Iron Ladies

04.17.13

Margaret Thatcher's Real Soul Mate Was Indira Gandhi

They fought wars, thrived in a male-dominated political world, and faced controversy at home. Bruce Riedel on the kinship between Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi.

Americans are making much of the partnership between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher following her death last week, but the baroness's real soul mate was another Iron Lady, Prime Minister Indira Nehru Gandhi.

The two prime ministers were both polarizing figures in their own countries who left behind very controversial legacies. They first meet in September 1976 when Thatcher visited India as head of the Conservative Party. Two months earlier Gandhi had declared a state of emergency in India, suspending freedom of the press and imprisoning dozens of her political enemies. Thatcher was supportive and made no public criticism of the emergency. As one of Thatcher’s biographers later wrote, the two had from the beginning a “uniquely easy relationship.” Gandhi’s biographer wrote that “Indira and Thatcher were aberrations in the predominately male world of politics” and “their loneliness as women leaders led them to form a bond.”

Gandhi lost her next reelection bid and went into the political wilderness for a time. She visited London in November 1978 and Thatcher urged her not to give up politics and to run again. Gandhi ran for reelection again in January 1980 and won a clear majority in parliament. Her “private visit” to the U.K. was credited with refurbishing her international reputation and stature at home.

In November 1983 Gandhi hosted Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth at a Commonwealth Summit in New Delhi. It was a triumph for both and a demonstration of their skills at the ballot box.

The two had many things in common but perhaps the most important was their success as military leaders. Margaret Thatcher of course prevailed over Argentina in the Falklands war. Despite lukewarm support from Reagan and against formidable logistical odds, the Royal Navy carried an expeditionary force from one end of the Atlantic Ocean to another and defeated the Argentines.

Gandhi prevailed over Pakistan in the 1971 war that led to Bangladesh’s freedom. She prevailed in spite of the opposition of the United States. President Richard Nixon actively urged Iran and China to come to Pakistan’s help and sent an American carrier battle group into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate Gandhi. She was not frightened by gun boat diplomacy, and in December 1971 more than 90,000 Pakistani troops surrendered to Gandhi’s generals in Dhaka, the darkest day in the history of the Pakistani army. The two demonstrated that women can be tough leaders in wartime and defeat tin-pot dictators.

On October 11, 1984, Thatcher was the target of an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army that blew up the hotel that the Conservative Party was using for its annual conference in Brighton. Five died in the attack. Gandhi called Thatcher almost immediately to send her best wishes and counsel resolve. Twenty days later, Gandhi was shot to death by her own Sikh bodyguards in New Delhi. She died in the arms of her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi. Vice President George Bush came to the funeral as did many world leaders including Yassir Arafat and Zia ul Huq, but the star attraction was the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, paying her respects as one Iron Lady to another.