Gandhi Serves as India’s First Female Prime Minister Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Less than two years after the death of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi became India’s third prime minister, serving her country for nearly twenty years before she was assassinated in 1984. Her leadership of India was often characterized by political unrest, but as the first female leader of the world’s largest democracy, Gandhi was a fearless politician who led India through several challenging periods of economic and political instability.

Summary of Event

Indira Gandhi was born Indira Nehru in Allahabad, India, on November 19, 1917, the only child of India’s foremost political family. She was assassinated by her bodyguards at her home in New Delhi on October 31, 1984. Her grandfather Motilal Nehru Nehru, Motilal was one of the earliest members of the Indian National Congress Indian National Congress (INC), and her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a key member of the INC and became the most illustrious political figure in the history of modern India. The INC (later referred to as the Congress Party in post-1947 Indian politics) served as the political forum from which Indian nationalists successfully pushed their campaign for independence from British rule. Throughout Gandhi’s formative years, her parents, particularly her father, spent significant time in jail for actively participating in the fight for independence. Women;politicians India;women’s rights[womens rights] Prime ministry, Indian [kw]Gandhi Serves as India’s First Female Prime Minister (Jan. 24, 1966) [kw]India’s First Female Prime Minister, Gandhi Serves as (Jan. 24, 1966)[Indias First Female Prime Minister, Gandhi Serves as] [kw]Female Prime Minister, Gandhi Serves as India’s First (Jan. 24, 1966) [kw]Prime Minister, Gandhi Serves as India’s First Female (Jan. 24, 1966) Women;politicians India;women’s rights[womens rights] Prime ministry, Indian [g]South Asia;Jan. 24, 1966: Gandhi Serves as India’s First Female Prime Minister[08800] [g]India;Jan. 24, 1966: Gandhi Serves as India’s First Female Prime Minister[08800] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 24, 1966: Gandhi Serves as India’s First Female Prime Minister[08800] [c]Women’s issues;Jan. 24, 1966: Gandhi Serves as India’s First Female Prime Minister[08800] Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Mahatma Nehru, Jawaharlal Shastri, Lal Bahadur

Despite these hardships, Gandhi was heavily influenced and inspired by her parent’s political struggle. From an early age, she was surrounded by political figures and became immersed in the struggle for independence. She participated in the civil disobedience movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi (no familial relation to Indira Gandhi), and delivered speeches promoting independence. Nehru wanted his daughter to receive a solid education. To that end, Gandhi studied in Switzerland and England, attending Somerville College in Oxford, England. However, during this period her health was often poor, she was frequently homesick, and she struggled in her studies, leaving her without a degree from Oxford. Her nationalism, though, continued to develop during this period, and in 1941 she returned to India and joined the Indian National Congress Party. In 1942, she was imprisoned by British authorities on charges of subversion.

On August 15, 1947, India gained its independence from the British. Indira’s father, Jawaharlal, soon became India’s first prime minister and leader of the Congress Party. Gandhi acted as Nehru’s host and confidant, until Nehru’s death in 1964. During this time, she honed her political skills and was elected president of the Congress Party in 1959. Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded Nehru as prime minister in June, 1964. Gandhi served as minister of information and broadcasting in Shastri’s cabinet and worked to build her own power base within the left wing of the party. Shastri died suddenly in early 1966, and within a few months Gandhi defeated a right-wing candidate to become head of the Congress Party and India’s first female prime minister.

In 1967, Gandhi won her first national election, but the joy was short-lived. Her opponents in the Congress Party chafed under her leadership, with some doubting her intellectual abilities. Others believed, with some reason, that she was steering the country toward the left. During the next few years, the Congress Party broke into two politicized factions.

Gandhi was tough, poised, and politically astute. She showed resilience to these attacks and survived the political infighting. She led her wing of the Congress Party to victory in the 1971 national elections largely on a wave of populism (her slogan was “Abolish Poverty”) that resonated with hundreds of millions of India’s poorest classes. Gandhi also put a distinctive stamp on the conduct of India’s foreign policy by aligning New Delhi more closely with Moscow.

Traditionally, India prided itself on being the leader of the Nonaligned Movement Nonaligned Movement Cold War;nonaligned nations . However, sour relations with China, Pakistan, and the United States led Gandhi to reconsider traditional foreign policy norms, illustrated by the signing of a “friendship treaty” between India and the Soviet Union in August, 1971. Also, India had defeated archrival Pakistan in a decisive war that led to the creation of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). The war left India ascendant on the subcontinent and helped Gandhi’s popularity soar; Pakistan and India signed a peace agreement on July 2, 1972, but the joy soon vanished.

Indira Gandhi.

