Indira Gandhi was the prime minister of India from 1966–1977, then again from 1980–1984, a term that ended with her assassination. Indira was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and the widow of Feroze Gandhi, an Indian journalist and politician. Though Mahatma Gandhi was a family friend and political ally, the two are not related.
In her first term, various political and economic reforms made Indira Gandhi highly popular, as did an Indian victory in the 1971 conflict with Pakistan over the creation of an independent Bangladeshi state. However, in 1971, Gandhi was also found guilty of election fraud. Rather than face charges, Gandhi declared a State of Emergency, tightening her hold over the government and ushering in a period of drastically reduced civil liberties, as well as a severe crackdown on political opposition. The emergency lasted nineteen months, after which Gandhi—misjudging the extent of the population’s resentment—held an open election and lost. She stepped down but was reelected to office in 1980. Four years later, after a disastrous series of events involving Sikh activists, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, succeeded her and was also assassinated while in office, in 1991. The Gandhi family, however, continues to be a central force in Indian politics.
Long before Indira Gandhi enters Saleem’s story in a direct fashion, vague references to “the Widow” hint at her eventual role in the destruction of the midnight’s children. Her actual presence in the story is brief, but it is nonetheless of great significance. Throughout the novel, Saleem’s personal life constantly reflects India’s political turmoil. Finally, with the arrival of Indira Gandhi and the State of Emergency, Rushdie fuses the two narratives with a single crisis. The reforms of the emergency, which included a widespread campaign of forced sterilization, were widely seen as massive abuses of government power and human rights. The nation of India is metaphorically thrown into perpetual darkness just as Saleem’s wife, Parvati-the-witch, is killed and the magicians’ ghetto destroyed. By making Indira Gandhi’s campaign responsible for the destruction of the fictional midnight’s children, Rushdie holds her accountable for destroying the promise and hope of a new future for India.