Why you should care
She took the world stage by storm – and left behind a polarizing legacy.
Commenting on Indira Gandhi’s iron grip and penchant for firing at will, Indian Chief Minister Tanguturi Anjaiah said, “I came by the grace of Madam and I am going under her orders; I don’t know why I came and why I am going.” Clad in splendid saris, with a striking silver streak in her hair, Indira Gandhi may have spoken softly, but there was no mistaking who wielded the power during her administration.
Here’s some math: Gandhi held positions as India’s minister of external affairs, minister of defense, minister of home affairs, minister of finance and five terms as a prime minister. Add to that – despite her leftist sympathies – a consolidation of power in the executive branch, the nationalizing of banks, partnering with East Pakistan in the Pakistani Civil War and screwing over the U.S. on occasion by strategically cozying up to the Soviets when it suited her purposes.
Do the sums and you have Indira Gandhi. The legacy of this towering historical figure is a mixed one, says Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India. “It’s possible that you have leaders who are two very different things at the same time,” says Deb. “She was terrible domestically, specifically for Indian democracy and what flows from that. But better for India internationally. And she was a figure of power, and this was not inconsequential.”
What kind of terrible domestic policies? That depends on who you ask. Gandhi undertook massive land-redistribution policies in hopes of alleviating poverty and hunger, but she also suspended press freedoms and arrested her opposition when her 1975 election was declared void, choosing to rule by “emergency” decree for two years. Human rights and democratic ideals dwindled during the emergency period, which included forced sterilization and detentions without charge.
In geopolitical terms, while today it can be hard to see past the large shadow cast by China, not long ago India was the 800-pound gorilla on the international stage. And the credit (or blame) for that? Straight to the silver-streaked prime minister who ruled from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 to her death in 1984.
Gandhi, daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and not related to Mohandas, was nothing like a force of nature. She was a force of nature, gliding with a sort of preternatural calm, looking fabulous while changing the world to a tune that many still hum today, as India’s economy ranks 10th largest in the world. That’s all due to pure will, acumen, savvy and no lack of willingness to break a few eggs. Or weather a few scandals. Or not weather an assassination attempt.
Yes, heavy with a capital H: Gandhi was shot and killed by two of her personal bodyguards in 1984, following a still-controversial military attack on a temple occupied by Sikh separatists.
Thirty years after her passing, India has seen a world of economic and cultural change – but how much did her rule lay the groundwork? “Measuring how well things are in India by looking at how well it protects the most powerful, and how well they fare, points again to the fact that Indira’s India not only concentrated power but wealth,” concludes Deb, alluding to persistent class gaps. “So she left a great legacy. Just not always a good one.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Chief Minister Tanguturi Anjaiah’s name.