The final chapter of Margaret Thatcher's remarkable life story could never have been a simple RIP. It would have been a disappointing ending that would have concealed the love and loathing that she aroused in equal measure as the first woman and the longest serving Prime Minister of post-war Britain. The sun had set on the British Empire, but she made it rise again over a disputed island called Falkland.
She was made a Baroness for her services to the country. The day Baroness Thatcher died Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen will attend the Iron Lady's funeral. The last time the Palace had made an exception was when Winston Churchill died in 1965. However, the noises from the street were out of sync with the royal gesture. Police had to use force to break up street celebrations in Bristol and elsewhere in Britain. The woman behind the street party, Romany Blythe, a drama teacher from Brighton, announced rather uncharitably that "the witch is dead". An Australian minister claimed that he had had a conversation with her when she was out of office which showed her up as a racist.
Margaret Thatcher was the last of the four Iron Ladies of the twentieth century. The first woman to earn the title was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka. She was the first woman to become Prime Minister of a country, that too under trying circumstances. Her husband Solomon Bandaranaike, who had founded the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, was the Prime Minister when he was assassinated three years after assuming office. The care-taker Prime Minister's reckless style ensured that the party lost the next election. That is when Sirimavo was asked to step in and resurrect the SLFP.
When Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1960 Thatcher had finished her first year as a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament. In a way she sowed the seeds of Tamil insurgency by replacing English with Sinhala as the official language of Sri Lanka.
What made her political career unique was not just the fact that she was the first woman to become Prime Minister in the world. She was also the last of the four Iron Ladies of international politics to demit office. Her long political career that began in 1960 stretched into the first year of the 21st century. By the time her innings came to an end Bandaranaike had set another record by working under her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was then President of Sri Lanka.
Six years after Sirimavo entered politics Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi became Prime Minister of India. The coterie of Congress leaders who had helped her assume power presumed that she would be a puppet they could manipulate. In fact, a political rival, the irrepressible Ram Manohar Lohia had once famously described her as a "goongi gudiya" (dumb doll). In due course she was to prove all of them wrong. She split the Congress Party in 1969 to remove the political flotsam that had sought to control her. Subsequent events established her credentials as the Iron Lady of Indian politics. From being a dumb doll she went on to what her critics and detractors described as the "only man in the Cabinet".
Indira Gandhi's first Falkland moment came in 1971 when she gave unrestricted power to Army Chief Sam Manekshaw to deal with the civil unrest in East Pakistan. Over 90,000 Pakistani officers and soldiers were taken prisoners of war and East Pakistan became an independent nation called Bangladesh. Her second Falkland moment came in 1974 when India conducted first nuclear test to cock a snook at the US and the rest of the western world.
However, the imposition of Emergency in 1975 in defiance of a court order that had declared her election as invalid and the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Mecca of the Sikhs, tarnished her record. It is different matter that Margaret Thatcher was an early admirer of Indira Gandhi. They both met in New Delhi when Thatcher was Education Secretary. The 30 minute meeting ended after 75 minutes. All they told the media was that they discussed their grandkids.
Margret Thatcher survived an attempt to assassinate her. Indira Gandhi did not. She was gunned down on October 31, 1984 by her own Sikh security guards to avenge the attack on the Golden Temple. She was advised to have them removed, but she ignored it.
The third Iron Lady to dazzle the world with her audacious style of governance was Golda Meir of Israel. The western media described as the Iron Lady before Thatcher stole the thunder from her as it were. Like Indira Gandhi she too was often described "as the best man in the government". But the epithet she must have secretly loved was the one that described as the "strong-willed, straight-talking, grey-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people".
Her Falkland moment was born out of the tragedy that shook the world. A Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September took the 11 members of the Israeli contingent hostage during the Munich Olympics in 1972. The hostages were subsequently killed. Golda Meir ordered Mossad to hunt down and kill each and every member of the Black September group that was involved in the massacre of the Israeli athletes. The TV series Sword of Gideon adapted from Vengeance: The True story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas and Steven Spielberg's Munich were based on this incident.
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