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Indira Gandhi:
Delicate doll, Durga or despot?
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Daughter of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the country's first and only woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi had different shades like any other politician.

But unlike others, she will be known in the history of independent India for a particular reason- Emergency.

All her political opponents were imprisoned and freedom of the press was curbed.

This happened for the first and only time since India gained independence from British occupation in 1947.

As a father, during the freedom struggle, Nehru wrote letters from prison giving Indira lessons on liberty and democracy. These letters are still taught in schools. But Indira's biographer Katherine Frank says she read those letters decades later only when they were published in the form of a book.

First elected to Parliament after the death of her father Nehru, she was a compromise candidate for the post of prime minister after the sudden demise of the then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1967.

The Congress stalwarts called her 'delicate doll' who could easily be manipulated. They were wrong. Indira not only brought them to their knees, but sidelined everyone who got in her way.

She took charge over the country when it was going through severe economic crises and her own party was ridden with internal strife.

In 1971, she won 352 of the 518 Lok Sabha seats, and gloriously fought and won the Bangladesh war.

That was the pinnacle of her power and glory. She was called Durga and the incarnation of Shakti or female energy.

Next year, she won state elections in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Orissa. Her Garibi Hatao (Eradicate Poverty) slogan became a super hit. She started the process of the nationalisation of banks.

But after 1972, her popularity started decreasing due to mass poverty and corruption.

By 1974, there was severe turmoil across India, especially in Gujarat and Bihar. Stone pelting, bus burning and strikes became the order of the day.

India went on to test its nuclear bomb in 1974, but as historian Bipan Chandra says, it did not enthuse many.

By 1974, there was a strong movement to unseat her from power. Students' movement in Gujarat forced her to dissolve the Congress government in the state. Students protesting in Bihar later made it a mass movement across north India.

It was led by Jayaprakash Narayan and was thus called the JP Movement or Total Revolution. The strength of the movement lay in disillusioned university students.

Narayan blamed Indira for corruption, despotism and nepotism.

On June 12, 1975, Justice Jagmohan Sinha of the Allahabad high court passed an order declaring her election to Parliament in 1971 as invalid and banned her from contesting polls for six years.

This was when Indira finally decided to impose Emergency and stay in power by 'hook or crook' till the Supreme Court cleared her of all allegations.

While Narayan argued that her continuance in office was 'incompatible with democracy', Indira defended the Emergency, saying: "In the name of democracy, it has been sought to negate the very functioning of democracy."

The period of Emergency, as some would say, was ruthless. Even the scion of the Nehru dynasty and her grandson, Rahul Gandhi, did say that 'excess' did happen. Indian democracy had completely collapsed. Her son Sanjay had made the country his fiefdom.

The apex court later nullified the Allahabad high court judgment giving her some moral courage.

For reasons best known to her, Indira announced her candidature for the general elections on January 18, 1977. Elections were held in March and Indira was defeated, leading to the formation of the first non-Congress government led by former Congress leader Morarji Desai.

Strong opponent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief K S Sudarshan recently praised Indira as a prime minister of courage and determination.

Also See: India's brush with dictatorship

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