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The Rise of Indira Gandhi

Nehru's long tenure in office gave continuity and cohesion to India's domestic and foreign policies, but as his health deteriorated, concerns over who might inherit his mantle or what might befall India after he left office frequently surfaced in political circles. After his death, the Congress Caucus, also known as the Syndicate, chose Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister in June 1964. A mild-mannered person, Shastri adhered to Gandhian principles of simplicity of life and dedication to the service of the country. His short period of leadership was beset with three major crises: widespread food shortages, violent anti-Hindi demonstrations in the state of Madras (as Tamil Nadu was then called) that were quelled by the army, and the second war with Pakistan over Kashmir. Shastri's premiership was cut short when he died of a heart attack on January 11, 1966, the day after having signed the Soviet-brokered Tashkent Declaration. The agreement required both sides to withdraw all armed personnel by February 26, 1966, to the positions they had held prior to August 5, 1965, and to observe the cease-fire line.

Indira Gandhi held a cabinet portfolio as minister of information and broadcasting in Shastri's government. She was the only child of Nehru, who was also her mentor in the nationalist movement. The Syndicate selected her as prime minister when Shastri died in 1966 even though her eligibility was challenged by Morarji Desai, a veteran nationalist and long-time aspirant to that office. The Congress "bosses" were apparently looking for a leading figure acceptable to the masses, who could command general support during the next general election but who would also acquiesce to their guidance. Hardly had Indira Gandhi begun in office than she encountered a series of problems that defied easy solutions: Mizo tribal uprisings in the northeast; famine, labor unrest, and misery among the poor in the wake of rupee devaluation; and agitation in Punjab for linguistic and religious separatism.

In the fourth general election in February 1967, the Congress majority was greatly reduced when it secured only 54 percent of the parliamentary seats, and non-Congress ministries were established in Bihar, Kerala, Orissa, Madras, Punjab, and West Bengal the next month. A Congress-led coalition government collapsed in Uttar Pradesh, while in April Rajasthan was brought under President's Rule--direct central government rule (see The Executive, ch. 8). Seeking to eradicate poverty, Mrs. Gandhi pursued a vigorous policy in 1969 of land reform and placed a ceiling on personal income, private property, and corporate profits. She also nationalized the major banks, a bold step amidst a growing rift between herself and the party elders. The Congress expelled her for "indiscipline" on November 12, 1969, an action that split the party into two factions: the Congress (O)--for Organisation--under Desai, and the Congress (R)--for Requisition--under Gandhi. She continued as prime minister with support from communists, Sikhs, and regional parties.

Gandhi campaigned fiercely on the platform "eliminate poverty" (garibi hatao ) during the fifth general election in March 1971, and the Congress (R) gained a large majority in Parliament against her former party leaders whose slogan was "eliminate Indira" (Indira hatao ). India's decisive victory over Pakistan in the third war over Kashmir in December 1971, and Gandhi's insistence that the 10 million refugees from Bangladesh be sent back to their country generated a national surge in her popularity, later confirmed by her party's gains in state elections in 1972. She had firmly established herself at the pinnacle of power, overcoming challenges from the Congress (O), the Supreme Court, and the state chief ministers in the early 1970s. The more solidified her monopoly of power became, the more egregious was her intolerance of criticisms, even when they were deserved. As head of her party and the government, Gandhi nominated and removed the chief ministers at will and frequently reshuffled the portfolios of her own cabinet members. Ignoring their obligations to their constituencies, party members competed with each other in parading their loyalty to Gandhi, whose personal approval alone seemed crucial to their survival. In August 1971, Gandhi signed the twenty-year Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation with the Soviet Union because ties with the United States, which had improved in Nehru's later years, had eroded (see Russia, ch. 9).

Neither Gandhi's consolidation of power, nor her imperious style of administration, nor even her rhetoric of radical reforms was enough to meet the deepening economic crisis spawned by the enormous cost of the 1971 war. A huge additional outlay was needed to manage the refugees, the crop failures in 1972 and 1973, the skyrocketing world oil prices in 1973-74, and the overall drop in industrial output despite a surplus of scientifically and technically trained personnel. No immediate sign of economic recovery or equity was visible despite a loan obtained from the International Monetary Fund (IMF--see Glossary) in 1974. Both Gandhi's office and character came under severe tests, beginning with railroad employee strikes, national civil disobedience advocated by J.P. Narayan, defeat of her party in Gujarat by a coalition of parties calling itself the Janata Morcha (People's Front), an all-party, no-confidence motion in Parliament, and, finally, a writ issued by the Allahabad High Court invalidating her 1971 election and making her ineligible to occupy her seat for six years.

What had once seemed a remote possibility took place on June 25, 1975: the president declared an Emergency and the government suspended civil rights. Because the nation's president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974-77), and Gandhi's own party members in Parliament were amenable to her personal influence, Gandhi had little trouble in pushing through amendments to the constitution that exonerated her from any culpability, declaring President's Rule in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu where anti-Indira parties ruled, and jailing thousands of her opponents. In her need to trust and confide in someone during this extremely trying period, she turned to her younger son, Sanjay, who became an enthusiastic advocate of the Emergency. Under his watchful eyes, forced sterilization as a means of birth control was imposed on the poor, increased numbers of urban squatters and slum dwellers in Delhi were evicted in the name of beautification projects, and disgruntled workers were either disciplined or their wages frozen. The Reign of Terror, as some called it, continued until January 18, 1977, when Gandhi suddenly relaxed the Emergency, announced the next general election in March, and released her opponents from prison.

