Thursday, April 16, 2009

India 5: Indira

My last post on the politics of India ended with Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, becoming prime minister in 1966. The notion of a "Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty" was born at that point. She served in that office, on and off, until her assassination in 1984.

My discussion of Indira Gandhi will focus on three sets of events during her tenure:

  1. War with Pakistan in 1971, and the creation of Bangladesh.

  2. Suspension of democracy in 1975, and her party's first electoral defeat, when elections were resumed in 1977.

  3. Assassination.

I wrote here about the violence that accompanied the 1947 partition of British India into two independent states, a largely-Hindu India, and a largely-Muslim Pakistan. That violence did not end with the implementation of the partition. It continues to this day, and has at times erupted into full-scale war.

Pakistan, as it emerged from the partition, consisted of two separate chunks of territory, more than 1000 miles apart. By 1971, civil war had erupted between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. India backed the independence aspirations of East Pakistan, which soon succeeded under the name of Bangladesh. In December of that year, India went to war against Pakistan, in order to support that cause. Pakistan surrendered after a brief struggle, and Bangladesh secured its independence.

In 1975, Gandhi was convicted of having violated election laws during the general election campaign of 1971. That disqualified her from holding office, but she refused to resign. In response to widespread protest, she declared a state of emergency. India temporarily lost its title of "world's largest democracy", during that period when democratic political processes were suspended. (The United States held that title from 1975 to 1977.)

The guilty verdict against her was the direct cause of the trouble. But there seem to have also been other causes underlying the sharp anti-Gandhi reaction. Various web-based sources cite: 1) economic problems; 2) the increasing influence of Indira's younger son, Sanjay; and 3) a coercive family planning program, intended to rein in India's population explosion.

In 1977, Indira Gandhi restored democracy and scheduled a general election. Before that election, Gandhi's Congress Party had never failed to win an overall majority in the lower house of parliament. But, by 1977, Congress was split, and her opponents were more united than ever.

Various opposition groups banded together in a new party called Janata, which won a parliamentary majority. Morarji Desai, who had formerly been a rival to Gandhi within the Indian National Congress, became prime minister.

But opposition to Gandhi was not enough to hold the new coalition together. At the next general election, in 1980, Gandhi's faction of Congress regained a majority in the lower house, and she once again became prime minister.

In that same year, her son Sanjay was killed in a plane crash. Her desire to maintain the family dynasty caused her to persuade her older son Rajiv, a reluctant politician who had established a career as an airline pilot, to become the heir apparent.

A major domestic issue during her second tenure as prime minister involved a secessionist movement by the Sikhs in the Indian state of Punjab. Gandhi cracked down on that movement and, in retaliation, Sikhs among her own bodyguards assassinated her on October 31, 1984.

Next: Rajiv Gandhi carries on the dynasty.

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