Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
November 1, 1984
Assassination in India: A Leader of Will and Force; Indira
Gandhi, Born to Politics, Left Her Own Imprint on India
By LINDA CHARLTON
Strong-willed, autocratic and determined to govern an
almost ungovernable nation that seemed always in strife,
Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister four times and the dominant
figure in India for almost two decades.
She was born to politics and power, the granddaughter of
Motilal Nehru, an early leader of the Indian independence
movement, and daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India as
Prime Minister in its first 17 years of independence from
Mrs. Gandhi served as her widowed father's official
hostess, and after she moved into the position he once held,
she became, behind her father and Mohandas K. Gandhi, the most
commanding figure in modern Indian history. She was often
accused of trying to build an Indian dynasty by planning to
have her son Sanjay succeed her, and after his death in a
plane crash in 1980 she was said to be arranging for her other
son, Rajiv, to fill her role.
As Prime Minister, Mrs. Gandhi presided over the world's
most populous democracy, a nation of 700 million people.
During her tenure the Government made limited headway against
such age-old Indian problems as overpopulation, hunger, caste,
inadequate sanitation and chronic religious strife among the
majority Hindus, Moslems and other sects.
Her years in power were turbulent, coming to a climax last
June in a violent showdown with the minority Sikhs, when Mrs.
Gandhi ordered Indian Army troops to attack the Golden Temple,
the Sikhs' holiest place of worship, at Amritsar in the
northern state of Punjab. A Decisive Leader
But until her assassination yesterday in New Delhi, Mrs.
Gandhi served as a decisive - some said dictatorial - leader.
She led India into the nuclear age when, in 1974,
scientists there exploded an underground nuclear device, and
she also took her nation into the space age, in 1980, when it
launched its own satellite on its own rocket. This year,
through her efforts, an Indian astronaut flew in a Soviet
In 1971, Mrs. Gandhi insured that her nation would become
the dominant power on the subcontinent when India defeated
Pakistan in an 11- month war and insured the creation of
Bangladesh from what had been East Pakistan.
On the international scene, relations with the United
States, which provided billions of dollars in aid from the
1950's to the 1980's, were sour and tense during much of her
tenure. Her overall foreign policy, she maintained, was not
biased in one direction or another, only ''pro-Indian,'' and
she was a leader of the group of nations professing
nonalignment. Indian critics said, however, that she kept
India locked into a rigid position, leaning toward Moscow to
an extent that was clearly difficult and embarrassing during
the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan.
Her friendship with the Soviet Union enabled her Government
to build a powerful, well-equipped army. In Nehru's
She grew up in the shadow of her father and stunned almost
everyone by her emergence as a tough, shrewd and ruthless
woman of commanding presence and absolute will. She maintained
for many years that power did not interest her.
''I like being Prime Minister, yes, but not more than I
liked the other jobs I have done in my life,'' she said in
1973. ''I am not ambitious. I don't care for honors.'' That
was two years before she briskly assumed dictatorial powers,
in response to what seemed a threat to her strength, and
espoused the tenets of authoritarian rule, from suspension of
civil liberties to censorship of the press. Then,
demonstrating that India's familiar label as the world's
largest democracy was not just a cliche, the voters of India
swept her out of office and, 18 months later, voted her back
into power again.
Her critics charged that her promises to erase poverty were
quixotic and that India's chronic and severe social problems
actually burgeoned during her years of power. They said, too,
that she tolerated corrupt ministers and fostered corruption
in her younger son, Sanjay; that she was hungry for power and
surrounded herself with inept advisers rather than brook
potential rivals. Empty ''sloganizing'' and indecision, they
said, had bred cynicism. Reins of Autocracy
Until June 1975, it seemed that Mrs. Gandhi's central
achievement was her adherence to cementing democracy - an
achievement that ultimately ripped the reins of autocracy from
her hands. She was successful in reasserting, sometimes
forcefully, the dominance of the central Government over
states that seemed to be squabbling perennially with each
other. She also made clear her abhorrence of the religious
tensions that continue in India. She repeatedly sought to
blunt communalism in the nation and made clear her detestation
of the Hindu nationalists who exploited anti-Moslem feelings.
As a private person, Mrs. Gandhi seemed aloof, chilly,
complex, giving no clue in her withdrawn, quiet personality as
to why her public figure should appeal as it did to many
millions of Indians. She could be rude, sometimes opening
letters and signing papers when foreigners visited her in the
red sandstone Indian Parliament or the nearby South Block of
In 1967, for example, when Richard M. Nixon, then a private
citizen, visited her in New Delhi, Mrs. Gandhi barely
concealed her boredom, and after 20 minutes of chatting she
asked the Foreign Ministry official escorting Mr. Nixon how
much longer the visit would last. The question was in Hindi,
but its purport was clear to Mr. Nixon. During interviews, she
would sometimes simply ignore questions that she did not wish
to answer, lapsing into silences, doodling on a notepad and
At other times, she gave the impression of shyness and
vulnerability. She was physically frail. She had suffered from
tuberculosis, low blood pressure, kidney problems and muscle
spasms in the neck and had ignored doctors' orders not to have
children. She worked 14 hours a day and seemed lonely and
''I think the only reason I'm able to survive this with
equanimity is that I'm just myself, regardless of the
situation in the country,'' she once said. ''I know the
condition of the people. There's nothing I can see that I
don't know about already. It's not that you don't feel it, but
- it's like a nurse and illness. You see it in perspective.''
'A Certain Instinct'
One of the most detailed and widely discussed criticisms of
Mrs. Gandhi in the years before her takeover of the Government
came in 1974 from G. B. Verghese, a former press adviser to
the Prime Minister and the widely respected editor of The
Hindustan Times. Mr. Verghese called her ''strangely
paralyzed, unwilling to lead, afraid of her own majority.''
''The Prime Minister has no program, no world view, no
grand design,'' he said. ''Thus, bereft of a frame, she has
largely reacted to events and failed to shape them. This has
been her tragedy. She lacks economic and administrative
expertise. Nevertheless, she has a certain political instinct
and charisma which would have been the greater assets if
harnessed to a greater purpose. She has a mandate but no
Mrs. Gandhi herself often expressed her goals in sweeping
and inoffensive terms: ''I am a politician in the sense that I
want a particular kind of India, an India without poverty,
without injustice, an India free of any foreign influence.''
Mr. Verghese and other critics said that, even backed with a
great election victory and the success of the 1971 war with
Pakistan, Mrs. Gandhi lacked specific goals.
She failed to define ''any larger, long-term objective of
reconstructing India or the subcontinent,'' Mr. Verghese said.
''The greater the success, the greater the bewilderment over
what to do. Having emblazoned 'Garibi Hatao' (Abolish Poverty)
on her standard, she did not conceptualize it and carry it
forward. She was quite unable to ride the crest of the wave.''
Nor, to be fair, had any of her critics had any greater
success in meeting India's chronic crises or solving its
perennial problems. Unconcealed Anger
Mrs. Gandhi did not conceal her anger at these attacks.
''This is one of the countries in the world where the economy,
although under severe strain, is not collapsing,'' she said to
a journalist in 1974. ''Do you think it is easy to keep a
country like India united? You say promises are not kept. I
assert with all authority: Who in the world has kept more
However vague her destinations may have seemed, Mrs. Gandhi
was always clear about her conviction that she was meant to
lead India. She rarely indulged in self-analysis and usually
brushed aside questions about her failed marriage, her
personal life, her possibly difficult role as the daughter of
the nation's first Prime Minister.
''Every position has advantages and disadvantages,'' she
once observed. ''I had an advantage because of the education
my father gave me and the opportunities of meeting some great
people, not only politicians, but also writers, artists and so
on. But in politics one has to work doubly hard to show one is
not merely a daughter but is also a person in her own right.''
She added, ''Of course, being a woman you have to work
twice as hard as a man.''
Once, when a visiting journalist asked her to describe
Indira Gandhi, the woman, the Prime Minister said: ''In spite
of always living in the public glare, she has remained a very
private person. Her life has been hard. This has made her
self-reliant but has not hardened her.'' A Lonely
Indira Priyadarshini (the second name means ''Dearly
Beloved'') was born Nov. 19, 1917, the only child of
Jawaharlal Nehru and his wife, Kamala, in Allahabad in
northern India. Her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, who owned the
house in which they lived, was a brilliant lawyer who
discarded a lucrative practice to ally himself with Mohandas
K. Gandhi and the Congress Party in the independence movement.
By all accounts, the child's early years were painfully
lonely. The house served as a headquarters for the freedom
struggle; her parents were frequently taken off to jail; the
police were constantly there.
''My public life started at the age of 3,'' she said. ''I
have no recollection of games, children's parties or playing
with other children. My favorite occupation as a very small
child was to deliver thunderous speeches to the servants,
standing on a high table. All my games were political ones - I
was, like Joan of Arc, perpetually being burned at the stake.
''I was very headstrong. The whole house was always in a
state of tension that nobody had a normal life. There were
police raids, arrests and so on, the physical and mental
strain. And all the time it was in public.''
