Today In History: Indira Gandhi Becomes Indian Prime Minister

Today In History |

January 19, 1966

Today in history, Indira Gandhi became the head of the Congress Party, and consequently the Prime Minister of India, following the death of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Gandhi, unrelated to Mohandas Gandhi, was India's first female head of state. She was assassinated in 1984 after an extremely controversial administration.

She was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first ever PM of the post-colonial Republic of India. In 1955, Gandhi was elected to the Congress Party's executive body and thus entered into her career as an elected political official. She became the party's president in 1959 and was then appointed to Lal Bahadur Shastri's administration in 1964.

In the 1967 election, she won with such a narrow margin that she was forced to preside with a deputy prime minister.

She won a reelection in 1971 by a much broader margin. She was then India's sole PM. Shortly thereafter, she ordered the Indian invasion of Pakistan in order to create the state of Bangladesh. It was a popular move, which won her New Congress Party landslide victories in the 1972 national elections.

In the ensuing years, India suffered from food shortages, violent disputes and rampant inflation. Her administration got a reputation for harsh solutions to these problems. Gandhi also faced a challenge from the Socialist Party, which accused her of winning the 1971 election through fraud. The charge precipitated a huge national scandal that eventually led the High Court in Allahabad to convict her of a relatively minor election infraction. The punishment was a complete ban from politics for a period of six years.

Gandhi announced a state of nationwide emergency. She threw thousands of her political rivals in prison and significantly rolled back civil liberties. Among the many draconian measures she implemented was forced sterilization of Indians in an attempt to curb population growth.

Postponed national elections were finally held in 1977 and Gandhi, along with the Congress Party, were shown the door. The Congress Party splintered the next year, with Gandhi and her supporters forming the Congress (I) Party. "I" stood for "Indira."

In 1978, Gandhi was imprisoned, though briefly, for corruption. When the Janata Party, which had ascended over the Congress Party in 1977, disintegrated. The Congress (I) Party reclaimed control over Indian politics in a landslide victory in the 1980 elections. Gandhi was, again, the prime minister.

The early years of the 1980's saw many regional states attempting to win autonomy from New Delhi. A secessionist Sikh movement in Punjab became increasingly violent. In 1984, Sikh leaders centralized in Amristar's Golden Temple. Gandhi responded with brutal repression, squashing the uprising with the Indian army. The raid killed hundreds of Sikhs.

The move would prove Gandhi's undoing. Sikhs in Gandhi's bodyguard detail assassinated her near her home on October 31, 1984. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, succeeded her.

Share On Facebook


Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.