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Indira Gandhi

On This Day: Indira Gandhi Elected Prime Minister of India

January 19, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 19, 1966, Indira Gandhi succeeded Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to become the first female leader of the Indian government.

Gandhi Named Prime Minister

Indira Gandhi was the only daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader of the Indian independence movement and the nation’s first prime minister. She served as an aide to her father during his 17-year rule and served in the cabinet of his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri.

When Shastri suffered a fatal heart attack on Jan. 11, 1966, Gandhi became one of the leading candidates to replace him, receiving the support of Congress Party leader Kumaraswami Kamaraj Nadar. “Increasingly, Kamaraj found that the person with the fewest serious enemies, the widest reputation and the most attractive personality was Indira Gandhi,” wrote Time.

On Jan. 19, the Congress Party held its vote for prime minister. Gandhi received 355 votes, while her only competitor, Morarji Desai, received 169. Following her victory, Gandhi gave an address to the Congress Party.

“As I stand before you,” she said, “my thoughts go back to the great leaders: Mahatma Gandhi, at whose feet I grew up, Panditji, my father, and Lal Bahadur Shastri. These leaders have shown the way, and I want to go along the same path.”

Biography: Indira Gandhi

A scion of the politically powerful Nehru dynasty, Indira Priyadarshini Nehru was immersed in India’s independence movement from Britain at an early age. Her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was an early leader of Indian independence and her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, served as the first prime minister of independent India.

At 12 years old, she led a children’s informant group called the Monkey Brigade. Designed to act as an early warning system for Indian National Congress workers who feared random search and arrest by police, her group had numerous successes.

In 1942, she married journalist Feroze Gandhi—no relation to Mohandas Gandhi—and had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, with him. Rajiv would succeed her as prime minister following her assassination in 1984.

She served as an advisor for her father when he assumed the role of prime minister in 1947 and became an active member of the Congress Party in the 1950s. After the death of her father in 1964, she became Minister for Information and Broadcasting.

Gandhi’s Controversial Tenure

Gandhi faced significant political opposition from Morarji Desai and the conservatives of the Congress Party almost immediately into her tenure as prime minister. She barely retained her position after the 1967 election and had to make concessions of power to the conservative wing.

In her foreign policy, Gandhi remained nonaligned, wavering between support of the United States and USSR. India established itself as a formidable military power under her rule, defeating Pakistan in an 11-month-war in 1971 and building a nuclear weapon in 1974.

She won re-election decisively 1971, but there were accusations of election fraud made against her. In 1975, she was found guilty of election fraud and banned from politics for six years; she refused to resign and declared martial law, which allowed her to arrest dissenters, censor the press and rewrite the country’s constitution. When she was up for re-election in 1977, she lost convincingly and was removed from office. She was voted back into power in 1980.

As prime minister, she believed in the power of the central government and tried to quash regional conflicts. In 1983, when a Sikh rebellion broke out in the northern state of Punjab, Gandhi sent Indian troops to the Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism. A bloody battle ensued and the rebellion was quelled, but the anger her military strike inspired in the Sikh community ultimately led to her death.

On the morning of Oct. 31, 1984, two Sikh security guards shot Gandhi seven times on the grounds of her home. She died that afternoon, igniting widespread sectarian violence across India.

Gandhi, who knew that she was a target for Sikh radicals, had refused to wear a bulletproof vest. “I am not interested in a long life. I am not afraid of these things,” she said on the eve of her death. “I don't mind if my life goes in the service of this nation. If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.”

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