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A populist move,a party chasm

Zakir Husain’s death in 1969 exposed the battle between Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai for leadership within the party.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
Updated: January 10, 2014 12:15:37 am

Zakir Husain’s death in 1969 exposed the battle between Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai for leadership within the party.

Within a week of the fiery fiasco at Faridabad (See ‘Prelude to a split’,IE,December 9) occurred a tragedy that gave a tremendous boost to the bitter infighting within the Congress. On May 3,1969,President Zakir Husain,who had maintained dignified detachment from the Congress power struggle,died suddenly,plunging the country into grief. It is arguable that had he lived to complete his five-year tenure as head of state,the Congress might have muddled through technically in one piece,as it had done from March 1967 until then. But it is pointless to speculate about the ifs and buts of history. What matters is what actually happened,not what might have been.

The Syndicate-Morarji Desai combine looked upon the president’s passing as a providential opportunity to settle scores with Indira Gandhi. It planned to use its majority in the Congress parliamentary board to nominate one of themselves as the Congress’s presidential candidate who,after winning the election,would get rid of the unwanted prime minister. Though fully aware of this,Gandhi maintained complete silence and indeed left for Japan on an official visit. In Tokyo,she received word that her adversaries had settled on Sanjiva Reddy,a founder member of the Syndicate who was then Speaker of the Lok Sabha,as the next incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Gandhi was totally opposed to him but remained silent,because she knew that her only hope to avoid disaster was to come to a behind-the-scenes compromise with her opponents. She realised that the usual practice of elevating the vice president — V. V. Giri at that time — was not feasible. Even the chances of finding another mutually acceptable candidate were thin because neither the Syndicate nor Desai wanted to let go of the golden opportunity.

Even so,she wanted to try,and there was still time,because the presidential nominee was to be chosen in mid-July in Bangalore,where the Congress Working Committee,the AICC and the parliamentary board were due to meet. It was at this stage that her principal and most trusted aide,P.N. Haksar,advised the prime minister to convert the personal struggle for power into an ideological one. She acted on this advice in a manner that was typically hers.

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On the first day of the CWC meeting,she absented herself,pleading “indisposition”,but sent it a note with the title “Some Stray Thoughts Hurriedly Dictated”. Her message was carried by her cabinet colleague Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed,who later as president meekly signed the declaration of Emergency,even though the council of ministers hadn’t even seen it. In her communication to the working committee,Gandhi once again brought up the controversial and rather emotive issue of bank nationalisation. Only a few weeks earlier she had restrained the Young Turks from demanding instant nationalisation and told them to give social control of banks a chance for two years.

Even now she did not call for the immediate nationalisation of commercial banks but,with delightful ambiguity,stated that she was prepared to “reconsider” the issue before the expiry of two years. Despite her elliptical style,her message was clear: She had no particular interest in bank nationalisation but would use it to safeguard her position on the selection of the party’s candidate for the presidential poll.

Convinced that she was being cynical,the Syndicate answered her with cynicism of its own. It made the working committee endorse her note in entirety and ask her government to implement it. This,together with the meeting of the AICC at which the Young Turks gave Gandhi much traction,was a sideshow. The real issue on everyone’s mind was the choice of the presidential nominee,and the seven-member parliamentary board took it up the next day. Gandhi’s suggestion that Jagjivan Ram,the tallest Dalit leader and a senior minister,should be president to fulfil Mahatma Gandhi’s dream,had no takers. Even Jagjivan Ram was not interested in ending his “active political career” so soon. By a majority of four to three,Reddy was chosen. What heightened Indira Gandhi’s fury was that her home minister,Y.B. Chavan,generally believed to be loyal to her,had “voted with the enemy”.

She came out of the meeting looking like a “wounded tigress” and told the press that the “party bosses” would have to “face the consequences of foisting on her an unacceptable presidential candidate”. She added that the “assault” on her was because of her “views,approach,and socio-economic policies”. Everyone present at the press conference surmised that on reaching Delhi,she would take drastic action against Chavan. But,once again,she sprang a big surprise by striking at Desai instead.

In a politely worded letter,she informed him that she was divesting him of his portfolio of finance because it would be “unfair” to “burden” him with the responsibility to implement policies on which he had “reservations”. She added that she was taking over the finance ministry herself,and invited him to stay in the cabinet as deputy prime minister without portfolio. Desai was infuriated. He complained that he was treated like a “chaprasi”,rejected her offer,and resigned.

This inevitably widened the chasm between Indira Gandhi and those who had worsted her by choosing Reddy as the presidential nominee. But having seized the initiative,she did not give them time to react to Desai’s dismissal and hit them with another surprise. As the then economic affairs secretary,I.G. Patel,later recounted,she summoned him immediately after Desai’s departure,told him that banks had to be nationalised for “political reasons”,and wanted all the necessary paperwork at her desk at 10 the next morning. This was,of course,done. A few hours later an ordinance was issued to the nationalised 14 major banks. The enormous public welcome this received shook the Syndicate.

Meanwhile,the sidelined Vice President Giri had resigned and declared that he would contest the presidential election as an independent candidate. This opened up quite a few intriguing possibilities for the players of the political chess game.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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