Leading the World’s Largest Democracy

Raised among India’s political elite, Indira Gandhi served as prime minister of the world’s largest democracy for almost two decades. The first woman to occupy such a powerful role in a nation where women are often second-class citizens, she demonstrated tenacity, decisiveness and a gift for relating to the people that won her adherents even in the toughest of times.

Gandhi was committed to a unified India, no easy task in a country coming out of colonial rule and composed of multiple religions and ethnicities. Although she was assassinated in 1984, we connected with Gandhi’s willful spirit in New Delhi.

Q: You grew up in a very politically involved family. How did this impact you as a child?

A: “My public life started at the age of 3. I have no recollection of games, children’s parties or playing with other children. My favorite occupation as a very small child was to deliver thunderous speeches to the servants.… All my games were political ones—I was, like Joan of Arc, perpetually being burned at the stake.”

Young Indira’s grandfather, Motilal Nehru, a brilliant Indian lawyer, gave up his practice to join Mohandas Gandhi in the Indian independence movement. Consequently Indira lived in a home that was often headquarters for the Congress party and its efforts to end British rule. Before she was even old enough to read, she saw her parents and her parents’ associates and friends regularly carted off to jail.

Always in the spotlight, her childhood had little normalcy. “There were police raids,” she said, “arrests and so on, the physical and mental strain. And all the time it was in public.” This environment of persistent crisis and uncertainty—along with the prejudice she saw directed toward her mother, who was a Hindu far less Westernized than the wives of her husband’s associates—gave Gandhi an early propensity for toughness. She saw her mother being hurt and was determined not to allow herself that kind of vulnerability.

Q: Despite all the turbulence you experienced growing up in a political family, you chose to follow politics yourself, even with all the obvious sacrifices of doing so. What inspired you?

A: “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.”

Gandhi had an erratic education, attending school in India, Switzerland and Great Britain, where she worked as a Red Cross volunteer during World War II. While away from home, she corresponded regularly with her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, who became India’s first prime minister in 1947. She later credited her father’s letters as critical to her understanding of the larger world. That geopolitical education grew as she also became her father’s official hostess, since her mother had died a decade earlier.

In large part because of the demands placed on Gandhi as the prime minister’s daughter and hostess, her marriage to journalist Feroze Gandhi crumbled, but not before the couple had two sons. Gandhi seemed to always stand in her father’s shadow, but she also believed, so friends of the family have said, that she had an obligation as a Nehru to pursue a career in public service. She knew it would be no easy task to establish an identity of her own.

Q: Do you feel your role as the prime minister’s daughter put you at a distinct advantage for pursuing a successful career in Indian politics?

A: “Every position has advantages and disadvantages. I had an advantage because of the education my father gave me and the opportunities of meeting some great people, not only politicians, but also writers, artists and so on. But in politics one has to work doubly hard to show one is not merely a daughter but is also a person in her own right.”

From the outset, Indians knew who Gandhi was, which gave her a head start in elections. She was elected to a Congress party working committee in 1955 and was elected president of the party four years later. Following her father’s death in 1964 and the subsequent death of India’s second prime minister in 1966, the Congress party— thinking she would be pliable—elected Gandhi as prime minister. They could not have been more wrong.

Gandhi quickly distinguished herself as an independent-minded leader, neither just Nehru’s daughter nor the puppet of the party that put her in power. One of her major moves was the nationalization of India’s commercial banks. Then she instituted a 10-point program for steering the world’s newest and largest democracy into a more stable economy. The eradication of poverty in India was always one of Gandhi’s cherished goals.

Q: Many have criticized you as being power-hungry, a consummate politician who cared only about staying in control. How would you respond to that?

A: “I am a politician in the sense that I want a particular kind of India, an India without poverty, without injustice, an India free of any foreign influence.”

It didn’t take long for Gandhi to become a highly controversial figure, despite the fact she accomplished much good for her country and surrounding nations. Her government supported East Pakistan in its civil war with West Pakistan, helping it gain its independence and become the nation of Bangladesh. The breakup of Pakistan established India as the dominant power on the Indian subcontinent.

In the wake of these successes, however, India faced economic crisis, severe drought, inflation and increasing oil prices. As opponents charged her with election corruption, she fought back hard, jailing dozens of the opposition’s leaders, curtailing freedom of the press and suspending habeas corpus. Gandhi justified her actions as necessary to maintain stability in the still-young democracy. She repeatedly said, “Only a strong central government can build a stronger India.”

But even as opponents at home called her a dictator, she made great progress in foreign relations, using the negotiating and networking skills she had learned from her father, grandfather and the political associates with whom she mingled as a youth. Gandhi renewed diplomatic relations with China, which had been cold for 15 years, and she established commercial ties with the Soviet Union, an action that would allow India to build its military and send astronauts into space. She also implemented a controversial birth control plan to try to curb the country’s escalating population and related poverty.

Q: Despite often controversial tactics, you maintained a high level of popularity in India all through your years as prime minister. How did you do it?

A: “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles, but today it means getting along with people.”

Despite her often-controversial tactics and opponents within the Indian government, Gandhi maintained her popularity with the Indian people overall, thanks to social skills she said she learned from her traditional Hindu mother. In 1977 she was voted out of office and then promptly voted back three years later after doing whirlwind personal campaigns around India.

Even her opponents had to agree she was aggressive, decisive and quick to act. In 1984 Gandhi acted swiftly to quell a demand for Sikh political autonomy in the Punjab region, sending Indian troops to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Though she later stated she had wanted no bloodshed, at least 600 people were killed in the incident, including the militant leader of an extremist group.

Her actions in the Punjab backfired, however, as her own Sikh bodyguards assassinated her five months later. Nevertheless, most Indians remember her as a leader who tried to bring an unwieldy democracy together under a unified government. Years later, her personal secretary, R.K. Dhawan, told The Times of India, “No political leader worked the way Indira did for the masses.”

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