1970s: The Rise And Fall of Indira Gandhi

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The 1970s saw the best of Indira Gandhi and also her worst. During this time, when she was Prime Minister, Indira attained near-cult status and even became synonymous with the country. She also emerged as a virtual dictator, when she declared a state of Emergency.

The decade began with Indira winning a massive majority in the 1971 mid-term elections following a split in the Congress in November 1969. She was riding the wave of her ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan.

Indira Gandhi | Wikimedia Commons
Indira Gandhi | Wikimedia Commons

This was followed by the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. With Indira as Prime Minister, India won the war against Pakistan, leading to the birth of Bangladesh. Indira was hailed as Durga for this achievement.

Bangladeshi refugees | Wikimedia Commons
Bangladeshi refugees | Wikimedia Commons

But her fall from grace was about to begin. India was struggling to feed 10 million refugees after the Bangladesh War. This was followed by droughts that led to food shortages, a steep price rise, unemployment, rampant corruption, and spiraling fuel prices.

Jai Prakash Narayan | Wikimedia Commons
Jai Prakash Narayan | Wikimedia Commons

The economic crisis had led to students’ movements in Gujarat and Bihar, which brought veteran socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan back from retirement. As his anti-Indira movement gathered steam, ‘JP’ demanded Indira’s resignation. She was on a slippery slope.

In 1974, Indira conducted India’s first nuclear test, making India only the sixth country in the world to test a nuclear device. But the prestige of becoming a nuclear power didn’t help Indira politically.

Then, on 12th June 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.

Sanjay Gandhi | Wikimedia Commons
Sanjay Gandhi | Wikimedia Commons

During the 21-month-long Emergency, Indira acted almost as a dictator, and her son Sanjay too emerged as a law unto himself. He was responsible for brutal practices such as forced sterilization across India, among other excesses.

In March 1977, Indira lifted the Emergency and called for elections. But the Congress suffered its worst defeat. The Janata Party was now in charge and it launched a witch hunt against Indira. It even got her arrested on charges that didn’t stick.

In November 1978, Indira won a by-election and a Lok Sabha seat. In July 1979, the Janata Party, riddled with internal bickering and instability, finally fell. In the mid-term poll that followed, Indira Gandhi was voted back to power.

If the 1960s had seen Indira Gandhi transform from a political underdog into a leader who made her mark, the 1970s saw her become larger than life. Through her rise and fall, and rise again, Indira was the lord of all she surveyed.

Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons

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