What Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher shared

In a world dominated by male politicians, Margaret Thatcher turned to an Indian woman to draw inspiration. Little is known about her first meeting with Indira Gandhi, but the diplomat who set it up revealed to HT last April that it was Thatcher who sought it.
Updated on Jan 14, 2014 04:44 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, Chandigarh

In a world dominated by male politicians, Margaret Thatcher turned to an Indian woman to draw inspiration. Little is known about her first meeting with Indira Gandhi, but the diplomat who set it up revealed to HT last April that it was Thatcher who sought it.

Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra, former foreign secretary, went to see Thatcher in 1972, sensing a rising international star in the then junior education minister. "She said, ‘You know, I’d love to go to India to meet Mrs Gandhi’, and so I organised her trip," Rasgotra told HT April last. They met for 1.15 hours, instead of the scheduled half hour. "The two ladies got on famously. Mrs Thatcher was full of India and full of Mrs Gandhi. Later, I asked Mrs Gandhi, ‘What did you talk about? Your politics are totally different.’ And she looked straight at me and said, ‘Oh, we talked about our grandchildren!"

Apparently, the chemistry between the two women laid the foundation for Thatcher’s rise. Thatcher’s biographer Hugo Young says the first meeting marked an important step in her journey towards belief in herself as a rising international stateswoman.

Indira was said to be one of the few women by whom Thatcher had ever allowed herself to be impressed. At that first meeting, an Indian official told the academic Blema Steinberg, Thatcher sat at Mrs Gandhi’s feet, asking how had she made it to the top, how had she stayed there and how had she sustained her domination of her party.


Thatcher called Gandhi the "distinguished leader" of a great country and prime minister of the "greatest democracy" during a luncheon speech while welcoming her in London on March 22, 1982 for the opening of the Festival of India.

Thatcher, who invited Gandhi for the inaugural during her visit to Delhi in the previous year, said it will be difficult to match the warmth and hospitality with which she was received in India.

The British premier also injected some humour during the course of her speech.

"Prime Minister, you have, I am told, one and a half million constituents. I have only fifty-five and a half thousand. Which leads me to ask: How do you do it?," she had said.


When Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 (Just 15 days after an IRA bombing attack on Thatcher), a teary eyed Thatcher had said, "I will miss Mrs Indira Gandhi very much indeed. She was a truly great leader."

Thatcher had headed to Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi where she laid a wreath on the body of 67-year-old Gandhi lying in state after her arrival from London to attend the funeral of the Indian leader who was assassinated on October 31, 1984.

"I will miss Mrs Indira Gandhi very much indeed,"

In 1989, Thatcher finally had occasion to pay a fulsome public tribute to Gandhi at the unveiling of a bust of the Indian leader, sculpted by KS Radhakrishnan, at the Indian High Commission in London. Wearing a striking dark magenta dress, she spoke positively about India and the need to fight terrorism.

Thatcher had also made strong remarks over the killing of Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

"I learn that there is a great indignation and distress--rightly in my view--among the government and the people of India about the outrageous behaviour of a tiny minority of irresponsible people in Britain who have gloated over Mrs Indira Gandhi's murder and the publicity they have received," she had told reporters.

At around the same time, she took a series of swift measures to check rising Khalistani militancy in Britain.

The reference was to jubilation among many Sikh residents in Britain after the news broke about the assassination of Gandhi.

Thatcher with her deeply conservative politics was no ideological ally of Gandhi, who according to some political analysts, prided herself for her Fabian-style socialism.

But the two leaders had become friends over the years. The iron fisted managerial style seemed similar, as did their impatience with political dissidence.

Thatcher in her memoirs also recalls the lunch hosted by Gandhi at her Safdarjung road home in Delhi in 1976 before the Tory leader became the prime minister.

"I lunched with Indira Gandhi in her own modest home, where she insisted on seeing that her guests were all looked after and clearing away the plates while discussing matters of high politics," she said.

Thatcher said she naturally sympathised with a woman politician faced with the huge strains and difficulties of governing a country as vast as India.

"But, in spite of a long self justificatory account she gave me of why the state of emergency had been necessary, I could not approve of her government's methods. She had taken a wrong turning and was to discover the fact at her Party's devastating election defeat in 1977," she said.

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