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The abrupt end of Emergency

It was a decision Indira Gandhi made only because she was forced to.

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published:August 4, 2014 12:42 am
opinion Since well before the Emergency, a debate had begun in this country about changing the parliamentary system into a presidential one. Source: CR Sasikumar

It was a decision Indira Gandhi made only because she was forced to.

What an irony it is that the end of the Emergency, unquestionably a squalid chapter in modern Indian history, was as sudden and unexpected as its imposition. At 8 pm on the night of January 1977, Indira Gandhi announced in a broadcast over All India Radio that the Lok Sabha had been dissolved and fresh elections would be held in March. Most of her listeners were stunned because only 63 days earlier, on November 5, 1976, the Lok Sabha’s term was extended, for the second time, until February 1978. (It needs to be explained that the Constitution never gave Parliament the authority to extend its own life. But, with the Constitution suspended, the Emergency regime gave itself the necessary power and used it not once, but twice. Mercifully, after Gandhi’s humiliating defeat in the 1977 election, all the odious changes she had made in the Constitution were repealed. The Lok Sabha’s life is back to five years and no more.)

Many of those who heard her broadcast concluded that Gandhi had some trick up her sleeve. Among those who thought so was S.K. Patil, a leader of the Congress (O) and a master tactician himself. After his and other opposition leaders’ release from jail, he told his colleagues: “Indira has laid a trap for us but we must not fall into it.” However, as it emerged in due course, instead of laying a trap for others, Gandhi was trying frantically to get out of the one she had landed herself in.

At that time, no precise information was available, thanks to the heavily suppressive Emergency regime. There were rumours galore but their credibility was in doubt. However, as the dam of silence broke and there was an avalanche of books and commentaries in newspapers and journals, the story of the Emergency’s abrupt end started falling into place. By now, it is crystal clear that, like everything concerning Indira Gandhi, this narrative too is complex, confusing and full of flip-flops. It also confirms that despite her reputation for being “decisive”, Gandhi actually dithered and made up her mind to act only when driven to the wall.

If there was a dominant, perhaps defining, feature of the Emergency, it was Sanjay Gandhi’s omnipotence. His word was law. Whatever he wanted, he got. His mother just wouldn’t hear a single word critical of him, not even from such an eminent and honourable person as Sheikh Abdullah. Anyone crossing Sanjay’s path did so at his/her peril. P.N. Haksar, arguably the finest and most powerful principal secretary Indira ever had, came to grief for drawing her attention to Sanjay’s reckless misuse of his growing power and its possible repercussions. Even the plight of the PM’s secretary, P.N. Dhar, was unenviable. Since power now resided at the prime minister’s house, from where Sanjay operated, with only a coterie around him, the role of the prime minister’s secretariat (as the PMO was then called) had diminished. Early in the Emergency, Sanjay decided that in the Union home ministry, all power should be vested in the minister of state, Om Mehta, and the home minister, Brahmananda Reddy, should be kept at bay. A file on some consequential changes, bureaucratic and procedural, somehow got delayed in the PM’s secretariat. Dhar was ticked off by the PM. The home ministry’s pattern was then repeated in other ministries. Sanjay intensely disliked that, with his mother’s reluctant approval, Dhar was maintaining contact with JP in the hope of arriving at a reconciliation or compromise. In any case, nothing came of this.

Since well before the Emergency, a debate had begun in this country about changing the parliamentary system into a presidential one. In the later stages of the Emergency, the idea had morphed into several curious, risky and bizarre ideas. Sanjay’s closest political collaborator, the rude and crude Bansi Lal who held the defence portfolio, had just one suggestion: “Make behenji president for life and nothing more need be done.” The triumvirate of Dev Kant Barooah, Rajni Patel and S.S. Ray, which looked after all legal and constitutional matters on Indira’s behalf, sent her a paper on constitutional reform signed by Patel. Its actual author was A.R. Antulay, who did not want to acknowledge authorship because what he had advocated was a presidential system without any checks and balances. For this purpose, the paper had said, a fresh constituent assembly would be necessary.

Rather foolishly, Barooah leaked the “top secret” document as a “trial balloon”. All hell broke loose. Sanjay’s minions went wild and demanded that a constituent assembly be convened immediately. They were not interested in what the assembly could or should do. It was enough for them that elections would have to be postponed until the new assembly finished its work. Barooah tried to control the damage. But the genie was already out of the bottle. Some of Sanjay’s cohorts even started propagating that the existing Parliament should be converted into the constituent assembly. To Indira ,this was totally unacceptable, because she knew that having a new constituent assembly would open a Pandora’s box and might jeopardise Indian unity.

While she was considering what to do, something happened that alarmed her. Without any prior hint to her, the state assemblies of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana passed resolutions demanding the setting up of a constituent assembly. The Congress legislative party and the Pradesh Congress Committee in Bihar followed suit. That is when she started thinking of elections as the only way to stop things from getting out of hand. Remarkably, this was one issue she never discussed with Sanjay. In December, she authorised Dhar to call in the chief election commissioner, T. Swaminathan, and tell him quietly to start preparing for elections. The two talked over a cup of tea. The CEC sent Dhar a bottle of premium Scotch to celebrate.

An intriguing question remained. If the decision on elections was firmly taken during December, why wasn’t the announcement made on January 1, “as a New Year gift” to the nation? After a brief silence, Dhar told me: “The PM’s astrologers prevailed over her advisors.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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