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The wave no one noticed

Defying the expectations of observers and the opposition, Indira Gandhi won the 1971 elections handsomely.

Written by Inder Malhotra | Updated: February 17, 2014 5:49 am
The Congress (I) captured 352 seats, giving Indira Gandhi the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution. The ‘grand alliance’ was virtually wiped out. (Photo: Reuters) The Congress (I) captured 352 seats, giving Indira Gandhi the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution. The ‘grand alliance’ was virtually wiped out. (Photo: Reuters)

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 assertion the “grand alliance” of her main political foes, headed by the Congress (O), declared their single-point objective: “Indira Hatao (Remove Indira)”. In an inspirational response, she declared that she was not opposed to any individual and was interested only in freeing her people from the scourge of poverty. So her battle-cry would be, “Garibi Hatao (Remove poverty)”.

The impact on the country was instant and electric. The poor, a vast majority of the population, were overwhelmed with emotion. They felt that they had at last found their redeemer.

Her party’s election campaign was run almost exclusively by her because she had no party machine worth the name and other party leaders were busy with safeguarding their own positions in their constituencies. She was also the sole selector of her party’s candidates, and took to the campaign trail from one end of the country to the other with energy more ferocious than usual, travelling faster and farther than in any previous election. In a tribal area, women started dancing to welcome her. She joined them and won rapturous applause. She invoked radical rhetoric for all it was worth but took care to reassure the affluent sections that she would be mindful of their interests, too. At a meeting of industrial tycoons, she declared that she had “absolutely no intention of abolishing the institution of private property”.

The popular enthusiasm for Gandhi was manifest. Even so, not only the “grand alliance” but also many independent observers believed that the 1971 election would be — as Wellington said of Waterloo — a “damned close run thing”. There were plausible reasons for this belief. The Congress (O) and even the smaller parties allied to it had well-oiled party machines. Congress (O) leaders were also confident that their constant “exposure” of Gandhi’s “political immorality” would have the desired effect on the voter. Moreover, several influential newspapers that used to praise her profusely had turned against her, some of them virulently.

When election results started coming in, it was clear that Gandhi had won a stunning victory. The Congress (I) captured 352 seats, giving her the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution. These were 70 seats more than the undivided Congress had won four years earlier. The “grand alliance” was virtually wiped out. All of a sudden the newspapers hostile to her gave huge headlines about the “Indira wave” that had swept the country. “No Indira wave this. It is a hurricane”, wrote Sham Lal, the editor of The Times of India.

In her constituency, Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi had the satisfaction of defeating decisively Raj Narain, a burly and buffoonish socialist, who was the author of the “Indira Hatao” slogan. But he lived to fight another day and turn the tables on Gandhi in the post-Emergency elections in 1977.

Ironically, Gandhi’s communist allies were in a worse quandary than her opponents that had bitten the dust. When she extended her alliance with them from Kerala to the rest of the country — the CPI, unlike the CPM, had no strongholds anywhere but it had many pockets of influence, especially in states where the Congress (O) was strong — the comrades were jubilant that the “Kerala pattern” of governance would be replicated in New Delhi under Gandhi’s leadership. But they discovered to their dismay that she no longer needed their support. Not even to amend the Constitution — an item high on her agenda in view of the Supreme Court’s judgment on privy purses — because she had the magic two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament on her own.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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