In 1976, the “Empress of India” had become India’s great authoritarian. She was the daughter of the nation’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the constitutional democrat who strained every sinew after independence from Britain to establish liberal democracy. But his only child was different.
She started off as an ingenue, jeered at as a “dumb doll.” Party bosses propped up Nehru’s daughter because they thought she would be their puppet. Instead she split her party, yoking a tide of pro-poor populism to storm to a massive election victory in 1971. She became the first Prime Minister to win a decisive victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh Liberation War.
But in her mammoth victory lay the seeds of paranoid insecurity, and she proved to be as ruthless as she was charismatic. By 1975, as a result of economic instability, her government was swamped by an avalanche of street protests, and after her election was deemed invalid, she declared an emergency. On the night of June 25, 1975, the electricity was suddenly shut off in Delhi’s newspaper offices.
She quickly ripped apart her father’s democracy and amended India’s constitution to give herself enormous powers. She jailed political opponents, muzzled the press and extinguished fundamental rights across the country. By 1976, she would scorn democratic processes to stamp out rivals, dismissing party colleagues and state leaders at will. That year, her government rammed through the 42nd Amendment arrogating supreme powers to Parliament. She instituted “family rule” in her party with the ascendance of her son Sanjay. She also oversaw a remorseless slum-clearance drive in Delhi and forcible-sterilization campaigns across India. —Sagarika Ghose
Ghose is the author of Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister
This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.
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