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after Gandhi’s humiliating defeat in the 1977 election, all the odious changes she had made in the Constitution were repealed.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 continued…