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On November 1, 1969 — the date fixed by Congress president S. Nijalingappa for the Congress Working Committee’s “requisitioned” meeting to consider his own removal — excitement in Delhi’s political circles was at its peak. But, strangely, what the national capital witnessed that morning was not one but two separate CWC meetings. One took place at 7 Jantar Mantar Road, the traditional headquarters of the Indian National Congress and therefore the citadel of the Syndicate of party bosses. The rival meeting was held at the prime minister’s house in Safdarjung.
Even more startlingly, attendance at both meetings was exactly equal, though, as always, the CWC consisted of 21 members. This “miracle” became possible because K.C. Abraham, representing Kerala and anxious to maintain neutrality between the two sides, attended both meetings and spent exactly equal time at each. Far more surprisingly, there was absolutely no mention of the parting of ways at either meeting. Instead, each side condemned the other for a variety of “sins”, but most stridently “for threatening and subverting Congress unity”.
Ultimately, it was left to Nijalingappa to end this charade and hypocrisy and make the Congress split both formal and irrevocable. He thought through the matter and a few days later announced that he had “expelled Indira Gandhi from the primary membership of the Congress” because she had “rebelled against the working committee”, and “directed” the Congress Parliamentary Party to “elect a new leader in her place”. Gandhi waited a few hours before holding a meeting of her cabinet at which all senior ministers reaffirmed their complete loyalty to her. Those who seemed reluctant to do so were asked to resign, which they promptly did.
Both sides knew, of course, that the decisive factor would be how many Congress MPs — particularly those belonging to the Lok Sabha, for that House alone can make or break governments — would opt for which side. Intense lobbying went on all night. The next morning, the trend became obvious when of the 429 Congress members of both Houses of Parliament, 310 turned up at a meeting summoned by Gandhi. Of them, as many as 220 were from the Lok Sabha. The 68 absentees from among the Congress contingent in that House were deemed to be on the Syndicate’s side. Remarkably, no one noticed that all this was happening in the Mahatma’s centenary year.
There was tremendous rejoicing in the prime minister’s camp, although her government had lost its majority in the Lok Sabha. For she was assured of the support of the continued…