Prime Ministers of India

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

India is a very large nation, both in terms of size and population. This makes government in India tricky. In this lesson, we'll talk about some people who tackled the office of prime minister, and see how they impacted the nation's history.

The Prime Minister of India

The nation of India is not an easy place to govern. It's huge, has one of the largest and densest populations in the world, is deeply divided by social castes, and is a relatively young country, only achieving independence from Britain in 1947. So, whose job is it to manage this?

The head of India's government is the President of India, but this is largely a ceremonial position. Most real power lies with the chief executive, a position called the Prime Minister. India adopted this from the British system after being a part of the British Empire for years, and also kept the British use of a legislative Parliament.

The largest bloc within Parliament is responsible for electing the Prime Minister. The President is then responsible for formally appointing the Prime Minister to his/her office. Get how that works? As of 2016, India has had 15 Prime Ministers, including one person who served twice. Let's get to know a few of them and see what it takes to be the Prime Minister of India.

Jawaharlal Nehru

No politician is ever completely beloved, but every now and then you get one who comes close. Jawaharlal Nehru was India's first prime minister, and is widely remembered today as a founding figure of the modern Indian nation.

Nehru, leader of the Congress Party, helped oversee the end of British colonialism, and was made the prime minister in 1947. He immediately found himself leading a nation torn by the legacies of colonialism, as well as deep divides as to how independence was handled.

Campaign poster for Nehru

Nehru had some major issues to address as prime minister, but perhaps none was as dramatic as the partition of Pakistan. India is traditionally a Hindu nation, but did have an active Muslim minority who were largely congregated in the northwest. This region was under the control of a political organization called the Muslim League. They wanted the new Indian nation to be very decentralized, giving them the power to operate almost autonomously.

Rather than work with the Muslim League, Nehru decided that India was ungovernable without a strong central government, and allowed this region to leave the nation. To some, that would have been as if Abraham Lincoln let the South secede without fighting. Nehru took a lot of criticism when northwest India became its own nation of Pakistan, but most people today accept this as a wise move.

The rest of India was strengthened by the stronger government of Nehru, who also managed to implement a functional democracy and ensured that the nation's constitution embraced a separation of church and state. Nehru was in power until his death 1964.

Indira Gandhi

Next on the list of India's most recognizable prime ministers is Indira Gandhi, India's third prime minister and first female to hold the office. She was not related to the famous Mahatma Gandhi (although she did use the shared last name to her advantage) but was actually the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi is a complex figure, and India's memory of her is equally complex. On one hand, she was cold, manipulative and ruthless, coveting power and for a short period suspending India's functioning democratic process. One the other, she oversaw some of the most important moments in India's recent history.

Indira Gandhi was prime minister when a section of Pakistan became another new country called Bangladesh, and she oversaw India's war against Pakistan to protect the new nation. In this same time, India went through its Green Revolution, a massive upgrade in agricultural production that saved the country from starvation.

Many modernization programs, including those for women's rights and birth control, happened under Indira Gandhi. Her downfall came as a result of sending troops into a sacred Sikh temple where Sikh extremists were meeting, and as a result she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard in 1984.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Both Nehru and his daughter, as well as many other prime ministers of India, belonged to the Congress Party, which led many to worry if India was controlled by this political organization. Then, in 1996 Atal Bihari Vajpayee was made India's tenth prime minister. Vajpayee ended up being the first non-Congress Party prime minster to serve a full term in office (the previous non-Congress prime ministers were overthrown).

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