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Indira Gandhi

(1917—1984) prime minister of India


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(1917–1984)

Indian prime minister (1966–77; 1980–84). Regarded as the strong-willed matriarch of India, Mrs Gandhi dominated her country's affairs both nationally and internationally for nearly eighteen years, until her assassination by Sikh extremists.

Born in Allahabad, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, she was educated at the University of Bengal and at Somerville College, Oxford. Following in her father's footsteps, she entered politics early, joining the All-India Congress Party in 1938 at the age of twenty-one. In 1942 she married Feroze Gandhi (unrelated to Mahatma Gandhi; he died in 1960). When India achieved independence in 1947 Mrs Gandhi began to serve as political hostess for her father, often travelling with him abroad and gaining an insight into Indian politics. In 1959 she was elected president of the Congress Party, and on Nehru's death in 1964 became minister of information and broadcasting in the government of Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904–66); she was elected leader of the Congress Party and prime minister after Shastri's death in 1966.

Mrs Gandhi first demonstrated the extent of her power when she intervened decisively in the Pakistani civil war (1971). During the struggle of the Bengalis in East Pakistan to achieve independence from central government in the west, thousands of Bengali refugees poured into India; with Indian support, East Pakistan finally achieved independence as Bangladesh (1972) and Mrs Gandhi was praised for her handling of the situation both in India and abroad. In international affairs she pursued a policy of nonalignment and 1974 saw the emergence of India as a nuclear power with the explosion of a nuclear device in the Rajasthan desert. However, droughts in 1972 and 1974 led to a worsening in India's economy and widespread political unrest. In response to what she saw as a threat to national security, Mrs Gandhi instituted a state of emergency in June 1975, in which political opponents were imprisoned, the press was censored, and civil liberties were restricted. At the same time she introduced measures to control population growth (by sterilization) and clear slum dwellings in Delhi, which caused widespread unrest. Her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi (1948–80), assumed a prominent role in these activities. Aware of the unpopularity of her emergency measures, Mrs Gandhi called a general election in 1977 and was defeated by Morarji Desai at the head of the Janata Party. However, the new government proved indecisive and in the 1979 general election she was returned to power. Mrs Gandhi's second term of office was plagued by religious disturbance. Between 1982 and 1984 some three thousand people died in ethnic clashes in Assam, and there were terrorist activities among extremist Sikhs of the Punjab, who were demanding autonomy. In November 1984 Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguard, months after ordering the army to storm the Sikh base at the Golden Temple at Amritsar, during which over three hundred people were killed.

She was succeeded as prime minister by her elder son, Rajiv Gandhi (1944–91), who – after his brother's death in a plane crash in 1980 – became her close adviser. His position as Mrs Gandhi's successor was confirmed with an overwhelming victory at the general election in December 1984. Continuing ethnic violence, however, eventually led to his resignation in 1989. During the election campaign of 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was killed in a terrorist bomb attack; his widow Sonia Gandhi (1949– ) declined to succeed him as leader of the Congress Party. This murder therefore brought to an end the Nehru dynasty, which had dominated the Congress Party and Indian politics since partition.

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Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).


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