(Library of Congress)

The standard of living for hundreds of millions of Indians declined, especially for the poorest, with whom Gandhi sought to identify politically. Government and private sector corruption was endemic, the monsoons failed and plunged much of the country into drought conditions, and severe famine broke out across rural India. Equally problematic was the impact these events, which would plague Gandhi during the next three years, had on the already weak economy. In May, 1974, in the middle of nationwide strikes, Gandhi approved a secret and successful nuclear test, and India joined the “nuclear club.” The nation rejoiced at this impressive technological feat, for a time, but soon massive labor strikes and accusations of corruption resurfaced. In June, 1975, Gandhi was found guilty of violating election laws in her 1971 campaign. The conviction was eventually overturned by the supreme court of India, but an increasingly paranoid Gandhi believed that the charges stemmed from a wide range of domestic and foreign enemies. In the face of calls for her resignation and of escalating riots, Gandhi convinced India’s president to declare a state of emergency on June 26, 1975.

The state of emergency severely limited political and press freedoms Civil liberties;India Human rights;India and led to the imprisonment of her political opponents and of journalists critical of her government. Political opponents believed that she was acting increasingly authoritarian, as she implemented a “voluntary” sterilization program, designed to curb India’s soaring population growth. Moreover, the sterilization program directly affected the poorest in India’s society. Gandhi believed “the emergency,” as it became known, was in the best interests of India. Between 1975 and 1977, nearly one thousand political opponents were imprisoned and tens of thousands of Indians sterilized, often forcibly. The emergency was lifted in March, 1977, and free elections were permitted.

Few Indians were willing to return Gandhi or her party to power, leading to the election of a coalition of right-wing and nationalist parties. It appeared as though Gandhi’s political career was over. Her political opponents, though, were often distracted, because they had focused on harassing her rather than on consolidating their own political power; by 1980, the minority government collapsed, and in the 1980 national election, Gandhi led the Congress Party to victory. A new set of problems awaited her.

In the Punjab, Sikh militants were agitating for an independent state. Gandhi refused to meet their demands, so the militants began to terrorize government officials and all who opposed their demands. By 1984, the militants had taken over the holy Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. In June, Gandhi ordered the army to storm the temple and drive out the militants. This operation, called Operation Blue Star, was a fiasco and resulted in a significant number of casualties on both sides. Also, the Golden Temple was heavily damaged. This failed operation would come to haunt Gandhi. On October 31, Gandhi was assassinated at her home in New Delhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards, who had sought to avenge the storming of the Golden Temple. Gandhi’s son Rajiv succeeded her, keeping the famous political dynasty alive.


Gandhi’s legacy remains a contentious issue. Gandhi appeared empathetic to the poor, and the masses still tend to revere her. Many academics and businesspersons, however, recall her years with distaste. Despite her doubters, she proved that a woman could govern an unwieldy, politically divided, and sectarian nation, but she also undermined Indian democracy with her authoritarianism, which centralized political power within a small cabal of officials and family members. More important is the impact of her declared “emergency” on Indian society, an era that remains a black mark on the history of modern democratic India.

More so than her predecessors, though, Gandhi possessed an iron resolve when it came to national security and was willing to use force to secure India’s national security. Her decision to construct and test a nuclear bomb inflated national pride and acted as a caution to Pakistan and China, both of which had fought recent wars with India. The bomb also illustrates the extent of India’s scientific and technological development under her leadership. As famine and drought remained staggering problems, Gandhi pushed ahead with the reforms of the Green Revolution adopted by Nehru and Shastri. India gradually became self-sufficient in agricultural production rather than having to turn to the West for food aid.

Gandhi’s populist politics would not be subdued, however, illustrating her unwillingness to reform an economy bloated by corrupt practices and a Byzantine bureaucracy. It would be up to Gandhi’s son Rajiv and his successors to modernize this aspect of India’s society. Many Indians, however, revered her as a great stateswoman. Women;politicians India;women’s rights[womens rights] Prime ministry, Indian

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Judith M. Nehru: A Political Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A comprehensive biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, based on declassified archival sources. Provides a splendid study not only of the founding of the Nehru dynasty but also of the development of modern India.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dhar, P. N. Indira Gandhi, the “Emergency,” and Indian Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A memoir by one of Gandhi’s closest political advisers that provides an insightful account of the inner workings of Gandhi’s government. Has a strong focus on the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 and Gandhi’s declared state of emergency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dixit, J. N. Across Borders: Fifty Years of India’s Foreign Policy. New Delhi, India: Picus Books, 1998. One of the best studies of Indian foreign policy. Provides a detailed, if not overly sympathetic, assessment of Gandhi’s foreign policy by one of her officials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frank, Katherine. Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. A sympathetic biographical study of Indira Gandhi. A comprehensive study of her life inside and outside politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Vincent A. The Oxford History of India, edited by Percival Spear. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. A concise and comprehensive history of India, especially notable for its discussions of the development of customs, religions, the rise of Muslim power, and dynasties that predate British rule and independence. Chronological tables, maps, photographs.

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Categories: History