What made her childhood even more difficult was the
contemptuous treatment given her mother, Kamala, by the far
more Westernized and sophisticated women of the Nehru family.
Mrs. Gandhi in later life indicated that her own fluency in
Hindi, far better than her father's, and her ''Indianness,''
or ability to think and feel as a Hindu Indian, were largely a
legacy of her mother. When asked once about the impact of
Kamala Nehru on her personality, Mrs. Gandhi replied, ''I saw
her being hurt and I was determined not to be hurt.''
Letters From Her Father
In her turbulent childhood - erratic schooling in India and
Switzerland, followed by involvement in the independence
struggle as a courier and demonstrator - she knew her father
chiefly through the famous letters he wrote from a succession
of prison cells. The letters, now collected, gave a capsule
history of the world from Buddha to Stanley Baldwin and forged
a strong link between father and daughter.
''They were the only companionship I had with my father,''
she recalled. ''That is why I valued them so much.''
Although Nehru was in and out of prison and traveling
constantly, his link with his daughter strengthened. ''Nehru
was constantly pointing out to the girl the fascinating world
around them,'' wrote the journalist Krishan Bhatia, author of
''Indira,'' a biography of Mrs. Gandhi.
Her formal schooling remained sporadic; she spent three
unhappy years at a formal boarding school in Poona and in 1934
went to the university at Santiniketan (Abode of Peace) in
West Bengal, founded by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel
Prize-winning poet and philosopher. It was a brief, almost
idyllic experience for the young woman in the unconventional
school, where she studied poetry and the Manipuri style of
classical Indian dancing. ''In a way,'' she recalled, ''Tagore
was the first person whom I consciously regarded as a great
man.'' She said that the evenings spent sitting at his feet,
talking or watching him paint, were ''moments of serene joy,
memories to cherish.'' A British Education
Kamala Nehru died the following year. In 1937, Indira
enrolled at Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied
public and social administration, history and anthropology.
Although she was in poor condition physically - she was
ordered to spend several months in Switzerland to recover from
pleurisy - Indira was active in the student wing of the
British Labor Party and enrolled as a Red Cross volunteer when
World War II began, even working briefly as an ambulance
driver in the blitz.
In 1941, however, with the Indian independence movement
nearing an apparent confrontation with the British, she sailed
home with Feroze Gandhi, a newspaperman from Allahabad, who
had worked in the Congress movement. He was a childhood friend
of Indira, but her family was shocked when she announced, on
arriving home, that she and Mr. Gandhi - who was not related
to Mohandas Gandhi - planned to marry.
''Nobody wanted that marriage, nobody,'' she recalled many
years later. Mr. Gandhi was of a different religion; she was a
Hindu, he was a Parsee, which meant that ''the whole of India
was against us.'' But she and Feroze Gandhi were married in
March 1942. By September of that year, they were both sent to
prison by the British. In fact, the only real domestic period
of their troubled marriage was between 1943 and 1946, when
they lived in relative quiet in Allahabad. A son, Ranjiv, was
born in 1944, and another, Sanjay, in 1946.
That year Nehru became Prime Minister of a provisional
Government as a prelude to full Indian independence, and Mrs.
Gandhi became his official hostess. He enjoyed parties and
travel; Mrs. Gandhi was dutiful, almost reluctant. Later, she
recalled that she had disliked socializing and making small
talk. ''It took me a long time to get over this. But I had to
learn to enjoy it, so I did.'' She also said later that she
had ''hated'' serving as hostess and once confessed that the
crowds, noise, conflict and lack of privacy that marked so
much of her life evoked ''considerable bitterness in me.''
She was so constantly with her father that, in the
recollection of one Indian journalist, few even noticed her.
As she grew closer to her father, and his demands on her grew
with his prominence, the Gandhi marriage crumbled and the
couple began to live apart. Feroze Gandhi went on to become an
outspoken member of Parliament; he died in 1960. An
Despite her shyness, and the fact that most politicians,
diplomats and journalists viewed her only as Nehru's daughter,
Mrs. Gandhi felt almost obligated to play a political role in
India. ''She knew that politics was something she could not
escape,'' a friend said in 1966, when Mrs. Gandhi first became
Prime Minister. ''As a Nehru, she felt it was her destiny. She
feels her background gives her a mission she must carry out.''
