Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Indira Gandhi

Episode Summary

Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) was the first female prime minister of independent India.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by HelloFresh. Go to hellofresh.com/encyclopedia10, and use code encyclopedia10 during HelloFresh’s New Year’s sale for 10 free meals including free shipping.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I'm Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Our leader today  has a complicated political history. She was at times both highly popular and extremely unpopular. She imprisoned others and spent time in jail herself. It took her years to come to power, and her long political reign came to a sudden, bloody end. We’re talking about the first female prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi.

Indira Nehru was born on November 19, 1917, in Prayagraj, India. She was an only child and was steeped in politics from an early age. Her father was a key player in India’s fight for independence from Britain and his association with that struggle meant he spent years in jail during Indira’s childhood. Indira’s grandfather, also a pioneer of the independence movement, was closely associated with Mahatma Gandhi himself.

Indira’s mother passed away in the mid 1930’s. Indira subsequently spent more time with her father, becoming further entrenched in the world of politics. She helped to host events for her father and traveled with him. 

Indira attended both Visva-Bharati University and the University of Oxford. She joined the same political party as her father, known as the Congress Party, in 1938.

In 1942, Indira married Feroze Gandhi, another member of the Congress Party. Indira and Feroze’s relationship caused significant controversy. First, their marriage wasn’t arranged, which was unusual at the time. On top of that, Indira was Hindu and Feroze was Parsi, making them a rare mixed-religion marriage. Mahatma Gandhi, who was of no relation to Feroze, had to step in and offer a statement of support to quell the public outcry.

Indira and Feroze had two children, named Sanjay and Rajiv. Despite overcoming significant challenges early in their relationship, their marriage was not a happy one. Indira spent most of it estranged from her husband until his death in 1960.

When India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, Indira’s father became the country’s first prime minister with the powerful Congress Party. Indira began working for the party’s committee in 1955. From there, she continued to climb the political ranks. In 1959, she was elected to be party president, and in 1964, she became a member of the upper chamber of parliament. 

The prime minister who succeeded Indira’s father appointed Indira to be minister of information and broadcasting. When he passed away suddenly in 1966, Indira was chosen to replace him. With that, Indira became the first female prime minister of independent India.

Indira faced a lot of opposition from the opposing right wing party, which was under the leadership of Morarji Desai. Desai’s party soon won enough seats in lower parliament for him become deputy prime minister. They  then expelled Indira from office.

But Indira wasn’t finished  with politics. She gathered members from her political party to form the “New Congress” party, which won the 1971 elections by a wide margin. With that victory, Indira claimed the prime minister seat once again.

During this period, Indira supported modern-day Bangladesh through its 1971 secession from Pakistan, and became the first leader to publicly recognize the new country. This led to a boom of support in India that helped her party win many more local elections.

But a few years after her second victory a political opponent claimed that Indira had broken the law in order to win the 1971 election. The case went all the way to the High Court of Allahabad, which ruled against her. Though she tried to appeal the decision, the sentence was upheld; she was barred from participating  in Indian politics for six years.

Indira believed the ruling was unjust and took drastic measures to fight it. She declared a state of emergency, imprisoned her opponents, and began enacting restrictive laws. This even included large-scale sterilization as a way to reduce population growth.

The public strongly opposed Indira's two years of strict emergency rule government. In the 1977 elections, the New Congress party was immediately voted out of power.

Indira was arrested and thrown in prison for breach of privilege and contempt of the Indian Parliament, triggering protests across the country. She was released after just a week. From there, she started gathering more political strength and developed yet another new political party, called the Congress (I) Party. The “I” signified Indira. In 1978, she won another seat in lower parliament, and two years later her party won a landslide election victory that swept Indira  into power once again. The legal cases against her were dropped.

Indira’s son Sanjay also won a lower parliament seat. Indira was preparing to position him as her successor -- before Sanjay died in an airplane crash in 1980. Indira turned to her second son, Rajiv, and helped politically position him to succeed her instead.

In the 1980’s, India faced conflict from a violent Sikh separatist movement. In 1982, a large group of the insurgents occupied the holiest Sikh shrine at Amritsar, a large city in Northwest India. Two years later, tensions came to a head when Indira ordered the army to attack the complex, killing hundreds of Sikhs and damaging some of the buildings in the process.

Five months later, Indira was in her garden in New Delhi with two of her guards when they shot and killed her. It was revenge for the attack she ordered. Indira was 66 years old.

Though her own political story ended there, her son Rajib succeeded her as prime minister and served until 1989.

As always, we’ll be taking a break for the weekend. Tune in Monday to hear the story of  another one of a kind leader.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by HelloFresh. It’s hard to be a good leader if you’re not well fed -- whether you’re leading a country, company, household, or just your own life. That’s why my New Year’s Resolution is to cook more. In the past, I probably would have given up on this resolution by the end of this month. But with HelloFresh, I’m confident I’ll keep cooking all year. HelloFresh saves time and cuts out the stress associated with finding recipes, grocery shopping and meal prep. Pre-portioned ingredients mean there’s less food waste and the recipes are legitimately delicious. There are food options for everyone, regardless of dietary restrictions. HelloFresh now starts at just $5.66 per serving. Go to hellofresh.com/encyclopedia10, that’s hellofresh.com/Encyclopedia 1-0 and use code encyclopedia10 during HelloFresh’s New Year’s sale for 10 free meals including free shipping.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you on Monday!