SHORTLY after her famous elephant-ride to Belchi, Indira Gandhi went to her constituency, Rae Bareli. Simon Winchester of The Guardian, who was in the hack pack accompanying her, reported that her constituents had “forgiven her in ten minutes flat”.
Her next destination was the tribal belt of Gujarat. The welcome she received there — and even more strikingly, at the airport in Bombay (now Mumbai) en route — came to the Janata ranks as a terrible shock. Angrily, they demanded of the top leadership that instead of allowing her to “strut about the country”, Gandhi should be jailed at once. They argued that since the Shah Commission had already “held her guilty” she must be punished without delay. This reasoning was absurd, of course. For Justice J.C. Shah had clearly stated in his report that under the law, commissions of inquiry were only fact-finding bodies and “could not hold anyone guilty of anything”. If someone was to be punished, specific charges had to be filed in appropriate courts.
Even so, no one could restrain Charan Singh. On October 3, 1977, he ordered Indira Gandhi’s arrest on some flimsy charges that the Intelligence Bureau had framed at his behest. With this piece of paper, officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation and Delhi Police knocked at her door around noon. What followed was pure theatre from which she derived great political advantage. There isn’t enough space even to summarise the drama. Suffice it to say that at the first sign of the police’s plan to take her out of Delhi’s administrative jurisdiction, the Black Maria was surrounded by the vehicles carrying a large number of her supporters. She got out of the van and sat calmly on a culvert. The police had no option but to bring her back to Delhi and detain her for the night in Police Lines. The next morning, the magistrate before whom she was produced took exactly three minutes to dismiss the charges against her. This fiasco meant
a loss of face for the Janata and earned her enormous sympathy.
By this time, she had also realised that most Congress leaders were treating her with ill-concealed hostility. Some of them had even given evidence against her to the Shah Commission. So on New Year’s Day 1978, she split the party for the second time. Later in the year, she won a by-election to the Lok Sabha from Chikmagalur in Karnataka with a big majority. But her membership of Parliament lasted only six weeks. For the Privileges Committee lost no time to hold her “guilty” of contempt of Parliament. While in power, she was alleged to have obstructed some officials collecting information for a parliamentary question on Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti car project. The committee recommended that an apology by her would meet the ends of justice. But she was not the one to apologise. Whereupon the “hawkish majority” in the Janata Party insisted that she should be both expelled from Parliament and imprisoned until the prorogation of the House. This was duly done on December 19, 1978 through a resolution passed after a very heated debate.
On being released from jail after a week, she had occasion to tell Savant J. Krishnamurti that she had only two options: “to fight or let them destroy me like a sitting duck”. What she seemed to have overlooked was that she did not need to do anything. The constant and sordid infighting within the Janata had sown the seeds of its destruction already. As early as June 1978, Charan Singh had written a letter to Prime Minister Desai describing his cabinet as a “collection of impotent men” incapable of bringing Indira to justice. Desai retaliated by asking him to resign, which Singh did instantly. Morarji used the opportunity also to ease out Raj Narain, health minister and Singh’s Man Friday, who immediately formed a new party that he called Janata Dal (Secular). Its membership swiftly swelled to 72 and Charan Singh assumed its leadership. The socialists within the Janata were objecting to their colleagues belonging to the Jana Sangh owing primary loyalty to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, not to the Janata.
Charan Singh made a show of his strength at a massive rally near Parliament House on December 23, his birthday, when efforts to bring him back to the cabinet were incomplete and Gandhi was still in jail. Through a loyal supporter, she sent a bouquet to the “birthday boy”. Desai and his complacent cohorts failed to notice that a clear contact had been established between Charan Singh and the woman he was determined to destroy politically. Raj Narain was holding regular meetings with Sanjay to plot how to install Charan Singh in Desai’s place. For his part, Desai eventually persuaded Charan Singh to become deputy prime minister and finance minister, but resolutely refused to bring Raj Narain back into the cabinet.
A routine motion of no-confidence in the Desai government on July 11, 1979 brought about the disintegration of a ruling party with a speed so startling as not to have been seen before or after. Desai resigned on July 14 and yet insisted on forming the new government. Charan Singh contested his claim. President N. Sanjeeva Reddy decided in favour of Charan Singh because he had a letter from Gandhi promising her party’s support to his government without joining it. Charan Singh could never prove his majority on the floor of the House, however, because at the last minute Gandhi demanded the price of her party’s support: repeal of the law appointing special courts summarily to try her and her son. Obviously the new prime minister could not do this. Therefore, the president dissolved the Lok Sabha and ordered fresh elections in December.
The disintegration of the Janata Party brought it ignominy and widespread condemnation in India and abroad. However, a distinguished foreign scholar of the Indian Constitution and its working, Granville Austin, who passed away recently, did draw attention to the Janata’s “remarkable success in repairing the Constitution from the Emergency’s 8depredations, reopening normal parliamentary practice and restoring the judiciary’s independence”.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator