In its determination to politically destroy Indira Gandhi, the party succeeded in hastening her return to power.
It was on a tidal wave of goodwill that the newly formed Janata Party came to power after defeating Indira Gandhi humiliatingly in the post-Emergency polls in 1977. Indeed, there was no dearth of Janata’s jubilant supporters that hailed the changeover as a “revolution by the ballot-box”. If really so, then it must be the only revolution to have been devoured by its children. To careful observers of the scene, the possibility of self-destruction by the Janata was evident even when it was being applauded for having ended the nightmare of the Emergency and restored democracy. A glaring sign of the shape of things to come was a triangular strife within the victorious party over who should lead the government.
Charan Singh, a former Congress chief minister of the politically key state of Uttar Pradesh and leader of a caste-based party of farmers, argued that since the Janata had won in the northern part of India, he should be the obvious choice for prime minister. Jagjivan Ram disputed this and was equally adamant about his claim. After all, he had been a senior member of the cabinets of both Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi and was the tallest leader of the Scheduled Castes, at one time called Untouchables and now Dalits or “the oppressed”. It was his resignation from Gandhi’s government and the Congress, he said, that had tipped the electoral scales decisively against her. And then there was Morarji Desai, who had twice missed becoming prime minister.
Since the squabbling trio could not agree, it was decided to leave the choice to the two grand old men behind the Janata — Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, and Acharya J.B. Kripalani. They settled for Desai. Singh was given the powerful ministry of home affairs. Jagjivan Ram accepted the important portfolio of defence after a show of reluctance. External affairs went to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the leader of the Jana Sangh, which later morphed into the present-day BJP. The fiery socialist and arch-enemy of Gandhi, George Fernandes, was given charge of industries.
After this, all the Janata men went to the Mahatma’s Samadhi to take the oath to “remain united always”. No solemn pledge has ever been broken so speedily and brazenly as this was. Both at the Centre and in the states, where the Janata was in power, factional fights and implacable personal hatreds flourished. Since the hurriedly cobbled combination of four opposition parties was united only on ousting Gandhi and nothing else, there was ideological mishmash on almost every policy issue.
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While disagreeing on practically everything else, all sections of the Janata were united in wanting to award Gandhi exemplary punishment for her “crime” of imposing the Emergency. But here, too, there were differences on what exactly to do. Desai’s refrain was that the law should be “allowed to take its course”. Singh loathed this and demanded a “Nuremberg-type trial” of the former prime minister. He refused to accept the legal advice that there was no provision for such a trial in the Constitution and jurisprudence. He had the support of 220 of the 302 Janata MPs, who had no legislative experience but had spent the 19 months of the Emergency in jail.
Even so, the Janata ultimately decided to appoint no fewer than eight commissions of inquiry against Gandhi. Of these the most important, and with the widest remit, was the Shah Commission headed by J.C. Shah, a former chief justice of India. From the word go, it became a cross between a US Congressional inquiry and a Chinese people’s court. In the overcrowded courtroom, all evidence against Gandhi — including that from her former ministers who were earlier her sycophants — was cheered wildly. Any rare remark in her favour was ignored or booed. For a certain length of time this seemed all right and was even popular. But because it droned on and on, it first became boring and then counter-productive. People started saying that instead of prosecuting Gandhi, the Janata was “persecuting” her. At that time, one of the eight commissions was investigating the charge against her of having “stolen” some chickens from the government guesthouse in a northeastern state! As eminent journalist and author Arun Shourie, totally opposed to Gandhi, wrote, “by the time the Shah Commission’s report was submitted, it had become an embarrassment for the Janata, not for her”.
This indeed was the greatest irony in the rather short life-story of the Janata Party. It was determined to destroy Gandhi politically, forever. It succeeded instead in helping, indeed hastening, her spectacular return to power. How this happened is a long and complex story that I will summarise in this and the next instalment of “Rear View”.
Too many wrong things had happened during the Janata raj that robbed it of its popularity. There was an increase in lawlessness and people were fed up with soaring prices. However, the most heartrending development was a shocking increase in atrocities against Dalits. These were by no means unknown during Gandhi’s reign. But the sudden increase in their frequency and the escalation of the savagery were phenomenal, obviously because the “intermediate castes”, the Janata’s power base, were vastly more hostile to the Dalits than the “forward castes”.
The Dalits were agitating in various parts of the country, but the atrocity that brought immeasurable shame on the Janata was the one at a remote Bihar village named Belchi, where nine Dalits were burnt alive and many Dalit women raped. Why? For, Indira Gandhi, hitherto shell-shocked and politically inactive, decided to go there. Unable to drive through the massive slush on the route, she asked for and got a lift on the back of an elephant that a villager was leading somewhere. The victims of the barbarity gave a tremendous welcome to the only political leader who had bothered to come to them to offer sympathy and support. Her elephant-ride to Belchi blackened the Janata’s face. It also became her first step on the comeback trail.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator