Indira Priyadarshini was born on November 19, 1917, she was the only child of Jawaharal Nehru and his wife Kamala in the city of Allahabad in Northern India. The second part of her name Priyadarshini, means”dear to behold.” In the Indian tradition, theirs was a joint family, headed by Indiras grandfather, Motilal Nehru, a man with a powerful personality and an enormous passion for life. Allahabad was an upper class town, and Motilal, a self-made man, was one of the most successful barristers in his time.
With success came wealth, and the Nehru family lived in a sprawling whitewashed villa, surrounded by lawns, tennis courts, and a swimming pool, and attended by numerous servants. Being the only child in this huge household, Indira was pampered and was the center of her grandfathers attention. Then, when Indira was barely three, the Indian freedom movement entered the Nehru house, changing Indiras life and the course of Indian history (Currimbhoy 25-26).
Jawaharal Nehru had come into contact with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who became the leader of Indias freedom struggle. Both Jawaharal and Motilal were drawn to Gandhi. They believed in Gandhis nonviolent noncooperation. The family also supported Gandhis policy of promoting domestic cottage industries by boycotting all foreign goods(Jayakar 67-68).
Motilals involvement with the Congress made his home the hub of the freedom movement. It became the place where earnest, khadi-clad men came and went at all hours of the day and night; it became a place that rang with drafts, declarations, and debates. Indira absorbed the tension and excitement of those days and became a quiet, serious child, fired by a sense of mission she did not quite understand(Currimbhoy 31).
Even the games Indira played had to do with politics. Her dolls were divided into freedom fighters. who formed picket lines, and British soldiers, who clubbed them on the head and ragged them to off to jail. Her aunt remembers her out on the porch, eyes burning, arms dramatically outstretched, playing Joan Of Arc leading her people to freedom. By the time she was twelve, Indira was making a strong and real effort to be involved in the struggle. She formed the Monkey Brigade, this was a group of children who acted as messengers for the elders(Sahgal 94).
Indira discovered soon, however, that the familys commitment to the freedom movement meant more than just fun and games. For the Nehrus, who were permanently in the forefront of the movement, the twenty-five long years of civil disobedience and jail sentences meant a suspension of family life(Malhotra 53).
Indiras completion of school, just after her sixteenth birthday, was greeted by a telegram from her father informing her that he was once again going to jail, and, even more disturbing, that her mother, who as suspected of having tuberculosis, had taken a turn for the worse. After spending a very long time taking care of her mother, Indira was sent to Shantiniketan, an unconventional, informal university in Bengal.
Her stay at the university, which she considered the best times of her life, lasted only a year. In May 1935, with her father still in jail, Indira was sent back to Switzerland to her sick mother. There was no cure for Tuberculosis back then, but Nehru sent his wife to Europe in hopes that the clean mountain air would help her to recover from the disease. On February 28, 1936, Indiras mother died. Her mother was only thirty-six, and Indira was devastated(Sahgal 106).
When Indira was in England, she was often seen with another young foreign student, Feroze Gandhi. Feroze had been a frequent visitor to the Nehru household. After Kamalas death, Indira had found herself drawn towards Feroze. Indiras family, however, did not welcome the news that Indira planned to marry Feroze. Jawaharal Nehru, in fact strongly opposed the match, in spite of the fact that Indira and Feroze had been friends for many years. He was not considered a suitable mate for Indira(Currimbhoy 62).
Feroze Gandhi had the same surname as Mohandas Gandhi, however, he came from a very different social and religious background. Unlike Mohandas, who was Hindu, Feroze was a Parsi, a member of one of the smallest and most cohesive religious sects in India. Orthodox Hindus were so outraged that Indira had chosen to marry a Parsi that Jawaharal, and even Gandhi, were forced to come to Indiras defense publicly.
A few months after the wedding, Indira, herself, was jailed, and event she referred to later as the most dramatic incident in her life. Courting arrest was a Congress policy, a way of protesting to the British Raj. and Indiras nine months in jail marked for her political coming of age. Some leaders used their time in prison for writing and for reflecting on the course of political events.
Feroze, who had been in jail also, was released a while later, and the couple settled down to married life. They took a small house in the city of Lucknow, where Feroze became the managing director of The National Herald, a newspaper that had been founded by his father-in-law. Two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, were born in quick succession, and it seemed that Indira was ready to settle down in her role as wife and mother(Malhotra 76).
Following the end of World War II, the British Government was convinced, at last, that it could no longer rule India. In September 1946, Jawaharal Nehru became the head of an “interim” government and on August 15, 1947, the first prime minister of Independent India. The Indian people had long awaited this moment, and when it came, Indira remembers being too numb to feel anything(Jayakar 94).