As her father's confidante and companion, Mrs. Gandhi
traveled at his side abroad and at home and became a familiar,
if somewhat diffident, figure to millions of Indians. Her
first step toward national stature was in 1955, when she was
elected to the 21- member Congress Party working committee. It
was a small step, and she remained withdrawn and self-
conscious, but it marked her first move toward an independent
Four years later, she was named president of the party,
obviously because she was the daughter of Nehru, then at the
peak of his power. Yet she herself, then 42 years old, was
beginning to emerge as a favorite of the impatient younger
members of the party, which was dominated by aging men linked
only by the bond of having fought together against the British
during India's long struggle for independence. Signs of
During her 11 months as president, she began to display
toughness and political assertiveness. She was influential in
the ouster of the Communist government in the southern state
of Kerala. Six months later, in state elections, she shocked
many moderate supporters when she successfully allied Congress
with the Muslim League, a sectarian group abhorred by
Despite her success, she turned down the offer of another
term, partly because of concern about her father's health and
partly because she realized that she was not yet senior enough
to run the party as she wanted.
In May 1964 Nehru died of a stroke. Mrs. Gandhi went into a
period of silent withdrawal for weeks, tending to burst into
tears whenever a friend tried to offer condolences. Lal
Bahadur Shastri, the new Prime Minister, offered Mrs. Gandhi a
Cabinet post; she chose the relatively unprestigious job of
Minister of Information and Broadcasting and did a lackluster
But in 1966, when Mr. Shastri died suddenly, the Congress
Party's leaders chose Mrs. Gandhi as Prime Minister. There
were two key reasons: First, they felt that she would be
pliable, and second, they wished to avoid the obvious choice,
Morarji R. Desai, whose career would be intertwined with that
of Mrs. Gandhi years later. The New Prime Minister
Her first year of leadership was one of uncertainty,
although she did make some strong moves, such as dividing
Punjab and proposing that the commercial banks be
nationalized, which was achieved in 1969. In 1967 India's 250
million voters returned the Congress Party to power by a
narrow margin; the economy had sunk into a deep recession and
the failure of the monsoon for the second consecutive year
threatened millions in northeast India with starvation, which
was averted by American grain shipments.
Mrs. Gandhi was jolted by the election results, although
she had found, to her surprise, that campaigning buoyed her.
The closeness of the election made it clear to her that she
was the only nationally known and accepted leader for a party
that needed streamlining. She promptly announced a 10-point
program to bring about a socialist state with a stable
Congress became a divided party, with an older group
forming around Mr. Desai and a younger, more radical faction
gathering around Mrs. Gandhi. As the party breach widened,
India's President, Zakir Husain, died suddenly in May 1969.
Although the position was one of a figurehead, the vacancy set
the stage for a struggle for control of the party.
The party's elders saw a chance to humiliate Mrs. Gandhi by
supporting a candidate who was a known foe. Mrs. Gandhi,
gathering her supporters, backed another candidate, thus
asking members of her own party to vote with her against their
leadership. With the help of nearly two- thirds of the
Congress members, her candidate won a narrow victory. It is
believed likely that she knowingly precipitated the crisis by
dismissing Mr. Desai as Deputy Prime Minister. The Old
A few months later, the old guard leadership expelled Mrs.
Gandhi from the party for ''grave acts of indiscipline.'' She
brushed aside the gesture with characteristic contempt,
calling it an illegal act by a group of discredited ''bosses''
and ''dictators'' who wanted to block her socialist programs.
The next morning, the Congress Party bloc in Parliament gave
her a vote of confidence.
With the party split and Mrs. Gandhi maintaining her
populist stance, moving to nationalize the banks and eliminate
the funds given to princely states, she abruptly called for
elections in March 1971, a year ahead of schedule. She hoped
to be able to increase her support, as the party split had
left her with the backing of only a little more than 200 in
the lower house of 525 members. After a 43-day campaign, Mrs.
Gandhi emerged with a parliamentary victory of dimensions
comparable to those of her father, with her wing of the party
winning 350 seats.
When civil war broke out that year in Pakistan, India
supported East Pakistan in its fight against West Pakistan and
was quickly victorious. East Pakistan became Bangladesh and
India became indisputably the dominant power on the
Subcontinent. Three months after the end of the war, Mrs.
Gandhi cemented her power more strongly, with the capture of
70 percent of the state assembly seats in regional elections.
She had reached the peak of success.
Two years later, her popularity had plummeted. Her
Government faced an economic crisis. Compounding the nation's
misery were two severe droughts, inflation, oil-price
increases in which she consistently defended the oil producers
because they were ''exploited'' by Western nations, and poor
planning, with development enmeshed in a web of bureaucracy.
