Emergency miscalculated (new indian express, Friday March 21 2008)
MARCH 21, 1977, was indeed an important day in the history of independent India. The last of the results to the general elections, held during the previous week, were out quite early in the morning that day. And Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay Gandhi, V.C. Shukla, Bansi Lal, Pranab Mukherjee, Om Mehta and such others who had presided over the semifascist Emergency regime had lost the elections.
And late in the night on March 21, 1977, Indira Gandhi presided over a cabinet meeting that resolved to recommend withdrawal of the Emergency. This was conveyed to the acting President, B.D. Jatti, soon after and the Emergency proclamation was thus withdrawn. Indira Gandhi finally resigned as Prime Minister on March 22, 1977.
There are two points to be made right at the outset. One is that the Emergency remained throughout the period when the elections were held and in that sense the citizens in general and the political workers in particular were vulnerable to being hounded by the regime in the same way dissent was dealt with since June 25, 1975. The notorious MISA and the pre-publication censoring of newspapers remained as law of the land even when the elections were held. And the proclamation withdrawing the emergency was issued only after Indira Gandhi and her party was voted out of power by the people of India.
And this leads to the second and more important point. That the people, in large numbers, whom Indira Gandhi and her followers thought had endorsed all that she did during the Emergency, waited for the moment when they could convey their contempt for the Emergency and the regime in such an unequivocal fashion.The voters in Rae Bareili, a constituency that was rural in most parts, rejected Indira Gandhi in the most emphatic manner.
Indira Gandhi had lost from Rae Bareli by a margin of 55,202 votes! And Sanjay Gandhi, who tried his luck from neighbouring Amethi too was humbled by Ravindra P Singh, a political novice. The margin of victory in Amethi was 75,844 votes. The Congress party was swept aside everywhere in the North. And all of Indira Gandhi’s men were defeated.
Indira Gandhi’s Congress party drew a blank from Bihar (with 54 Lok Sabha seats), Himachal Pradesh (with 4 seats), Punjab (with 13 seats) Uttar Pradesh (with 85 seats) and Delhi (with 7 seats). The party won just one seat each in Haryana (out of the 10), Madhya Pradesh (out of 40) and Rajasthan (out of 25). In West Bengal, the Congress won just 3 out of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, 4 out of the 21 seats from Orissa, 10 seats out of the 25 from Gujarat and 20 out of the 48 from Maharashtra.
In all, the Congress strength in the Lok Sabha stood at 154 (in the House of 542), the lowest in the party’s history till then. It is another matter that, interestingly, this is higher than the Congress party’s strength after May 2004!Well. Indira Gandhi did not anticipate the debacle when she announced her desire to hold elections in March 1977.
The announcement on January 18, 1977, came as a shock to everyone. She had, after all, obtained Parliamentary sanction to extend the life of the Fifth Lok Sabha (until March 1978) by way of a resolution moved in the House in November 1976. While her apologists hold that the announcement on January 18, 1977 revealed the democratic core in Indira Gandhi and that she was uncomfortable all the while with the Emergency and the role that Sanjay Gandhi and his band were playing, there are some others who thought that her intention was to legitimize Sanjay Gandhi’s position in the dispensation and that the best way to do that was by ensuring that he held a formal position.Sanjay Gandhi’s abrasive behaviour and his contempt for some of Indira’s confidants such as Sidharth Sankar Ray, Devraj Urs and the former communists in the Congress as well as towards the CPI had caused some discomfort in Indira Gandhi’s mind. This, however, was not all that pervasive.
That Mrs Gandhi was pleased with Sanjay’s emergence was evident at the Guwahati session of the Congress. She did everything to promote her son in the same way as her father had promoted her. Similarly, if a formal role for Sanjay was all that she intended, she could have ensured a by-election from anywhere in the country for Sanjay to contest and enter the Lok Sabha.The point is that Indira Gandhi was impressed, time and again, by her son and his aides that there was absolutely no resistance to the Emergency.
She was also convinced by her aides, including P.N. Dhar, her secretary in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, that the Emergency measures had ensured a fall in prices and restored the people’s confidence in the dispensation (that had been lost in the couple of years before the midnight declaration on June 25, 1975) and that it was ideal in the moral and the practical sense to hold elections soon. More than all the reasoning, Indira Gandhi had made her own assessment of the opposition leaders.
She was aware of the confabulations among those who were released on parole (on health grounds) and the irritants that were thrown up every time they discussed unity among them. She had the information to suggest that the opposition continued to be in disarray and that the semblance of unity they had established during the couple of weeks between June 11, 1975 and June 25, 1975 had given way to mutual distrust. She was also aware that a section of the opposition, particularly Charan Singh and Asoka Mehta, were even willing to surrender.
The fact is that Indira Gandhi believed that the opposition was splintered and that elections would only accentuate the divide among them. And by winning the elections she could legitimise the Emergency and all that happened as part of it before the international community and also formalise Sanjay Gandhi’s position. That, perhaps was the reason why she chose to announce the dissolution of the Lok Sabha on January 18, 1977) and more specifically that she did that unilaterally in the same way as when the Emergency was proclaimed.
The ordinary voter, however, was convinced that she must not be allowed to bulldoze democracy. And that was why the Emergency was withdrawn on March 21, 1977. In other words, things did not happen the way Indira Gandhi had wanted.