Defying the expectations of observers and the opposition, Indira Gandhi won the 1971 elections handsomely.
IT was on the evening of December 27, 1970 that Indira Gandhi addressed the nation on radio and TV to announce that the Lok Sabha had been dissolved, and fresh elections would take place in the middle of February 1971. Such an announcement was bound to come sometime or the other. However, Gandhi’s timing was influenced greatly by a Supreme Court judgment, delivered just 12 days earlier, invalidating the president’s famous proclamation in September “derecognising” all princes and thus depriving them of their privy purses and privileges.
Gandhi was both disappointed and angry. She therefore wanted to regain in Parliament an adequate majority to undo the apex court’s verdict. This was not enough for many of her young and radical followers to whom this judgment, on top of a succession of others obstructing the nationalisation of banks, was the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. They argued that since the higher judiciary was “biased” in favour of propertied classes and vested interests, “something must be done about it”. The struggle preceding the Congress split had given rise to a shrill slogan for a “committed bureaucracy” and a “committed press”. This was now extended to a “committed judiciary”, too.
Some flamboyant Young Turks went so far as to demand the convening of a new constituent assembly to “rewrite the entire constitution” with a view to setting up a “second republic”. Gandhi rebuked them rather sharply, warning them that she wouldn’t countenance methods that “bypassed democracy”. “If communists use (such methods) I’m against them. If the Congress uses them I am afraid I am against such Congressmen also,” she declared. Her subtle message was that she would use populist measures to preserve her pre-eminent position, but would have no truck with extremist methods that would turn the system upside down.
However, this did not register with her opponents because the pre-election friction was as high as that before the Congress split. For her part, Gandhi failed to perceive that, whether she liked it or not, the stage for a confrontation between the executive and the judiciary was already being set. In the event, this clash began sooner than her admonition to the radicals in her ranks might have indicated. For the present, however, everyone was focused on the mid-February poll.
Almost from the very beginning, the 1971 parliamentary election — which I covered extensively — turned into a referendum on Gandhi’s leadership. She relished it. When Newsweek asked her what the main issues in the election were, she replied gleefully: “I am the issue.” As if to confirm her continued…