Why Margaret Thatcher connected with Indira Gandhi

There was a lot in common between former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her British contemporary Margaret Thatcher as the two had struck up a close rapport and both felt the loneliness of high office.

Besides being the first women to take charge of a largely male-dominated political world of their respective countries, the two women had an almost identical steely resolve on difficult issues.

They may not have always agreed with each other and are believed to have had a number of fiery exchanges, but there was a grudging respect on both sides.

“But in spite of everything I found myself liking Mrs Gandhi herself. Perhaps, I naturally sympathised with a woman politician faced with the huge strains and difficulties of governing a country as vast as India,” Baroness Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, The Path to Power, in reference to her visit to India in September 1976 at the height of the post-Emergency turmoil in the country.
She was then an Opposition leader and would take over as British PM only three years later but there was a clear empathy with Gandhi in anticipation of the tough choices that lay ahead in her own political journey.

“She had taken a wrong turning and was to discover the fact at her party’s devastating election defeat in 1977,” added Thatcher.

Ironically, some would argue that the Conservative party leader herself took a similar wrong turning with the controversial imposition of a poll tax, which resulted in riots and her eventual departure from Downing Street.

But politics aside, it was at a personal level that Thatcher found it easier to connect with Mrs Gandhi, often referred to as India’s very own ‘Iron Lady’.

“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 recalled in archival documents from the 1976 visit, released here in 2006.

Clearly touched by the Indian hospitality of her host, she also made references to the bond during a later visit to India in 1995 to deliver the Rajiv Gandhi Golden Jubilee Memorial lecture on the invitation of his widow Sonia Gandhi.

“I got to know Indira Gandhi well over the years, both when I was my country’s Leader of the Opposition and then as Prime Minister. Very early on, we struck up a close rapport, for we both felt the loneliness of high office and it was good to be able to talk to someone who understood.

“Mrs Gandhi and I had very different ideas about politics. But I found in her qualities which seem to me essential in a statesman. She was passionately proud of her own country, always courageous and very practical,” she said in the lecture in New Delhi.

And this personal connect was in no way one-sided, as Mrs Gandhi was among the first to send her message when she survived a 1984 assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army.

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