Charges of Corruption
Her critics charged, moreover, that she had worsened the
problems by misuse of authority, corruption and an erosion of
moral leadership. She began to take steps that stirred
uneasiness about her final intentions - using emergency
measures to imprison strikers and dissident students without
trial, taking over the small Himalayan protectorate of Sikkim.
''There has never been any advice spoken to me that I
needed much,'' she once said. ''What influenced me more were
the lives of the people I lived with - my mother and my
father. That didn't need words.''
Mrs. Gandhi denied repeatedly that she was a mere
politician - indeed, she was reportedly even allergic to those
two staples of political campaigning in her country, the
perpetual dust and the wreaths of marigolds - and saw herself
rather as the inevitable destined leader of India. This gave
her an armor of disdain against the growing attacks of the
opposition, and, it proved in mid-June 1975, fostered the
impulses of an autocrat. Roots of a Crisis
The crisis began with the decision of a high court judge in
Mrs. Gandhi's native Allahabad convicting her of two counts of
electoral corruption - the specific charges included the use
in her election campaign of the services of a Government
official and of a rostrum - and declared her election to
Parliament invalid. The ruling questioned her right to remain
as Prime Minister and prohibited her from running in any
election for six years. Not surprisingly, the opposition
seized upon the ruling; despite her decision to appeal to a
higher court, there was an immediate clamor for her to resign
But she said there was ''no question'' of resignation.
Instead, at dawn two days later, dozens of opposition leaders,
including Mr. Desai, the Deputy Prime Minister, were arrested
and taken to jail, and Mrs. Gandhi proclaimed a state of
emergency. Acting under a law that was a holdover from British
rule, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, which bestowed
sweeping and arbitrary powers on the Government, Mrs. Gandhi
had first hundreds and then thousands of people arrested.
Soon domestic critics and foreign observers were
proclaiming that democracy was dead. India's equivalent of the
bill of rights was suspended; the press was sharply censored;
thousands were jailed incommunicado and without the right to
know the charges against them; judicial review of Government
acts was severely limited. Constitutional guarantees of civil
rights were suspended, as was habeas corpus.
As her powers expanded, Mrs. Gandhi serenely ignored the
protests, including demonstrations in which several people
were killed. ''In India,'' she said, ''democracy has given too
much license to people. Even today we are more democratic than
any developing country in the world.'' 'Threat to
Mrs. Gandhi, in this first statement after embarking on her
authoritarian program, said she had taken the action in
response to a ''threat to internal stability'' and hoped that
it would be only temporary. At the same time, she outlined a
program of economic changes that she said were designed to
bring down prices and achieve a more equitable distribution of
land. Critics said that the changes were in fact designed
primarily to distract attention from what seemed to be a rapid
movement toward a totalitarian state. Other critics,
economists, saw the planned ''reforms'' as a patchwork of
Meanwhile, Mrs. Gandhi moved quickly to consolidate her
hold. Her Congress Party, which had a majority in Parliament,
ratified the state of emergency. Her powers were expanded,
with amendments to the Maintenance of Internal Security Act,
including one that allowed the Government to seize the
property of people who were detained or went into hiding to
avoid detention. The opposition condemned her assumption of
emergency powers when Parliament opened, but the opposition
was increasingly the minority.
Less than two months after Mrs. Gandhi assumed her new
powers, more than 50,000 people were reportedly imprisoned,
and Parliament changed the law under which she had been
convicted in June. Another bill was passed that prevented her
election from even being considered by the judiciary. In a
speech on Aug. 15, 1975, the anniversary of India's
independence, she said, ''Sometimes bitter medicine has to be
administered to a patient only to cure him.'' A few days
later, she took aim at external criticism of her actions,
saying that unnamed ''casual critics'' applied ''special
standards'' to India's behavior. Rewriting the Law
In November, the Supreme Court dismissed the charges
against Mrs. Gandhi, basing its ruling on the law passed about
two months after her conviction that rewrote the election law
so as to omit the offenses of which she had been found guilty.
Few were surprised when at the end of December, the Congress
Party announced that the elections scheduled for early 1976
had been postponed for a year ''in order to insure continuity
in bringing about economic and political stability.' She
continued to deny that she had set the country on a course
toward totalitarianism. ''Would you be here at all, if we were
totalitarian?'' she asked her opposition in Parliament early
in 1976, a rhetorical device that ignored that many members of
the opposition were not there but in jail. Justifying the
imposition of the state of emergency, and its broadening
scope, she said: ''Democracy is a value we cherish. If we have
these curbs today, it is because democracy was in danger. A
handful of people were trying to stop the functioning of the
will of the majority.''
