President: 1917-1984 (New Delhi, 1978 Calcutta, 1983)
Smt. Indira Gandhi saw herself as a latter day Joan of Arc—such was her ardour and faith in herself as a patriot. Like the "The Maid of Orléans", she too died as a martyr for the unity of her country. She had said before her tragic death: “Every drop of my blood will contribute to the growth of this nation and make it strong and dynamic.”
She was a woman of courage and admired people with fighting spirit, people who triumphed over handicaps. For instance, Helen Keller and Douglas Bader. In her childhood, her father was a source of inspiration to her. The letters Pt Nehru wrote to Indira Priyadarshini became a part of “Glimpses of World History”.
Anand Bhawan, Allahabad, was next only to Gandhiji's Ashram as the headquarters of the freedom struggle. Here she came into contact with the great men and women of the time. When she was only 12, she mobilized the children to help liberate the country. Her army of child volunteers was called the ‘Vanar Sena’.
She received her formal education at Poona’s Santiniketan and in Europe, but her real education was in the political life she was to later lead. Her political apprenticeship was under her father after he became the Prime Minister of India.
Her election as the President of the Congress, in 1959, marked her entry into politics as an all-India figure. On her father's death, she was drafted into the Union Cabinet by Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri as a reluctant Minister for Information and Broadcasting. Shri Shastri died in January 1966 and Smt. Indira Gandhi became his successor.
Her premiership was stormy and embattled but filled also with a clear development agenda & successive electoral wins.
During her rule, India was facing a major agrarian crisis, we were unable to produce the amount of food necessary to feed millions of Indians. Until 1969, the United States was a major ally during this period by exporting food and providing developmental aid to India. However, when President Johnson came to power, he changed the system and reduced the aid delivered to us. This drop in food aid prompted Indira Gandhi to adopt Norman Borlaugh’s Green Revolution ideology. Agriculture soon shifted to a more modern methodology, we adopted the use of High Yielding Variety seeds, used pesticides & fertilisers and started using tractors & irrigation facilities to modernise technology. As a result of this modernising & scientific approach, India finally became food surplus state and no longer relied on foreign aid to feed itself. It was Indira Gandhi’s determination and grit that brought India out of this tumultuous period.
It was also under Indira Gandhi that India nationalised 14 private banks & thereby changed the nature of the country’s banking system. This move saved India’s economy & made it a far more equitable system. Prior to the reform these 14 banks controlled 70% of India’s deposits - they were monopolising the market. Due to the unpredictable nature of private banks, 361 private banks were forced to shut down between 1947 and 1955. The money deposited in these banks would disappear and the people who had invested were left with nothing. It was also noticed that these banks only provided loans to large corporations and industries & largely ignored the agriculture sector. By nationalising the banks, Indira Gandhi provided a sense of security to the banking sector and the many Indians that deposited their money in these banks. She also ensured that credit would easily available to the ‘priority sector’ - agriculture, small & medium industries traders & entrepreneurs. Moreover, she sought the setting up of banks in rural and backward areas.
In 1970 there were close to 10 million East Pakistani (Now Bangladesh) refugees in India, the state of East Pakistan had set up a defect government within our boundaries & were in desperate need of help. It was then that Indira Gandhi decided it was more economically prudent to go to war with Pakistan and help free East Pakistan, than care for the millions of reggaes that were coming into India. We joined the war in 1971 and thanks to rapid movement of the Indian Armed Forces & supreme air support were able to defeat Pakistan in manner of 13 days. Bangladesh was thus an independent state.
Indira Gandhi was also responsible for bringing India to nuclear parity with the other superpowers of the time. We became the first of the non-permanent members of the UN security council to successfully test a nuclear weapon. She was also responsible for sending the first Indian to space - Rakesh Sharma. The former air-force pilot was sent to space aboard the Soviet Slayut-7 and spent close to 8 days exploring the final frontier.
While there were many successful moments in her tenure as PM, Indira Gandhi also faced her fair share of backlash. The Navnirman movement in Gujarat and Jayaprakash Narayan's call for a “total revolution” caused tensions and led to the declaration of Internal Emergency in 1975.
After the Emergency was lifted, the Janata Party came to power and Smt. Indira Gandhi had to face much harassment and even imprisonment for a short while. In 1978, there was another split in the Congress but she commanded a majority and her group came to be called the Congress (I).
In 1980, she swept back into power. But her troubles were not over. The Congress (I) lost Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and there was trouble in a number of states like Jammu & Kashmir, Assam and Punjab.
The rise of regionalism in Punjab proved a challenge to her leadership. She was compelled to order “Operation Bluestar” but there was no considerable abatement of Sikh terrorism. On October 31, 1984, she was assassinated by her own bodyguards.
Indira Gandhi was the people’s prime minister. Indian from every corner of the country were devoted to her and truly believed she would do anything in her power to help them. It was largely amongst the poor that Indira Gandhi’s largest following belonged. She was an arduous champion of the poor and helping them receive the same opportunities as the rich. She battled her entire life to help the people of this country and it is with great respect we remember her now.