With elections only two months away, both J.P. Narayan and Morarji Desai reactivated the multiparty front, which campaigned as the Janata Party and rode anti-Emergency sentiment to secure a clear majority in the Lok Sabha (House of the People), the lower house of Parliament (see The Legislature, ch. 8). Desai, a conservative Brahman, became India's fourth prime minister (1977-79), but his government, from its inception, became notorious for its factionalism and furious internal competition. As it promised, the Janata government restored freedom and democracy, but its inability to effect sound reforms or ameliorate poverty left people disillusioned. Desai lost the support of Janata's left-wing parties by the early summer of 1979, and several secular and liberal politicians abandoned him altogether, leaving him without a parliamentary majority. A no-confidence motion was about to be introduced in Parliament in July 1979, but he resigned his office; Desai's government was replaced by a coalition led by Chaudhury Charan Singh (prime minister in 1979-80). Although Singh's life-long ambition had been to become prime minister, his age and inefficiency were used against him, and his attempts at governing India proved futile; new elections were announced in January 1980.

Gandhi and her party, renamed Congress (I)--I for Indira--campaigned on the slogan "Elect a Government That Works!" and regained power. Sanjay Gandhi was elected to the Lok Sabha. Unlike during the Emergency, when India registered significant economic and industrial progress, Gandhi's return to power was hindered by a series of woes and tragedies, beginning with Sanjay's death in June 1980 while attempting to perform stunts in his private airplane. Secessionist forces in Punjab and in the northeast and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979 consumed her energy. She began to involve the armed forces in resolving violent domestic conflicts between 1980 and 1984. In May 1984, Sikh extremists occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar, converting it into a haven for terrorists. Gandhi responded in early June when she launched Operation Bluestar, which killed and wounded hundreds of soldiers, insurgents, and civilians (see Insurgent Movements and External Subversion, ch. 10). Guarding against further challenges to her power, she removed the chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh just months before her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. The news of Indira Gandhi's assassination plunged New Delhi and other parts of India into anti-Sikh riots for three days; several thousand Sikhs were killed.

Rajiv Gandhi

When Rajiv Gandhi, Indira's eldest son, reluctantly consented to run for his brother's vacant Lok Sabha seat in 1980, and when he later took over the leadership of the Congress youth wing, becoming prime minister was the last thing on his mind; equally, his mother had her own misgivings about whether Rajiv would bravely "take the brutalities and the ruthlessness of politics." Yet on the day Indira was assassinated, Rajiv was sworn in as prime minister at the age of forty. He brought into politics energy, enthusiasm, and vision--qualities badly needed to lead the divided country. Moreover, his looks, personal charm, and reputation as "Mr. Clean" were assets that won him many friends in India and abroad, especially in the United States. Rajiv also had a clear mandate to rule the country with an overwhelming majority in Parliament.

Rajiv seemed to have understood the magnitude of the most critical and urgent problems that faced the nation when he assumed office. As Paul H. Kreisberg, a former United States foreign service officer, put it, Rajiv was faced with an unenviable four-pronged challenge: resolving political and religious violence in Punjab and the northeast; reforming the demoralized Congress (I), which was often identified with the interests of the upper and upper-middle classes; reenergizing the sagging economy in terms of productivity and budget control; and reducing tensions with neighbors, especially Pakistan and Sri Lanka. As Rajiv tackled these issues with singular determination, there was optimism and hope about the future of India. Between 1985 and 1987, temporary calm was restored by accommodating demands for regional control in the northeast and by granting more concessions to Punjab. Although Rajiv acknowledged the gradual attrition of the Congress, he was unwilling to relinquish control of the leadership, tolerate "cliques," or conduct new elections for offices at the state and district levels.

Economic reforms and incentives to private investors were introduced by easing government tax rates and licensing requirements, but officials manipulated the rules and frequently accepted bribes. These innovative measures also came under attack from business leaders, who for many years had controlled both markets and prices with little regard for quality. When the Ministry of Finance began its own investigation of tax and foreign-exchange evasion amounting to millions of dollars, many of India's leading families, including Rajiv's political allies, were found culpable. Despite these hindrances, Rajiv's fascination with electronics and telecommunications resulted in revamping the antiquated telephone systems to meet public demands. Collaboration with the United States and several European governments and corporations brought more investment in research in electronics and computer software.

India's perennial, see-sawing tensions with Pakistan, whose potential nuclear-weapons capacity escalated concerns in the region, were ameliorated when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC--see Glossary) was inaugurated in December 1985. Both nations signed an agreement in 1986 promising that neither would launch a first strike at the other's nuclear facilities. However, sporadic conflicts persist along the cease-fire line in Kashmir (see South Asia, ch. 9).

