When, on January 18, 1977, Indira Gandhi announced fresh elections in March she stunned the country. But few had any doubt about the poll’s outcome. Her defeat was a foregone conclusion. Especially after a memorable speech at a mammoth meeting at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, during which he told the huge and exuberant audience not to vote for her because that would once again convert India into a “gargantuan prison”. Anger against “compulsory” vasectomies, forced “resettlements” and other “excesses” of the Emergency was visible to the naked eye. And then a succession of new and unexpected events hit the prime minister hard.
The first was the declaration by JP, as Jayaprakash Narayan continued to be called, of the merger of the Congress (O), the Jan Sangh (the forbear of today’s BJP), Bharatiya Kranti Dal (a party of powerful peasantry in north India) and the Socialist Party into the newly formed Janata Party. The sudden disappearance of the multiplicity of opposition parties was a big blow to the Indira Congress. As if this were not enough, on February 2, Jagjivan Ram, a very senior minister in Indira’s cabinet and a towering leader of the scheduled castes (now called Dalits) resigned from both the cabinet and the Congress. Ironically, he had meekly piloted the resolution seeking Parliament’s approval of the Emergency proclamation! He was promptly joined by H.N. Bahuguna, an astute politician who was formerly Congress chief minister of the politically key state of Uttar Pradesh, whom Indira had sacked unceremoniously in November 1975. He was followed by Nandini Satpathy who, unlike Bahuguna, had been a long-time favourite of Indira’s but was disliked by Sanjay Gandhi because of her Communist past and therefore pushed aside. The trio lost no time in forming a new party, named it “Congress for Democracy” and entered into an alliance with the Janata.
Around this time I decided to travel extensively, particularly across the heartland states of Bihar and UP that elect a fourth of the Lok Sabha’s entire membership, to discern the public mood. Everywhere I went, whether a tiny village or a big city, the support for the Janata-CFD combine was manifest. At the alliance’s meetings, enthusiastic crowds chanted: “Vote bhi dein ge aur note bhi dein ge (we will give both votes and currency notes).” At every meeting the donations were generous. Although February and March that year were unusually cold months, the Janata’s meetings lasted until very late in the evening. At one such meeting, a continued…