. India, of course, was partitioned after independence from Britain in 1947, creating Pakistan and India. Pakistan was divided east and west, with East Pakistan being, in effect, East Bengal. When East Pakistan launched a separatist bid, India was quick to wade in, with the net result that the state of Bangladesh came into existence.
She was also prepared to stand up to western political browbeating, in particular the United States, which insisted that India support the war in Vietnam. This Indira Gandhi would not do. More questionable perhaps, she oversaw the beginnings of India’s nuclear program, with the 1974 underground test, codenamed Operation Smiling Buddha. Another little-known achievement of Indira Gandhi’s administration was to put an Indian in space, which happened in 1984, a few months before her assassination.
One thing that Indira Gandhi was unable to achieve, however, was to heal the sectarian rifts that have so bedeviled India. She was killed by her Sikh bodyguard as a response to her crushing of a Sikh religious protest in Amritsar, capital of Punjab, which deeply angered the militant Sikh community.
Mohandas Gandhi, incidentally, was assassinated by Hindu radicals in protest of his inclusionism, and Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Sri Lankan nationalists. Sectarianism in India is, even to this day, one of the greatest political challenges.