India’s Iron Lady still an icon 25 years after death

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Indira Gandhi – one of India's most influential and most controversial leaders, as she was the country's first and only ever female prime minister.

“Indira is India” was once a popular motto in tribute to the woman who was the premier for 15 years. Often called autocratic, Indira Gandhi won three national elections for the ruling Congress Party.

The daughter of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi was also shrewd in balancing geopolitical pressures during the Cold War, and led India to its decisive victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war that liberated Bangladesh.

The Indian government today would like to emulate Indira Gandhi's populist policies and her focus on the country’s poor. In the 1970s she introduced left-wing economic policies such as nationalizing banks and started the Green Revolution to grow more food. Her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi and grandson Rahul Gandhi now lead the Congress party, and often evoke her memory to win votes.

“Her call of ‘Stop Poverty!’ was successful. Poverty levels did come down and there was more food. But she should have brought in globalization in her time, which the government did a decade later. That way poverty could have been reduced much more,” believes New Delhi resident Shekhar Sharma.

Indira Gandhi also made controversial decisions. Fearing a legal challenge on her powers, she declared a state of emergency in 1975 and imposed martial law in India for two years. In 1984, she ordered the Indian Army to attack the Golden Temple in Amritsar to clear it of Sikh fundamentalists.

Ironically, her attack on the holiest Sikh shrine led directly to her death a few months later. Incensed by her action, two of her own Sikh bodyguards decided to take revenge and gunned her down in her residence.

Her death sparked riots that engulfed the capital and led to the death of over 3,000 Sikhs. Her assassination was a turning point in the nation’s politics, and 25 years on, her image as a strong and decisive leader is what most people remember her for.