The shrunken opposition was unconvinced. India, said one
opponent, had entered ''an era of darkness.''
Mrs. Gandhi, defending the Government's decision to
postpone the elections for a year, said: ''If we held the
elections now, we would win. But that is not the point. The
point is whether we have greater unity or whether we let loose
forces of disruption so that the whole fabric falls apart.''
It was an argument that sounded to many like nothing more
than a justification for what was rapidly becoming a classic
dictatorship. The next conference of her Congress Party,
however, predictably called for the continuation of the state
of emergency, and in February 1976 an obedient Parliament
passed legislation giving the Government the power to suppress
''objectionable material'' in the press. Changes in
In foreign affairs, however, there were signs of change, of
flexibility. The United States broke off scheduled talks on
the resumption of economic aid to indicate displeasure with
the continuing policies of repression, but by late April 1976,
American diplomats were talking of vague signs of a ''thaw''
in the Government's attitude toward the United States. In the
same year, she ended 15 years of coldness between India and
China when she sent an Ambassador to Peking.
Meanwhile, the Government announced that it was sending an
ambassador to China for the first time in 15 years, and as a
further sign of a new amiability, proposed renewing talks with
Pakistan with an eye to normalization of relations. Mrs.
Gandhi went to the Soviet Union for a five-day visit after
signing a new five- year agreement with Moscow that stressed
commercial ties between the two countries.
Domestically, there was no thaw, and Mrs. Gandhi showed no
signs of qualms. In June 1976 the Government extended for one
year its right to hold prisoners without trial or even formal
charges, a step it said was taken ''for dealing with the
emergency.'' India's Supreme Court, meanwhile, had upheld the
Government's right to imprison political opponents without
hearings. Not content, Mrs. Gandhi proposed in August further
constitutional amendments that would give the executive
branch, meaning herself, almost unlimited powers.
Perhaps as a sign of security, the Government allowed
opponents to hold meetings to protest these changes in the
country's Constitution, which they saw as basically codifying
the state of emergency. Predictably, however, the amendments
were approved by Parliament. Population Control
One significant domestic issue for Mrs. Gandhi was
population control, particularly the question of compulsory
sterilization, which was debated in Parliament throughout
1976. She announced that ''strong steps which may not be liked
by all'' were under consideration, the sterilization program
was pushed and the Government, in September, announced that
civil servants were to be prohibited from having more than
three children. This renewed emphasis on population control,
along with rumors of compulsory sterilization, provoked
sometimes violent protests and confrontation. But India in
1976 had the best birth control record in its history.
Once again, as the year neared an end, the Government
announced that the scheduled elections had been postponed
until early 1978, But in early January 1977, Mrs. Gandhi, in a
surprise announcement, told the country that elections would
be held in March because of her ''unshakable faith'' in the
power of the people. It was believed that she was motivated by
a certainty that the Congress Party would win easily, as it
had won every election since independence. Another strong
motive was believed to be a desire to take advantage of a
better economic position and to improve India's position
abroad. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Gandhi released the last of
the political opponents still being held.
Her campaign theme was that ''only a strong central
government can build a stronger India.'' She offered the
closest thing to an apology for the stringencies she had
imposed, saying, ''We didn't want to cause hardship to anybody
but no government would have tolerated the threats, the
violence, the assault on democracy that we faced.'' Her
oppposition, she asserted, had only one issue, herself. The
rapid advancement of her beloved younger son, Sanjay, also
became an issue; he had been named to the executive committee
of Congress's youth branch at the end of 1975.
Rejection at the Polls
The opposition to Mrs. Gandhi had a single theme, expressed
by one banner as ''End Dictatorship, Dethrone the Queen.'' On
March 20, 1977, the voters did just that, defeating Mrs.
Gandhi and making Mr. Desai, whom she had imprisoned two years
before, Prime Minister. Mr. Desai headed the Janata Party, the
dominant factor in the loose anti-Congress coalition.
Not for two days after the election results were announced
did Mrs. Gandhi leave her residence to go to the presidential
palace and hand in her resignation. She said in her
resignation speech that ''elections are part of the democratic
process to which we are deeply committed.'' She also pledged
to continue her aim of serving the people to the ''limit of my
The new Government announced that its victory was a clear
verdict ''against executive arbitrariness'' and began to
dismantle the apparatus of legislative repression. In foreign
relations, too, there was a sharp turn from Mrs. Gandhi's tilt
toward Moscow. ''We do not want any special relations with any
country,'' Mr. Desai announced.
