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India through the years – Part VI

Although the state of emergency in India made Indira Gandhi extremely unpopular, she still decided to hold elections in March 1977, released political prisoners, and removed press censorship. Soon after coming out of prison, the opposition leaders announced the merger of the Congress (O), Jana Sangh, Bhartiya Lok Dal and Socialist Party into the Janata Party.

With political activities allowed, parties started holding public meetings. Campaigns against Indira were again in full swing. In February 1977, two old comrades of Indira Gandhi – Jagjivan Ram and Bahuguna – decided to part ways with the Congress, sensing its impending defeat. Jagjivan Ram, who was the minister of defence from 1970 to 1974, was disgruntled after Indira removed him from the ministry. Bahuguna – the Congress chief minister of UP from 1973 to 75 – also felt betrayed. They dealt a blow to the Congress by forming Congress for Democracy (CFD).

Now the Akali Dal, CFD, CPI-M, and DMK formed the Janata Party to fight against the Congress. An interesting point to note is that the CPI had supported the state of emergency while the CPI-M opposed it. Forty years later, in 2015, the CPI admitted its mistake of siding with Indira Gandhi during her authoritarian rule. CPI leader Sudhakar Reddy accepted that the party had failed to understand political reality by supporting the emergency. For the 1977 elections, the CPI and the AIADMK allied with the Congress.

Now a word about Tamil Nadu from where the DMK supported Indira in 1969 to retain her government. After the death of its founder Annadurai in 1969, Karunanidhi assumed the leadership of the party and allied with the Congress.

In 1972, the DMK split when M G Ramachandran – an actor-turned politician – formed the Anna DMK (AIADMK). Karunanidhi remained the DMK leader and chief minister, but when he opposed the emergency inviting the ire of Indira Gandhi, she dismissed the state government of Tamil Nadu, and the DMK faced a crackdown. In 1977, the DMK opposed the Congress while the AIADMK supported it.

From the leftist parties, the CPI-M and the DMK aligned with rightist parties such as the Jana Sangh and the Congress (O), and the CPI and the AIADMK with the Congress. Almost at the same time in Pakistan, the rightist alliance against ZA Bhutto – the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) – received support from the leftist National Democratic Party (NDP) while communist and socialist groups divided loyalties between the PPP and the PNA. In hindsight, the leftists supporting Bhutto and Indira were perhaps on the right side of history as both the Janata Party in India and the PNA in Pakistan did more harm to their countries.

In India, the opposition used issues like the emergency, forced sterilization, and the restrictions on civil liberties for their election campaigns.

The major opposition leaders were JP Narayan and Jagjivan Ram from Bihar, Bahuguna, Chandra Shekhar, Charan Singh, and Raj Narayan from UP, Morarji Desai from Gujarat, Vajpayee from Madhya Pradesh, Jyoti Basu from Bengal, and George Fernandes, Karunanidhi and R Hegde from South India. There were also two Sindhis: nearly 90-year-old BJ Kripalani and a relatively young LK Advani. Most major opposition leaders were old and fairly senior, but Indians brought them to power in March 1977.

Credit is due to Indira Gandhi who, despite being an authoritarian leader and having imposed the emergency, held fair and free elections and accepted her defeat. There was a peaceful transfer of power for the first time from the Congress to the Janata Party and its allies. Indira Gandhi lost her Rae Bareli seat in UP. The Janata Party won 295 seats – to form a majority it needed only 272. The Congress was down to 154. The CPI-M ranked third with 22 seats and the AIADMK came fourth with 18.

The Akali Dal won nine MPs, and the CPI lost 16 of its seats, going down to just seven as its voters punished it for supporting the emergency. Interestingly, in South India, the Congress performed much better but lost mostly in North India, winning only two seats out of the 234 seats in seven northern states. In the Kerala state elections, the United Front of Congress and the CPI won and formed a government with Congress leader Karunakaran as CM. Kerala had a communist CM of the CPI, Achuta Menon, from 1970 to 1977 with support from the Congress.

The Janata Party won only six seats in the four southern states, but overall, its alliance won 330 seats. Even with this majority, the Janata Party was immediately in crisis as it had three contenders for the post of prime minister: 81-year-old Desai, 75-year-old Charan Singh, and 70-year-old Jagjivan Ram. Ultimately, the alliance requested Kripalani, 90, and JP Narayan, 75, to make a decision; they selected Morarji Desai to be the next PM. On March 23, 1977, Indira Gandhi gracefully handed over power to the new leaders. In a way, this washed away some of the sins Indira Gandhi committed during the emergency.

Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram had to accept the home and defence ministries respectively. Vajpayee became the foreign minister; LK Advani got the information ministry and George Fernandes managed the portfolio of industry. In the meantime, Pakistan was descending into chaos as the PNA was intensifying its agitation against Bhutto who was refusing to hold fresh elections. One of the first things that the new government in India did was to consolidate its position in the states. The argument was that the Congress had lost its national elections in all north Indian states so it had no right to continue ruling in those states.

The Janata-led government dismissed nine Congress-ruled state governments and ordered fresh elections for their state assemblies in June 1977. Out of these nine states, the Janata alliance won in eight states, whereas in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, AIADMK, won and formed its first government with Ramachandran as CM. In West Bengal, 1977 was the beginning of a 34-year rule of the CPI-M, with Jyoti Basu serving as CM for 23 years till 2000. Now perfectly in the saddle, the Janata alliance could easily place its presidential candidate Neelam Sanjiva Reddy unopposed in the president house in July 1977.

This was exactly eight years after he had lost against VV Giri who had support from Indira Gandhi in the 1969 presidential election. NS Reddy replaced the second Muslim president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who had served as a ‘rubberstamp president’ under Indira Gandhi. The same month in Pakistan, Gen Ziaul Haq suspended the constitution, imposed martial law and dissolved the assemblies. In India, the Janata government dismantled the authoritarian features of the previous government by restoring civil liberties and fundamental rights.

Just within a year, both Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram started to pester prime minister Desai. The economy started drifting and Desai also assumed charge of the interior ministry. In 1978, the bickering intensified as inflation increased, and the alliance started weakening.

Still by the end of 1978, the Janata government achieved a milestone by approving the 44th amendment to the Indian constitution. Both houses passed it unanimously to undo most of the wrong done by the Indira government to the constitution. It ensured that nobody could take democracy as hostage for political opportunism.

The Indian Supreme Court and high courts received their powers back to decide on the validity of central and state legislation.

To be continued

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "India through the years – Part VI," The News. 2022-11-27.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political reality , Political prisoners , Democracy , Politicians , LK Advani , Indira Gandhi , India , Pakistan , CFD , DMK