When MPs were elected to our Republic’s first Lok Sabha in 1952, Delhi had no Indian Express or Times of India. The only competition to The Hindustan Times came from The Statesman, British-owned at the time.
Living with parents and siblings in a Connaught Circus flat above the offices and printing press of The Hindustan Times (my father Devadas Gandhi was the paper’s editor), I, 16 at the time, would often go behind the glass frame that displayed ‘Spot News’ from the HT building’s first floor to passers-by or a crowd below. I had learnt to read that ‘Spot News’ panel from behind.
On counting day in 1952, ‘Spot News’ declared: ‘SUCHETA KRIPALANI DEFEATS MANMOHINI SAHGAL’. A Bengali lady who had left the Congress to join the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party founded by her Sindhi husband (Acharya Kripalani), Sucheta had narrowly beaten the Congress candidate in the New Delhi constituency, a Kashmiri lady related to the Nehrus.
Standing as an Independent, Durga Das, the ace reporter who had left The Statesman to join The Hindustan Times, had come a distant third.
In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru was widely loved and hugely popular. The Congress won 45 per cent of the national vote and 364 seats out of a total of 489. Though not officially called Leader of the Opposition, A K Gopalan of the Communist Party, a Malayali Nair, led the largest Opposition bloc in the Lok Sabha — his party had won all of 16 seats. KMPP, the Kripalani party, won 9 and the Socialists 12. From Delhi, Sucheta was the sole non-Congress MP.
But Nehru did not obtain 1952’s largest tally. That feat belonged to Ravi Narayan Reddy, the Communist MP from Nalgonda (now in Telangana), who had polled over 3,00,000 votes.
By 1967, when the 4th Lok Sabha was chosen, the picture was very different. Nehru had died in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966, and the mettle of Shastri’s petite successor, 50-year-old Indira Gandhi, was as yet untested.
Though the Congress again won, with 40.78 per cent of the vote (283 out of 520 seats), the Opposition had finally scented the possibility of a non-Congress government at the Centre. In several states, moreover, opposition parties in 1967 either replaced the Congress (the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Left in Kerala and Swatantra in Odisha), or mauled its strength, as UP, West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Punjab saw.
Opposition disharmony, however, was reflected in the 4th Lok Sabha. Swatantra, which had 44 seats, Jana Sangh (35), CPI (23), CPM (19), SSP (23), PSP (13), and DMK (24) had arrived in Parliament with clashing agendas.
Indira Gandhi’s audacity, which few foresaw, split the Congress in the 1969 summer and the state of Pakistan in the 1971-72 winter. In March 1971, well before the liberation of Bangladesh, that daring had fetched Indira’s Congress 352 seats out of 545 in a mid-term poll.
Four years later, early in the morning of June 26, 1975, my wife and I arrived at Chennai’s Central Station. Making the journey at the last minute, we had slept on newspapers on the train’s floor. I heard someone on the Chennai platform speak of ‘Emergency’.
A year-and-a-half later, in January 1977, Indira Gandhi surprisingly announced fresh elections and the release of political leaders. I was once more in Chennai, staying at Kalki Gardens, which belonged to that incomparable pair, T Sadasivam and M S Subbulakshmi. Kalki Gardens was also where Acharya Kripalani, then 88, was lodged.
Though he had opposed the Emergency, Dada Kipalani was too old to be arrested. As January 1977 turned to February, and February to March, when elections to the 6th Lok Sabha were held, I had the privilege of following political developments in Dada Kripalani’s company and that of the Sadasivams.
These happenings included the formation of the Janata Party, Babu Jagjivan Ram’s crossover from the Congress, and Mrs Gandhi’s defeat in Rae Bareli.
For many in India, the night of election results, on March 20, 1977, saw the steady mounting of a dreamed-of yet unimagined joy. Someone from Delhi would later recall to me: “We were standing in front of The Indian Express’s Spot News. Alphabet by alphabet the news was being flashed. When after ‘Indira Gandhi’ the letter ‘D’ appeared, we exploded in celebration.”
In that 6th Lok Sabha, the Congress (I) won not a single seat in UP, Bihar, Punjab or Delhi, only one seat in MP and Rajasthan, and only three in West Bengal.
Yet, South India voted resoundingly in Indira’s favour. In Kerala, all 20 Lok Sabha seats were won by a Congress-led alliance. In Andhra, the Congress won 41 out of 42 seats, in Karnataka 26 out of 28. And in Tamil Nadu, a Congress-AIADMK-CPI alliance won 33 out of 39 seats. In Maharashtra, the Congress won 20 out of 48 seats in 1977. The Congress’s all-India ally was 154, compared with Janata’s 308.
What then does history say about elections in India? Among other things, it reminds us that the Indian voter likes at times to surprise. Overall, history also suggests that while some politicians may be daring, or able to stitch alliances, build a ground-level machinery, and lubricate that machinery with funds, the last word has usually belonged to the Indian voter.
However, the history of other parts of the world contains a caution. Be watchful when nationalism merges with hatred. As the poet Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee reminds us, while Indians usually celebrate elections as festivals, malice expels the festive spirit. Toxicity, the world has warned, can for a while sway large numbers. In due course toxicity will dissipate, but no one knows how long or short that course is.
Rajmohan Gandhi is Research Professor at the Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign