Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was an Indian politician, stateswoman and a central figure of the Indian National Congress. She was the first and, to date, the only female Prime Minister of India. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. She served as Prime Minister from January 1966 to March 1977 and again from January 1980 until her assassination in October 1984, making her the second longest-serving Indian Prime Minister, after her father.
Gandhi served as her father’s personal assistant and hostess during his tenure as Prime Minister between 1947 and 1964. She was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1959. Upon her father’s death in 1964 she was appointed as a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and became a member of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. In the Congress Party’s parliamentary leadership election held in early 1966 (upon the death of Shastri), she defeated her rival Morarji Desai to become leader, and thus succeeded Shastri as Prime Minister of India.
As Prime Minister, Gandhi was known for her political intransigency and unprecedented centralisation of power. She went to war with Pakistan in support of the independence movement and war of independence in East Pakistan, which resulted in an Indian victory and the creation of Bangladesh, as well as increasing India’s influence to the point where it became the regional hegemon of South Asia. Citing separatist tendencies and in response to a call for revolution, Gandhi instituted a state of emergency from 1975 to 1977 where basic civil liberties were suspended and the press was censored. Widespread atrocities were carried out during the emergency. In 1980, she returned to power after free and fair elections. After Gandhi ordered military action in the Golden Temple in Operation Blue Star, she was assassinated by her own bodyguards and Sikh nationalists on 31 October 1984.
Indira Gandhi was born as Indira Nehru in a Kashmiri Pandit family on 19 November 1917 in Allahabad. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in India’s political struggle for independence from British rule, and became the first Prime Minister of the Dominion (and later Republic) of India. She was the only child (a younger brother was born, but died young), and grew up with her mother, Kamala Nehru, at the Anand Bhavan; a large family estate in Allahabad. She had a lonely and unhappy childhood. Her father was often away, directing political activities or incarcerated, while her mother was frequently bed-ridden with illness, and later suffered an early death from tuberculosis. She had limited contact with her father, mostly through letters.
Indira was mostly taught at home by tutors, and intermittently attended school until matriculation in 1934. She was a student at the Modern School in Delhi, St Cecilia’s and St Mary’s Christian convent schools in Allahabad, the International School of Geneva, the Ecole Nouvelle in Bex, and the Pupils’ Own School in Poona and Bombay, which is affiliated to University of Mumbai. She and her mother Kamala Nehru moved to Belur Math headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission where Swami Ranganathananda was her guardian later she went on to study at the Vishwa Bharati in Santiniketan, which later in 1951 became Visva-Bharati University. It was during her interview that Rabindranath Tagore named her Priyadarshini, literally “looking at everything with kindness” in Sanskrit, and she came to be known as Indira Priyadarshini Nehru. A year later, however, she had to leave university to attend to her ailing mother in Europe. While there, it was decided that Indira would continue her education at the University of Oxford. After her mother died, she briefly attended the Badminton School before enrolling at Somerville College in 1937 to study history. Indira had to take the entrance examination twice, having failed at her first attempt with a poor performance in Latin. At Oxford, she did well in history, political science and economics, but her grades in Latin—a compulsory subject—remained poor. She did, however, have an active part within the student life of the university, such as the Oxford Majlis Asian Society.
During her time in Europe, Indira was plagued with ill-health and was constantly attended to by doctors. She had to make repeated trips to Switzerland to recover, disrupting her studies. She was being treated there in 1940, when the German armies rapidly conquered Europe. Gandhi tried to return to England through Portugal but was left stranded for nearly two months. She managed to enter England in early 1941, and from there returned to India without completing her studies at Oxford. The university later awarded her an honorary degree. In 2010, Oxford further honoured her by selecting her as one of the ten Oxasians, illustrious Asian graduates from the University of Oxford.During her stay in Great Britain, Indira frequently met her future husband Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), whom she knew from Allahabad, and who was studying at the London School of Economics. The marriage took place in Allahabad according to Adi Dharm rituals though Feroze belonged to a ZoroastrianParsi family of Gujarat. The couple had two sons, Rajiv Gandhi (born 1944) and Sanjay Gandhi (born 1946).
In the 1950s, Indira, now Mrs Indira Gandhi after her marriage, served her father unofficially as a personal assistant during his tenure as the first Prime Minister of India. Towards the end of the 1950s, Indira Gandhi served as the President of the Congress. In that capacity, she was instrumental in getting the Communist led Kerala State Government dismissed in 1959. That government had the distinction of being India’s first ever elected Communist Government. After her father’s death in 1964 she was appointed as a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and served in Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri‘s cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. In January 1966, after Shastri’s death, the Congress legislative party elected Indira Gandhi over Morarji Desai as their leader. Congress party veteran K. Kamaraj was instrumental in achieving Indira’s victory. Because she was a woman, other political leaders in India saw Gandhi as weak and hoped to use her as a puppet once elected.