As the United States was reeling from President Richard Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal, another imperiled leader—Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—was fighting for her political life thousands of miles away. Although Gandhi and Nixon never got along, their stories overlap. Both barely squeaked into power after close elections in the late 1960s, but then won resounding reelection victories in the early 1970s. Gandhi’s political fortunes, like Nixon’s, took a turn for the worse shortly after reelection, in light of substantiated accusations of illegal campaign activity. But at this point, Nixon and Gandhi’s stories diverge. Unlike Nixon, Gandhi stayed the course and refused to resign. And in the end she prevailed: Gandhi was popularly elected three times with some of the largest governing majorities in Indian history.
How did Gandhi convince the public to reelect her, despite her known, widespread abuses of authority? How did a leader ensnared in scandal and corruption hold onto power to become one of the most beloved leaders in the world’s largest democracy? The answer to these questions may lie in Gandhi’s concentrated emphasis on left-wing populism. She argued to voters that she alone was most capable of effectuating change for India and its most needy citizens by enacting social programs and redistributing wealth. Additionally, Gandhi spent much of her time as Prime Minister consolidating her power within the party and the central government. This enabled much of the corruption that marked her rule but was also what allowed her to argue to the public that she was uniquely capable of fixing the nation’s problems.
Gandhi’s autocratic tendencies, combined with her government’s firm control over the private sector and a complete ban on corporate political donations, ushered in a new era of “briefcase politics” in India. Under this regime, Gandhi’s party—the Indian National Congress—and its leaders were able to extract vast sums of “black money” from businesses in exchange for licenses and permits. This enabled the Congress party to raise money for elections while starving rival parties of essential funds. Trade and industry representatives who refused to give predetermined sums to the government were threatened with tax raids. The government even awarded contracts and exclusive production rights to Gandhi’s preferred companies, including, maybe most infamously, Maruti Motors, of which Gandhi’s son Sanjay was the first Managing Director. Moreover, Gandhi solidified control over the Congress party by halting intraparty elections and replacing disloyal party members in powerful regional positions with her supporters, turning the party into her own “personalized machine.”
These abuses did not go unnoticed. As the public became more aware of the government’s excesses, a powerful anticorruption movement grew in prominence, led by activist Jayaprakash “JP” Narayan. JP sought to galvanize the public against Gandhi and her party, whose autocratic policies he believed were enabling public corruption on a vast scale. At first, this movement posed no threat to Gandhi’s government, but by 1974 India was facing an economic crisis fueled by droughts, inflation, famine, and rising oil prices. Without anything to show for her not-so-subtle power grab, Gandhi’s popularity had dropped to an all-time low, and JP saw an opening to finally defeat her. Critics framed the economic disaster as the result of Gandhi’s “misuse of authority, corruption and . . . erosion of moral leadership,” arguing that corruption was the root of inflation. As JP later wrote: “We have always raised our voice against corruption. Prevention of corruption was the main aim of our movement.”
JP’s anticorruption rallying cry led to a massive, nationwide “march on parliament.” Hundreds of thousands of Indians of all political stripes took the streets to push for a “total revolution” against the “corruption and maladministration” of Gandhi’s government. This movement reached its zenith on June 12, 1975, when an Indian high court found Gandhi guilty of corrupt practices, including several minor counts of election fraud. The court invalidated her commanding victory in the 1971 election and gave her twenty days to leave office or appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of India.
Despite mounting public pressure and the JP-led protests that ensued, Gandhi refused to resign. Instead, she doubled down. Knowing that her message of “getting things done” had helped her fend off accusations of corruption in the past, she was determined to prove to the public that she could still fulfill her promises. But to do so, she needed to buy herself some time. On June 25, 1975, Gandhi invoked Article 352 of the Indian Constitution—a special provision that had only ever been invoked during times of war—to declare a state of emergency in light of alleged “internal disturbances” (mainly, JP’s protests against Gandhi). With the stroke of a pen, the Constitution was effectively suspended. Gandhi was now free to suppress the media and suspend elections until she could make her case to the people that her policies were in the country’s best interests. In addition, Gandhi shepherded through parliament a half-dozen constitutional amendments that weakened the courts and state governments, strengthened the executive, and gave herself retroactive immunity for election offenses. Most brazenly, Gandhi ordered the incarceration of hundreds of vocal political opponents—the first of whom was JP. JP remained in solitary confinement for over four months. Facing declining health, he was released only after Gandhi feared that his death in prison would further energize his movement. While in recovery at a hospital, he wrote an open letter to Gandhi, accusing her of “making a show of doing here and now what you failed to do in nine years” and opined that “in a democracy the people, too, have the right to ask for the resignation of an elected government if it has gone corrupt and has been misruling.”
To combat JP’s anticorruption message, Gandhi wielded her newly unfettered emergency power to enact populist economic reforms for the “common man and woman of India.” She framed protesters like JP as fascists who only sought rebellion to prop up corporate interests. Nonetheless, the corruption and cronyism problem of Gandhi’s administration only worsened during the emergency period: Gandhi, with the help of her son and heir-apparent Sanjay, filled the party ranks with loyal mobsters. Sanjay also ordered the demolition of shops and other property owned by political opponents. But Gandhi calculated that this would not matter if she could convince a critical mass of voters that her autocratic rule was essential to lifting low-income Indians out of poverty. After all, much of JP’s anticorruption movement was led by English-speaking, upper-class university students—not exactly the “common man.” With this in mind, Gandhi emphasized the values of government effectiveness and, above all, getting things done. Meanwhile, she blanketed the country with propaganda to increase her popularity and garner backing for her drastic emergency measures.
Her gambit seemed to pay off, at least in the short term. Only a year later, the economy was booming again, for which she took credit—whether deserved or not. Believing she would win handily, Gandhi abruptly called an election in 1977. But when the ballots were counted, Gandhi’s party suffered a devastating loss. Her iron grip on the country crumbled in an instant as a fractured coalition of opposition parties loosely aligned with JP’s anticorruption movement kicked the Congress out of power for the first time since Independence, making Morarji Desai the new Prime Minister. Even worse, within six months of her defeat, Gandhi was unexpectedly arrested for her prior election-fraud charges.
Before Desai, India had known nothing other than a Congress-led central government. Desai’s motley coalition promised voters something new: a clean and democratic, yet still productive, form of governance. But before too long, the Indian population became dissatisfied with his government, which was beset with internal squabbling and failed to meaningfully improve conditions in the country. Despite its noble intentions, Desai’s coalition failed to provide voters with a competent alternative to the Congress. As a result, Gandhi’s popular support rebounded, especially among the poor. Although she had been ousted from her party, she successfully formed a new faction in her name—Congress (I), for Indira—and plotted her comeback using her left-populist playbook. In November 1978, Gandhi won a seat in parliament in an obscure southern district and proceeded to launch a nationwide campaign to “Elect a Government that Works”—a return, she promised, to stable and effective governance.
She succeeded. In 1980, Gandhi returned to power as Prime Minister in an electoral landslide even bigger than her triumph in 1971. Her popularity continued to rise, and, for a moment, she looked unstoppable. But if Gandhi’s story began like Nixon’s, it ended like Kennedy’s. Shortly after the 1980 election, Gandhi’s son Sanjay died in a sudden plane crash. Just a few years later, on October 31, 1984, Gandhi was shot and killed by two of her bodyguards. Yet her political dynasty endured, as Gandhi’s eldest son Rajiv became Prime Minister later that year with the largest ever governing majority in Indian history. While opponents ran a campaign to “save democracy,” Rajiv and the Congress ran a campaign about efficacy, stability, and—perhaps most surprisingly—anticorruption. Having largely avoided politics during the Emergency, Rajiv proudly donned the nickname “Mr. Clean” on the campaign trail.
The Gandhis’ electoral success may seem shocking given their widespread notoriety for corruption, not to mention their vitiation of civil liberties during the Emergency period. But Gandhi promised stability and prosperity in a period rife with hunger and unrest. Scholars have observed that voters may be willing to vote for corrupt, autocratic leaders if they believe it will make them personally better off in the long run. Gandhi’s emphasis on electing a “government that works” for the average Indian citizen helped her sell her authoritarianism to the electorate over and over again as something to be desired rather than feared. Leading up to the landslide 1980 election that swept Gandhi back into power, villagers explained to reporters that they were supporting Gandhi, despite her abuses, because “along with freedom, one also needs something to eat.” So maybe if it means putting food on the table—quickly—voters are more than happy to look the other way in the face of corruption and despotism.