The Desai Government set up an investigative commission to
look into the imposition of emergency rule, but Mrs. Gandhi
declined to appear before it. ''The proclamation of
emergency,'' she said, ''was a constitutional step, approved
by the Cabinet and duly ratified by both houses of
Parliament.'' She said that because of ''retrograde, communal
and capitalistic forces'' trying to subvert her Government,
she had been forced to proclaim the emergency to ''stem the
impending disaster.'' A Personal Triumph
In October 1977, after being rebuffed in her efforts to
reclaim the leadership of the Congress Party, Mrs. Gandhi was
arrested on charges of official corruption. After a few hours
in jail - she refused bail - she was ordered released by a
magistrate who found no reasonable grounds for her detention.
Turning the episode into a personal triumph, she immediately
went on a three-day tour of western India; in Bombay, about
25,000 people turned out to greet her.
Her arrest, she proclaimed, was ''to prevent me from going
to the people,'' adding, ''It is an attempt to discredit me in
their eyes and the eyes of the world.''
Now she openly sought a return to power. When a cyclone
struck India's east coast, she flew there, saying, ''I want to
share the people's sorrow.'' She and local political officials
avoided each other as they raced around the flooded areas and
through refugee camps.
In early 1978, Mrs. Gandhi and her supporters broke away
from the regular Congress Party and formed what was known as
the Congress-I (for Indira) Party, or to its adherents, the
''real Congress'' party. Any reunion of the two factions, Mrs.
Gandhi said, must be headed by her. Once again, as she
campaigned through February in state election campaigns, huge
crowds gathered. She herself won a by-election in a rural
South Indian district later in the year. A Long Battle
Her battle not to testify before the investigative
commission, and not to be tried for refusing to testify,
dragged through the year. ''I repeat that the commission is
not legally competent to require that I should bind myself by
taking an oath,'' she said in refusing once again, despite two
contempt charges. In May 1978, the commission concluded that
the state of emergency had been declared fraudulently and
administered arbitrarily. During the summer, the Government
charged her with having illegally detained opposition leaders
and harassed officials during the emergency. Her son Sanjay
was charged with having engaged in illegal demolition of
Her response was simple: ''Instead of solving the problems
of the people, they are trying to divert attention.''
In December 1978, the Government acted to charge her with
harassing four Government officials who had been investiating
Maruti Ltd., the automobile company set up by Sanjay Gandhi.
She denied the charges in Parliament with her usual chill
serenity, saying: ''Every man, woman and child in India knows
that if the drama of a kind of impeachment of a former Prime
Minister is enacted, its sole purpose is not to solve any
national problem, but to silence a voice which they find
As the vote in Parliament neared, riots exploded in several
cities. After a seven-day debate, the vote on Prime Minister
Desai's motion that she be expelled and jailed for the
remainder of the session was 279 to 138. In a typical gesture
of disdain, Mrs. Gandhi refused to leave the Parliament
chamber and to go home ''to be arrested in the dead of night
from my house,'' as so many of her opponents had been.
A Dramatic Gesture
She insisted on waiting to be arrested in Parliament, and
it was three hours before the arresting officers arrived. As
they came she got up on a heavy table to offer friends the
characteristic Hindu salutation, ''namaste,'' an inclination
of the head over hands placed as if in prayer. Then she was
Public response made it clear that she was, with all her
faults, still a considerable and revered national figure.
Several thousand of her supporters were arrested in clashes
with the police, and several people were killed. An airliner
was hijacked to protest her imprisonment. She was released
when the parliamentary session ended a few days later. ''I had
a good rest,'' she said.
Through the early months of 1979, her fortunes seemed at an
ebb, as pressure grew for investigations into various
allegations made against her and Sanjay. The Congress Party
was reunited, with its recently disaffected members, the
Congress-I faction, merging again with the others. She said,
uncharacteristically, that perhaps she had made mistakes and
expressed regrets for ''hardships and inconvenience caused.''
Special courts were set up for her trials.
But the coalition against Mrs. Gandhi was crumbling under
the weight of its failure to resolve India's chronic crises
and even more from internal politics, with Mr. Desai badly
undermined by Charan Singh. Divide and Conquer
In July 1979 Prime Minister Desai resigned. Repeating her
brilliant 1969 divide-and-conquer victory, Mrs. Gandhi threw
her vital support behind Mr. Singh, another man she had once
had thrown into prison, as Mr. Desai's successor. At about the
same time, a survey showed her to be the single most popular
political figure in India's major cities.
