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After the victory, the unravelling

The afterglow from the Bangladesh war soon faded, and Indira Gandhi found herself besieged.

Former PM Indira Gandhi (Source: Reuters) Former PM Indira Gandhi (Source: Reuters)

Looking at yesterday to explain today, tomorrow: Leaders of all opposition parties, united only in their hatred of Indira Gandhi and divided by everything else, jumped on the JP bandwagon.

Indira Gandhi’S finest hour was rather short-lived. The afterglow of the liberation of Bangladesh faded surprisingly fast.

One reason for this was the sudden failure of rains by the middle of 1972. This natural disaster came at a time when her government’s overflowing granaries had been emptied to feed the 10 million refugees from Bangladesh. To make matters worse, heavy expenditure on the war had sharply drained government funds and foreign exchange reserves. Acute shortages and rising prices of food and other essential necessities caused deep unrest even among those who had earlier adored the prime minister.

She could hardly do anything about the cruelty of the rain gods. But there was something that she could and should have controlled, but didn’t. This destructive factor was corruption, a part of India’s life from time immemorial, which was assuming enormous proportions in her time. Because of her supremacy, her henchmen, flaunting their loyalty to her, became both corrupt and arrogant. When serious and plausible charges were made against them in the press or even in Parliament, they told her that the attack was not on them but on her. She evidently believed this, because she started using her brute majority in Parliament to stonewall all allegations. That is how the deathless evil of Parliament’s disruption, sometimes for the entire session, began.

In 1973, rains were again scanty. She compounded the dismal situation by superseding three senior Supreme Court judges who had not sided with her in her confrontation with the higher judiciary. This announcement hit the country like a thunderbolt and dismayed the middle class, especially those in the legal profession. Shortly thereafter, the first oil shock shook the world and hurt India most, because of its almost complete dependence on imported crude oil. This aggravated the people’s woes and added to their anger. Pocketing her pride, Gandhi had to ask the International Monetary Fund for a big loan. It was offered on conditions that ran counter to her populist policies. She had no option but to accept.

By this time, assembly elections in the politically key states of Uttar Pradesh and Orissa were looming. Huge election funds were needed and all Congress chief ministers and other functionaries had to do their best. This was to lead to a major upheaval in Gujarat first, and then across the country.

In Gujarat, the chief minister was Chimanbhai Patel, later nicknamed “Chiman Chor (thief)”. Gandhi disliked him because he had toppled his predecessor within months of the latter’s appointment by her. Even so, she had to ask Chimanbhai to collect the cash. He was happy to oblige but chose a method that proved catastrophic. In a state where the crucial and lucrative trade in cooking oil was dominated by a mafia called “cooking oil kings”, he allowed them to play havoc with cooking oil prices in return for a humongous donation to the Congress. The inevitable impact on cooking oil prices led to a spontaneous agitation against corruption by students who also demanded the immediate dismissal of Chimanbhai Patel and the dissolution of the state assembly.

Violent agitations were never unknown in independent India. But nothing like the one in Gujarat, which later converted itself into a “Nav Nirman (regeneration) movement”, had happened before. The state was in virtual anarchy. Curfew had to be imposed in Ahmedabad and 105 other cities and towns. Looting of shops, burning of buses and attacks on the police were routine. Before the dust finally settled, 103 people had been killed, 300 injured and more than 8,000 arrested. Moreover, even though her party had a two-thirds majority in the state assembly, the prime minister had to accept the demand for its dissolution, which got rid of Patel too.

What followed the Gujarat upheaval was unforeseen and profoundly important. The highly respected leader Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, emerged from a self-exile from politics to channelise stray and often directionless protests against Gandhi and her style of governance into a powerful and unified agitation. In 1974, it seemed that JP was the man of the moment. His renunciation of power —  after the death of Sardar Patel in 1950, he had declined Jawaharlal Nehru’s invitation to join the government — and even of active politics, had given him a saintly halo. Leaders of all opposition parties, united only in their hatred of Gandhi and divided by everything else, jumped on the JP bandwagon. Initially confined to Bihar, the “JP movement” soon spread to large parts of the country. The cadres of one of the opposition parties, then called Jan Sangh and now the Bharatiya Janata Party, provided muscle to it.

For her part, unlike her father, Gandhi had never liked JP. This feeling turned into intense dislike when, after the supersession of three Supreme Court judges, he wrote to her to express his fear that the “very foundations of Indian democracy might be destroyed”. What infuriated her even more was his appeal to the army and the police to refuse to obey the government’s “illegal orders”. Yet, under pressure from a sizeable section of her followers, backed by the advice of her secretary, P.N. Dhar, she agreed to receive JP in an attempt at reconciliation that failed disastrously.

In May 1974, George Fernandes, a maverick trade union leader who in later years became a senior minister in two non-Congress governments, organised a countrywide railway strike. Gandhi suppressed it brutally. Having been taken by surprise in Gujarat, she had made adequate preparations to cope with any challenge. On May 18 took place India’s first underground nuclear test, officially described as a PNE, peaceful nuclear experiment. People applauded it. But all opposition leaders rallied round JP, including Morarji Desai, declared, wrongly, that she had “staged” this event to “divert attention” from her misdeeds. She had ordered this detonation in 1971, when she was at the peak of her glory. By this time, she was convinced that she was the “victim” of a “well-laid conspiracy”, perhaps with foreign backing, that she would have to defeat at all costs.

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