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Tue. Dec 6th, 2022
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NEW DELHI: Indira Gandhi was elected as third prime minister of India in 1966 and was also the first and to date the only female prime minister of India. Born on November 19, 1917, she served as the prime minister from January 1966 to March 1977 and again from January 1980 until her assassination in October 1984, making her the second longest-serving Indian prime minister after her father.
She had a long and eventful stint as India’s prime minister. Her tenure had several long-lasting effects on India’s socio-political institutions and governance, both positive and negative. Any attempt at a dispassionate analysis of Gandhi’s legacy is immensely difficult given the polarizing figure that she was.
The highs of the 1971 military victory over Pakistan have to be reconciled with the lows of the Emergency. Her various other moves like bank nationalisation and Operation Blue Star continue to evoke strong views.
Triumphs
Abolition of privy purses
In India, a privy purse was a payment made to the ruling families of erstwhile princely states as part of their agreements to first integrate with India in 1947 after the independence of India, and later to merge their states in 1949, thereby ending their ruling rights.
A motion to abolish the privy purses, and the official recognition of the titles, was originally brought before the Parliament in 1970 and passed in the Lok Sabha, but failed by one vote to reach the required two-third majority in the Rajya Sabha, with 149 voting for and 75 against.
It was again proposed before the Parliament in 1971, and was successfully passed as the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India in 1971. The then PM Gandhi argued for the abolition was for ensuring equal rights to all citizens and the need to reduce the government’s revenue deficit.
Economic development
As a PM, Indira carried forward the Nehru legacy in economic planning. Like Nehru, she was committed to achieving self-reliance in crucial sectors like food grains, defence and technology. Through the measures pursued by her, the Indian economy was insulated from adverse international issues such as the oil crisis. She also worked towards bringing down inflation to a reasonably low level, both in the mid-seventies and the early eighties.
Nationalisation of banks
The Government of India under the leadership of Gandhi nationalised 14 large commercial banks with effect from the midnight of July 19, 1969. This was a major economic milestone.
The nationalisation of banks led to credit being channelised to agriculture and small and medium industries. Banks had to reserve as much as forty per cent of credit to the priority sectors (agriculture and small and medium industries).
The nationalisation drive not only helped increase household savings, but also provided considerable investments in the informal sector, in small and medium-sized enterprises and in agriculture. It contributed significantly to regional development and to the expansion of India’s industrial and agricultural base.
1971 war against Pakistan
Gandhi’s biggest achievement following the 1971 election came in December 1971 with India’s decisive victory over Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistan War that occurred in the last two weeks of the Bangladesh Liberation War, which led to the formation of independent Bangladesh. She was said to be hailed as Goddess Durga by opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the time.
Failures
Indira Gandhi made two controversial decisions — declaring the Emergency in 1975 and allowing Operation Blue Star to happen.
Imposition of emergency
The imposition of Emergency was an example of Gandhi centralizing power in her hands when faced with crisis on multiple fronts. While her garibi hatao plan was never going to work, the economic situation worsened due to another monsoon failure in 1972, followed by the rise in oil prices a year later owing to the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War. Inflation spiraled out of control and a number of protests culminated in what we know as the JP movement (led by socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan).
Then, on June 12, 1975, the courts declared Indira’s election to the Lok Sabha void on grounds of electoral malpractices. In danger of having to step down as Prime Minister, Indira responded by imposing a state of Emergency and arresting all her political rivals.
All the leaders in the Opposition, including veterans like Morarji Desai, Jai Prakash Narayan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani, Charan Singh, George Fernandes, and even dissident Congress leaders like Chandra Shekhar were put behind bars. Strict censorship was imposed, and electric supply to newspaper offices was cut off.
Many of the top journalists were arrested. A reign of terror and suppression followed with a view to curb any dissent. Organizations such as RSS, Anand Marg, etc were banned.
Mass forced sterilization
During the Emergency, Gandhi’s son Sanjay and his Youth Congress goons ran amuck, particularly in enforcing family planning; at times young married men were forcibly vasectomized, thereby violating their basic rights.
1966 anti-cow slaughter agitation
On November 7, 1966, Gau Raksha Samiti headed by Karpatri Maharaj marched towards Delhi with thousands of cows & saints with an age-old demand of banning cow slaughter in India.
Indira’s government opened fire on peaceful protesters sitting outside the Parliament. A large number of sadhus were attacked by the Delhi Police at the behest of Indira. As per official report 250 saints died but unofficial figures claim 5,000 sadhus lost their life.
Ineffective ‘garibi hatao’ campaign
Four decades ago Indira Gandhi coined her famous slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ and yet the Congress did precious little to target programmes to deliver this mandate. In fact, statistics show that in areas of education, sanitation, health care, skill training and family planning, which include mother and child welfare – nothing substantial was done.
Indira’s slogan was followed by slew of welfare measures but none have come close to addressing the real problem, which is teaching the rural and urban poor skills that will enable them to lift themselves out of poverty.
Operation Blue Star
Operation Blue Star was a horrendous debacle. Troops were sent to the Golden Temple to kill Khalistani terrorist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Somewhere between 300-700 troops and over half the special forces commandos had been killed. The number of civilian deaths is estimated to be well over a thousand.
Besides the human loss, the Golden Temple library – which contained hand-written manuscripts by the Sikh Gurus – went up in flames; three hundred bullet holes riddled the Harmandir Sahib and the Akal Takht was severely damaged.

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