London: 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.
READ MORE: Britain’s lone female PM Thatcher dies at 87
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 Gandhi herself. Perhaps, I naturally sympathized 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 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.
"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 Gandhi was among the first to send her message when she survived a 1984 assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army. "Gandhi's death by terrorism is forever linked in my mind with my own survival of it," Thatcher had said following the shooting of the former Indian Premier by her Sikh bodyguards the same year.
She went on to host her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, at 10 Downing Street during his visit to the country soon after assuming office in 1985. "We admired the calm authority with which you assumed office as Prime Minister. And our admiration has grown apace throughout your first year in office...And I assure you that we in Britain will do everything which our law allows to ensure that terrorism is destroyed, and those who incite it and practice it are punished," she said.
The words were significant as relations between India and Britain had become strained after Sikh separatists based in the UK had blatantly celebrated the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
Thatcher was said to be determined to restore a healthy balance between the two Commonwealth countries. "Unfortunately, the more outgoing, and open a politician, the greater the danger to his life. I was no longer Prime Minister when I heard the news, on that evening of May 21st 1991, that Rajiv, like his mother, had met his death as a victim of terrorism. And again, as with Indira Gandhi, I felt as anyone who has lost friends to terrorist violence — personally bereaved and angry that it should have happened," she said in reference Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
Thatcher condoled demise of India’s iron lady
"I will miss Mrs Indira Gandhi very much indeed," said a teary eyed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 after laying a wreath on the body of the slain Indian premier with whom she became friends over the years.
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 Indira Gandhi very much indeed," 58-year-old Thatcher told reporters after paying homage. "She was a truly great leader."
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 Indira Gandhi's murder and the publicity they have received," she had told reporters.
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.
Her own passing away in London on Monday morning marks an end of a very different era of British-Indian politics when personal rapport and connections played a lot more crucial role in politics than today.