Relations with Sri Lanka degenerated because of unresolved Sinhalese-Tamil controversies and continued guerrilla warfare by Tamil militants, under the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who had bases in Tamil Nadu. Beginning in 1987, India's attempt to disarm and subdue the Tigers through intervention of the Indian Peace Keeping Force proved disastrous as thousands of Indian soldiers and Tamil militants were killed or wounded (see Peacekeeping Operations, ch. 10).

Rajiv Gandhi's performance in the middle of his term in office was best summed up, as Kreisberg put it, as "good intentions, some progress, frequently weak implementation, and poor politics." Two major scandals, the "Spy" and the "Bofors" affairs, tarnished his reputation. In January 1985, Gandhi confirmed in Parliament the involvement of top government officials, their assistants, and businessmen in "a wide-ranging espionage network." The ring reportedly infiltrated the prime minister's office as early as 1982 when Indira was in power and sold defense and economic intelligence to foreign diplomats at the embassies of France, Poland and other East European countries, and the Soviet Union. Although more than twenty-four arrests were made and the diplomats involved were expelled, the Spy scandal remained a lingering embarrassment to Rajiv's administration.

In 1986 India purchased US$1.3 billion worth of artillery pieces from the Swedish manufacturer A.B. Bofors, and months later a Swedish radio report remarked that Bofors had won the "biggest" export order by bribing Indian politicians and defense personnel. The revelation caught the nation's attention immediately because of the allegations that somehow Rajiv Gandhi and his friends were connected with the deal. When Vishwanath Pratap (V.P.) Singh, as minister of defence, investigated the alleged kickbacks, he was forced to resign, and he became Rajiv's Janata political rival. Despite relentless attacks and criticisms in the media as well as protests and resignations from cabinet members, Rajiv adamantly denied any role in the affair. But when he called parliamentary elections in November 1989, two months ahead of schedule, the opposition alliance, the National Front, vigorously campaigned on "removing corruption and restoring the dignity of national institutions," as did another opposition party, Janata Dal. Rajiv and his party won more seats in the election than any other party, but, being unable to form a government with a clear majority or a mandate, he resigned on November 29. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Sri Lankan terrorists on May 21, 1991, near Madras. The Gandhi era, as future events would prove, was over, at least for the near term (see Political Parties, ch. 8).

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The literature on Indian history in the English language alone is exhaustive as demonstrated in South Asian Civilizations: A Bibliographic Synthesis by Maureen L.P. Patterson. The most commonly used text is the two-volume A History of India by Romila Thapar (volume 1) and Percival Spear (volume 2). Monographs, such as Stanley Wolpert's A New History of India and Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund's A History of India , cover major epochs.

Critical works by Gregory L. Possehl (The Harappan Civilization ), A.L. Basham (The Wonder That Was India ), Kallidaikurchi Aiyah Nilakanta Sastri (History of South India from Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar ), and Burton Stein (Peasant, State, and Society in Medieval South India ) offer valuable insights as well as theoretical foundations for understanding India prior to Mughal rule. Essays in The Cambridge Economic History of India , edited by Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib, provide a full account of life in India from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries. The Mughal Empire , by John Richards, a volume in The New Cambridge History of India , reflects the current discussion on the dynamic nature and quality of the rulers; Irfan Habib's An Atlas of Mughal Empire and The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556-1707 focus on the administrative and economic aspects of the empire. Bamber Gascoigne's The Great Mughals has photographs along with texts from original sources.

Several scholars have written about British activities from the mid-eighteenth century to independence and have incorporated new data garnered from various state archives and family histories as well as vernacular sources; their works reflect a deviation from the conventional approach of focusing on governor-generals or viceroys. They include C.A. Bayly's Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars , Robin Jeffrey's People, Princes, and Paramount Power , Judith M. Brown's Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy , and Sumit Sarkar's Modern India, 1885-1947 .

The nationalist movement also has generated numerous histories, both authoritative and controversial. Anil Seal's The Emergence of Indian Nationalism was followed by a group representing the "Cambridge School" whose critical examination of the background of personalities and the issues that dominated Indian politics has spawned much discussion. The literature on Mahatma Gandhi has increased over the decades. His An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth is a leading source for the first half of his life, while Joan V. Bondurant's The Conquest of Violence and Erick H. Erikson's Gandhi's Truth offer probing insights into his strategies and personality.

Postindependence India has been portrayed variously depending on the writer's ideology, use of sources, and analysis. Sarvepalli Gopal's Jawaharlal Nehru and Zaheer Masani's Indira Gandhi provide lucid accounts of the period from the perspectives of the prime ministers. Scathing criticism from the view of the common man is found in Dilip Hiro's Inside India Today and Arun Shourie's Symptoms of Fascism . Pupul Jayakar's Indira Gandhi: A Biography presents a balanced view. Although a critical biography on Rajiv Gandhi has yet to appear, a number of works, such as Rajiv Gandhi: Life and Message by Arun Bhattacharjee and Rajiv Gandhi and Parliament edited by C.K. Jain, provide valuable insights. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of September 1995

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