Gradually Indira became sort of a “first lady”. She accompanied her father almost everywhere. At mass meetings she sat quietly behind him, and sometimes, when Nehru couldnt attend, she spoke for him(Currimbhoy 79).
It is often said that Indira chose to be with her father because she wished to be near the seat of power. It seems clear, however, that although she probably became politically ambitious in the final years of her fathers life, initially she just drifted into her role, drawn by her fathers loneliness and need, and pushed by her own unhappiness with her marriage. “What a life I have made for myself,” she wrote to a friend in 1955. “Often, I seem to be standing outside myself, watching and wondering if its all worth the trouble.”
In 1959, Indira Gandhi was made the president of the Indian National Congress, a post that both her father and her grandfather had held before her. This was her first important position. The Congress party of the 1950s, however, was a democratic one, and her father, even at the height of his power, could not have forced his daughter on the party had its members been opposed to the idea. Clearly, Indira had managed to build a reputation for herself, apart from the authority that came from being her fathers daughter(Jayakar 108).
When Indira took up her duties as head of the party, the Congress bosses were expecting to deal with a mild, ineffectual president. She surprised everyone, however, with her tough, pragmatic handling of her first important political position. She was energetic and practical. At her first press conference she said, “The nation is in a hurry, and we cant afford to lose time. My complaint against the Congress is that it isnt going as fast as the people are advancing. And that can be fatal for a political organization.”
Indira, who brought a young leftist image to her office, tried to change the party’s structure and approach by encouraging younger, radical members to move into positions of power. She also sought to increase the participation of women in the party. During her first three months, Indira traveled throughout the country, attracting large crowds of women and students with speeches that reflected her socialist convictions(Sahgal 113) .
When Indira’s father died of a stroke on May 28, 1964, Indira was never seriously considered as India’s next prime minister. According to Indian constitution, the prime minister is to be elected by the majority party. In the last years of her fathers rule, state chief ministers, as well as party bosses, were becoming increasingly powerful within the Congress party, and jockeying for the position of prime minister had already begun(Jayakar 114).
In fact, by 1963 Lal Bahadur Shastri and Mojar Desai had emerged as the leading contenders. Finally, Shashtri, a small, unassuming man who had started his career as a sort of retainer to the Nehrus, was chosen prime minister. He asked Indira to join his cabinet as minister information and broadcasting, overseeing the state-owned radio stations. It was a relatively unimportant post, and it was reported that Indira would have preferred to be foreign minister. Nevertheless, she accepted the position(Currimbhoy 92).
People who predicted chaos and an end to democracy in India after Jawarhals death were even more convinced of it now, when Shastri died. Jawarhals illness had been long and death had been foreseen for months, whereas Shastris and was sudden, and the young democracy had no time to prepare a successor. To fill the void, the ruling Congress party promptly chose Indira Gandhi as its leader and prime minister. The change of power was a smooth one(Malhotra 119).
Ironically, Mrs. Gandhi was selected by the party not because she was powerful, but because a group of the partys leaders thought of her as powerless. General elections were only a year away, and Indira had the national appeal that they lacked. Her well-known face was to win the elections, and Indira was to be a puppet leader for a time while the actual struggle for power went on behind the scenes.
So it was that Indira Gandhi, almost accidentally, became the leader of the worlds largest democracy. She had always claimed that she was not interested in power, and until now-she was nearing fifty-she had never actively pursued a position of power(Currimbhoy 126).
With very little formal political experience, Indias youngest prime minister took office, assuring reporters that she felt “neither excited nor nervous,” adding being prime minister was “just another job I have to do.”
It was to her misfortune, however, that she took on the job at the worst time in Indias post independence history. The monsoon had failed for two consecutive years, threatening million with starvation, adding yet another burden to an economy already depleted by two successive wars(Jayakar 136).
It was in foreign relations that Indira Gandhi did the best in. From the past experience of meeting world leaders, Indira managed to show her personality with a confidence that charmed everyone; she received favorable coverage on her visits to America, England,and Russia, as well as to other, smaller countries.
In August 1972, when Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her power, she was asked to list Indias main achievements since independence. “I would say our greatest achievement is to have survived as a free and democratic nation,” she answered.
On June 26, 1975, through a presidential proclamation, Indira declared a state of emergency in India. For the first time since independence, she imposed total press censorship and suspended civil liberties guaranteed by the constitution-including freedom of expression and association and the right to appeal to the courts against falsely arrest. “In India democracy has give too much license to the people,” she said. “Sometimes bitter medicine has to be administered to a patient to cure him.”
The crisis began with the decision of a high court judge in Mrs. Gandhis native Allahabad, convicting her on two rather minor counts of electoral corruption-using government officials and government jeeps for her campaign. The judgment erased her annulled her election to Parliament and barred her from public office for six years(Currimbhoy 136-138).