Just as she had more or less created the Singh Government,
so she destroyed it by making it clear that she and her
followers would oppose a motion of confidence, possibly
because Mr. Singh refused to dismiss the charges of corruption
pending against her. Shortly after his Government fell, he
returned as a caretaker Prime Minister until elections could
be held in three months. When asked if in the interim he would
be ruling at her pleasure, Mrs. Gandhi replied, ''Yes, or he
won't rule at all.''
With elections ahead, she worked hard making sure that she
was returned to power, campaigning vigorously, forging
alliances. In the elections of January 1980, she and her
Congress-I Party won a sweeping victory, winning two-thirds of
the seats in Parliament.
''I don't want to be in power,'' she said in an interview
just before the elections, going on to contradict herself by
hinting strongly that she had been running things all along:
''Maybe (the Janata Party) made Government policy, but I was
at the center of Indian politics. I was the main issue of
discussion at every Cabinet meeting.'' And when the returns
were in, she said that victory had been won ''entirely on my
One of the first major issues she had to deal with was the
Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Her position changed
several times, sometimes from day to day. But by the end of
January, Mrs. Gandhi was saying, ''What happened in
Afghanistan is an internal matter of that country.'' An
official communique issued after she met with the Soviet
Foreign Minister, Andrei A. Gromyko, said only that both sides
agreed ''to consider measures by which tensions can be defused
in consultation with each other.'' The Loss of a Son
Early in 1980, two cases pending against Mrs. Gandhi in
special courts were canceled on technical grounds. Her power
seemed secure, barely ruffled by growing murmurs that her
younger son, Sanjay, was misbehaving. In June 1980, however,
Sanjay - her open favorite - was killed in the crash of a
small plane. Her control did not break, but few doubted that
his death was a severe blow to the Prime Minister.
In the years since Sanjay's death, his brother, Rajiv,
emerged as their mother's chief political lieutenant,
culminating in his being named Prime Minister yesterday. Now
40 years old and a former airline pilot, he was the first
among five general secretaries of the Congress-I Party.
Mrs. Gandhi's relations with opposition leaders continued
to be prickly at best. In the last year Congress-I tried to
topple several state governments hostile to it and to the
Prime Minister. Last July in Kashmir, Mrs. Gandhi's forces
succeeded in splitting the National Conference Party, enabling
a coalition of National Conference defectors and Congress-I
members to assume control of the state government.
In Andhra Pradesh near the southern tip of the
subcontinent, Mrs. Gandhi's allies appeared to have engineered
the ouster in August of the state's Chief Minister, N. T. Rama
Rao, a highly popular opponent of the Prime Minister. She
denied any role in Mr. Rama Rao's removal, which was ordered
by a Gandhi-appointed governor. After nationwide protests
charging undemocratic practices, a new governor, also named by
Mrs. Gandhi, reversed his predecessor's action, and Mr. Rama
Rao was permitted to form a new cabinet.
In yet another state, Karnataka, which borders Andhra
Pradesh, Congress-I officials were charged with using bribes
to lure opposition legislators to defect. But leaders of the
Janata Party quickly called for a vote of confidence and won
As of this fall, Mrs. Gandhi could count all but four of
India's 22 state govenments in her camp, giving her a strong
advantage in a national election. The Sikh
Criticism of her tactics against opposition parties had
been balanced by popular approval of her swift action last
June to quell an outbreak by Sikh terrorists in the northern
state of Punjab.
That rebellion came to a bloody climax last June, when Mrs.
Gandhi sent Indian troops to storm the Golden Temple in
Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. After 36
hours of fierce fighting between militant Sikhs and the
soldiers, the 72- acre temple complex was strewn with bodies.
According to official Government figures, about 600 people
were killed in the raid on the temple, including the most
militant Sikh leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Other
reports placed the figure as high as 1,200. A Force for
After the rebellion, Mrs. Gandhi remained, in the minds of
many voters, a strong personal force for national unity.
Earlier this year a poll by The Illustrated Weekly found 94
percent of the respondents rating her as an able national
She was also a leader on the international level, becoming
chairman of the movement of nations professing nonalignment
after a summit meeting in New Delhi in March 1983.
Her stormy political life found an echo in her family
relations in the last few years. In 1982 Sanjay Gandhi's
widow, Maneka, was evicted from the Prime Minister's house,
where she had been living since her marriage. Indira Gandhi,
according to family intimates, had opposed the marriage from
The feud intensified in July when Maneka announced that she
would run against her brother-in-law, Rajiv, for his
parliamentary seat from a constituency in Uttar Pradesh, the
district that Sanjay had represented before his death.
As the time neared when the Prime Minister would have to
set a date for the election, speculation arose that Mrs.
Gandhi might seek to postpone a vote if she felt she was not
assured of victory.
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