From the moment the Congress split, Indira Gandhi knew — as did the country — that she would have to hold fresh elections to seek a mandate for herself sooner or later. She could not go on running a minority government depending on the support of others. But being habitually cautious, she also knew that a lot of preparatory work had to be done before taking the plunge. So she kept everyone guessing.
By this time I was no longer in Delhi, where I had covered for long years the intense political activity that was occasionally of historical importance, and more often either bizarre or hilarious. I had moved to Calcutta, now Kolkata, to the head office of the newspaper I was then working for. On a hot and humid afternoon in June 1970, a good friend and news source in the national capital phoned me, as he often did. Usually a talkative man, this time he uttered only two words — “Watch Kerala” — and rang off. From the newsroom I found out that the United Left Front government in that troubled state had just fallen because of unending dissensions among its numerous constituents, principally between the larger of the two communist parties — the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that led the government and the Communist Party of India. A couple of hours later, amidst great excitement, Gandhi announced that her party, the second largest in the state assembly after the CPM, would support a CPI-led minority government without joining it.
This was much more than quid pro quo for the CPI’s support to her government in New Delhi.
The shrewd move had two purposes: to discern the wider power play after the Congress split and to use the CPI to undermine the Marxists, with whom she was having a tough struggle in both their strongholds, West Bengal and Kerala. As it happened, her move also represented an exquisite twist of irony. This needs explaining.
In the second general election in 1957, the then undivided CPI earned the distinction of being the first communist party in history to come to power anywhere in a free and fair election. It then embarked on land and educational reforms in the country’s most literate and largely feudal state. Landlords and those controlling lucrative educational institutions were incensed and started an agitation for “throwing the communists out”. The state unit of the undivided Congress joined the agitation a while later. Gandhi was at that time Congress president. With the support of the highly influential home minister, Govind Ballabh Pant, and the Congress rightwing, she virtually forced her father to dismiss the Kerala ministry, despite his heavy qualms about this unconstitutional act. When Jawaharlal Nehru told her that the demand for sacking the communist ministry was partly communal, she had retorted: “Everything in Kerala is communal, including the communists”. And now she was in close alliance with the CPI.
She advised Kerala’s much-liked CPI chief minister, Achutha Menon, to hold fresh elections in the state only in September. Since, for her, the Kerala poll was a trial run for the countrywide general election, she wanted to do something spectacular to catch the public’s attention before the event. She therefore decided to complete the pending task of abolishing the privy purses and privileges of the princes. In this she succeeded, but only after a prolonged and tortuous process. Her attempt to do it by negotiating with the trade union of former rulers, called the Concord of Princes, predictably failed. She then tried to pass a law. In the Lok Sabha, it got the requisite two-thirds majority of those present and voting as well as a clear majority of the House. But in the Rajya Sabha, the bill was defeated by one vote. She then saw to it that, by a notification that very evening, the president “derecognised” all the 500-odd princes, thus depriving them of privy purses and perks that were guaranteed to them in perpetuity.
Satisfied with this, early next morning she left for Lusaka for the Non-Aligned Summit. But hardly an hour after her flight had taken off from Delhi, the Intelligence Bureau got wind that there was a bomb aboard her aircraft. She dismissed this “scare” and insisted that the flight should continue. But her then principal aide, P.N. Haksar, told her that on the prime minister’s security, “the prime minister could not be the judge”. His view, that the plane must return to Delhi and be searched thoroughly, prevailed. The search revealed that there was not the slightest trace of a bomb. Gandhi’s opponents mocked her. She had, they said, “staged the drama” to suggest that her life was in danger.
On returning from the NAM summit, she got busy with the election campaign in Kerala with her usual enormous energy. I reported this election fully, first travelling with her across the state and then extending the same courtesy to the CPM leader, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who had headed the first-ever duly elected communist ministry that was dismissed in 1959.
The Congress (O) and its allies had little following in Kerala but mustered all their manpower and resources to discredit the Indira-CPI alliance. K. Kamaraj and his cohorts concentrated on her “political immorality”, but to no avail. Asoka Mehta, a former socialist — who had joined the Congress in Nehru’s last years with Indira Gandhi’s help and had later become a trusted member of her cabinet, only to fall from grace soon enough — was polite. He went from one end of Kerala to the other telling the people that “Indiraji” had “killed” the project to build a shipyard at Cochin, now Kochi, also without any effect. The Congress (I)-CPI coalition, headed in Kerala by Menon, the leader of the junior partner, won hands down.
To nobody’s surprise, the CPI had then started hoping to repeat the “Kerala pattern” in New Delhi, under Gandhi’s leadership, of course. But everyone was foxed because, despite her success of the trial run in Kerala, she remained totally silent about national elections.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator