An uncertain beginning

Indira Gandhi had a challenging start to her first tenure as prime minister

INDIRA GANDHI'S swift and spectacular rise to power was accompanied by enormous public goodwill. To the masses she was, of course, Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter. The intelligentsia looked upon her as the bright-eyed, youthful leader representing the new generation. After all, at 48, she was 10 years younger than either her father or her predecessor when they first became prime minister. As information and broadcasting minister in Lal Bahadur Shastri's cabinet, she had followed liberal policies about the government-owned media, and this had earned her widespread admiration among writers, academics, scientists and other professionals.

However, she could not have come to power at a more difficult time. In less than three years since 1962, the country had gone through two wars, one of them humiliating and the other resulting in marginal victory. In less than half that period, it had to face two successions. All this had caused strain enough. But far more shattering turned out to be the two continuous years of savage drought that decimated crops in large parts of the country and cast a shadow of famine, especially on Bihar. India had no food and no foreign exchange to buy it in the world market.

It was perhaps an omen of the shape of things to come that her swearing-in coincided with the death in a plane crash at Mont Blanc in Europe of the legendary Homi Bhaba, the great Indian nuclear scientist who, with Nehru's full backing, founded this country's nuclear programme. Also a friend of the Nehru family, he enjoyed the rare privilege of addressing the PM as "bhai".

Indira Gandhi was fully aware of the enormity of the food problem and the resentments and protests it was causing. But she had another hazardous task on hand that had to be completed first: to secure the endorsement of the Tashkent Agreement, first by the All India Congress Committee and then by Parliament.

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