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 Communist Party of India, a few regional parties and several independent members of the House. The more numerous Communist Party of India (Marxist) was on the warpath with Gandhi for its own reasons, but was even more vehemently opposed to the Syndicate. A motion of no confidence in her government — tabled by the Syndicate-led party then called the Congress (O), the letter in parenthesis standing for organisation — was defeated decisively. It was in this atmosphere that the “requisitioned” meeting of the AICC was held on July 22. The Congress (O) boycotted it. Yet no fewer than 446 of the 705 AICC members attended it.
Having demonstrated her majority in both the parliamentary party and the AICC, Gandhi exhibited emotion in public for the first time. After recounting her family’s services to the Congress and the country from her grandfather’s days, she burst into tears at the “temerity” of some malevolent party bosses to “expel” her from the Congress. Beyond that she did not say a word about her opponents. Her henchmen, however, spared no invective or abuse while running down the Syndicate. She did nothing to restrain them.
By this time, a majority of the generally left-of-centre intelligentsia warmly rallied round her and lent vocal support. For her part, she took a series of measures to disprove that her radical rhetoric was only a “cover” for her struggle for personal power. She abolished the managing agency system dating back to Robert Clive. In order to forestall cartelisation by big business, she passed the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act. At the same time, she firmly rejected the loud demand of some of the Young Turks for nationalisation of foreign trade and withdrawal of all concessions given to foreign investors.
If such nuances went unnoticed, it was because of the intemperate campaign by her opponents to depict her either as a communist or a “communist dupe”. Nijalingappa earned disapproval for declaring that to save her alliance with the CPI and other leftists, Gandhi would not hesitate to “make Indian interests subordinate to those of the Soviet Union”.
Just five months after the Congress split, Gandhi felt strong enough to undertake a major reshuffle of her cabinet. She shifted Yashwantrao Chavan — the man who had gone along with the Syndicate to pick Sanjiva Reddy as the Congress’s presidential candidate — to finance from his portfolio of home, which she took over herself. She also used this opportunity to make systemic changes to consolidate her power. Until then, the home ministry controlled the Intelligence Bureau, a monolithic agency responsible for the entire range of Indian intelligence, domestic and foreign. She divided it into two. The IB was left with domestic intelligence and counter-espionage only, while the newly created Research and Analysis Wing, better known by its delightful acronym RAW, became the Indian version of the CIA and MI-6. More notably, both IB and RAW — together with Revenue Intelligence, a part of the finance ministry until then — were brought under the prime minister’s direct control. Gandhi was now an exceptionally powerful prime minister as well as a hands-on president of the ruling party. Her father had played this dual role only for a brief period during his 17 years as independent India’s first prime minister.
The changed power structure had an interesting and perhaps inevitable consequence. A Mughal court ambience that had since the 16th century been a part of the Indian ethos to some extent suddenly assumed enormous proportions. As Indira Gandhi’s power
increased, so did the courtier culture. Some even talked of
a “Dilli Durbar”.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator