Chapter 7: INDIA SINCE INDEPENDENCE - VII
Indira Gandhi: 1972 onwards
The years after the Bangladesh crisis were good for Indira and the
Congress. In the state elections of 1972 Indira and the congress won
majority at the state assemblies. Now she was in control over
Center, State and the Party too. The years following the elections
saw steady progress in implementation of left-of-the-center
policies of the Congress. These were nationalization of banks,
abolition of privy purses of princes. The critical constitutional
amendments were made to the Constitution by removing Fundamental
Rights to Property and compensation.
The Supreme court had annulled certain decisions of the government
and due to this Supremacy of Judiciary over executive and
Legislature was created. This balance was restored by these
amendments as the Constitution makers also never wanted this.
However certain events led to Indira Gandhi taking a decision that
threatened the Indian democracy itself. The Emergency of 1975 was a
black day of democracy but thankfully was the last time this was
done. The situations leading to this decision were complex.
The State of the economy worsened in 1973. There was high inflation,
drought that led to food shortage and reduced power generation,
industrial deflation was seen and many were laid off this caused
unemployment, the Bangladesh crisis had led to depletion of grain
reserves as refugees had to be fed and also the war had created a
huge budgetary deficit. Prices of oil rose and this hit commodity
prices. Essential items were costly and now food riots were seen in
Students and workers had started protesting against this. There were
large scale strikes in railways, even the Police constabulary
protested. Army was called to handle the situation. The workers had
become dissociated from the congress. To tackle this situation a
strong leadership was needed. But this wasn't forthcoming. The
Congress couldn't handle the situation. It had lost contact with the
grassroots. Even the people's faith in the leadership had eroded as
corruption allegations were leveled even against Indira Gandhi.
Even the social groups of India were now against the Congress. The
poor supported it but passively whereas the middle class was against
it due to price rise and corruption. The capitalists and rich
peasants were opposed to it due to leftist reform agenda. the
situation was exploited by Opposition parties which had been
vanquished in the elections. These parties supported any movement
that was against the government. The wave of Anti-Congressism
was on the rise.
JP Movement and Bihar - Gujarat unrest
The rising discontent against the faction ridden congress
and the poor economic situation led to student organizations
creating unrest in these places. The agitation in Gujarat was of
this kind. The students protested and soon even the political
parties joined. To control the chaos the police resorted to brutal
repression. The situation was handled by Indira Gandhi by dissolving
the assembly and calling for fresh elections. Thus the opposition
parties were buoyed by their success.
In Bihar too the same situation was repeated. But here the Socialist
leader Jayprakash Narayan came back from retirement and organized
demonstrations. He encouraged protestors to stop taxes, work and
force legislators to resign. In this case Indira Gandhi didn't
repeat the decision of dissolving the assembly fearing a repeat of
the Gujarat situation. Also she didn't want the violence to spread
to other states.
JP Movement started and under it JP Narayan toured
the country and accused Congress leaders of being corrupt and named
Indira as a threat to democracy. The movement was supported in
communities of workers, students and opposition parties. The
opposition and JP supported each other. However the movement lacked
support of rural and urban masses and began fading. Indira Gandhi
also asked JP to test popularity by contesting the general elections
A sudden twist to the political situation was provided by the
Allahabad HC by disqualifying Indira Gandhi for electoral
malpractices and barred her from contesting elections or holding
office. This decision she challenged in SC. The JP
movement and opposition parties got ammunition due to this. They
called Indira to resign and threatened launch of a civil
disobedience movement for this. JP urged the people to make life
difficult for the government. He also asked the army, police and
bureaucracy to ignore decisions that were illegal and
unconstitutional. Prior to this Indira Gandhi faced a major
embarrassment when the Janata front government defeated Congress and
formed a government.
It was now that Indira Gandhi took the decision of imposing
a state of Internal Emergency.
Emergency: The Test of Democracy
The situation before the emergency was tense due to the JP Movement.
The character of Jayprakash Narayan was that of impeccable honesty.
However he had a weak personality and nebulous ideology. He talked
about party-less democracy even in the past but had failed to
concretely explain this. With other socialists he had called the
Nehru government a imperial tool and sham. Now however his role was
more important. The congress was already on the back foot due to
serious economic situation in the country. JP knew that without the
structured organization of the opposition he wouldn't be able to
take on Indira Gandhi. Opposition too in their taste for
anti-congressism had supported him.
JP movement wasn't totally based on ideology as it had elements from
communal groups as well as the far left Naxal elements. It had no
political goal other than to remove Indira Gandhi from government.
The movement itself wasn't democratic as JP never demanded elections
to decide who would lead the government but favored mass agitations
and civil disobedience. There was a danger in this tactic of
undermining the democratic institutions as seen in Italy and Germany
where democracy replaced by revolution led to rise of fascist
elements. The same fascist elements existed in the movement too
Opposition consisted of even communal and reactionary forces.
JP himself would never have planned a revolution but others would
have. As the movement was increasingly coming into the influence of
radicals. Extra legal, extra constitutional means were adopted by
the opposition. Morarji desai and others even threatened to blockade
the PM's residence and force her to resign, A Coup.
The movement also got a boost by the Allahabad HC harsh
verdict on a technicality. This further boosted the confidence of
opposition who didn't want to risk waiting a year for the general
elections as situations change rapidly in politics.
Indira Gandhi too was flawed in taking the extreme step of imposing
an emergency. The justification was internal unrest and threat to
political stability by the JP Movement. However once this situation
was dealt with there was no reason for the 19 month long emergency.
The draconian measures of curbing civil liberties, stiffing press,
arresting leaders and police action were unjustified. In all over 1
lakh people were arrested in the country. State governments too were
brought under strict control, chief minister's too were replaced and
non-congress governments were dismissed. Internal democracy within
the party too was curbed and the Sanjay Gandhi led Youth Congress
became more important than the parent organization.
Legislation's too were passed like the Defense of India Act
and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act to curb
civil liberties and demonstrations. The country had become a police
Reactions to the Emergency
Intelligentsia reacted negatively to the Emergency but the
vast masses either accepted it or were unconcerned. This was due to
many factors. Firstly, dictatorship wasn't going to be created and
that the emergency was as per constitutional procedures and approved
by courts. The situation of growing strikes, agitations, violence
came to an end. Many communal's and reactionary elements were
arrested and calm prevailed. Students and teachers returned to
normalcy, people too saw that economic situation had come back and
no agitations were seen. It was felt that after the emergency
measures the crisis was over. Indira government too launched a 21
point agenda for social and rapid transformation. The landless,
marginalized derived benefit from such schemes. Thus, public were
mostly un-agitated over the emergency till mid 1976. However
it should be noted that the measures taken could have been taken
without the emergency too.
Soon people became disillusioned by the emergency measures.
The economic situation worsened. Governments socialist plans never
became fully operational. Rural agrarian reforms were stalled by
Rich peasants and inefficient and apathetic bureaucracy. The police
and bureaucracy enjoyed harsh powers under the new legislation's and
grievance redressal was also not available to the public. The courts
couldn't entertain petitions related to abuse of fundamental rights.
Civil servants became intolerant and public were repressed. A major
reason for the tension was Sanjay Gandhi whose youth congress became
more powerful than the parent congress.
He was now a parallel government. He would order even chief
ministers and bureaucrats. He launched his four point agenda which
became more important than the government's 21 point agenda. One of
the objectives was family planning and restricting family size to
two. Government servants were given fixed quota's to complete and
this led to forced sterilization, vasectomy. This created an
atmosphere of fear amongst the people.
Surprise elections were declared in 1977 in which the unpopularity
of the emergency cost the congress and many leaders including Indira
Gandhi lost their seats. The Dark Period of Emergency was over and
civil liberties and other democratic processes were restored. Though
Indira Gandhi had got the parliament to extend emergency for one
more year she called for elections, this surprised people. The
reason quoted was that she was basically a democrat who believed
in validating the declaration of emergency through the ballot. She
was aware of the excesses committed during the emergency and
wanted the cycle to end even if it meant her defeat.
The political situation which was grim during the emergency
led critics to comment that just like other post-colonial countries
India too would become authoritarian state. In a country with a
large mass of poor and illiterate this transformation was
inevitable. The other opinion felt that economic development needed
an authoritarian regime which Indira Gandhi had provided and both
couldn't coexist. The radicals felt that democracy is only class
domination and bourgeois under the facade of democratic polity and
that emergency had only removed that facade. Regarding Indira
Gandhi's removal of emergency some felt was a move made due to
influence of sycophantic supporters who had misjudged the public
opinion of Gandhi.
However it cannot be argued that when the elections occurred
the same illiterate people exercised their franchise
intelligently. Arguments regarding democracy, freedom and civil
liberties were understood by them and ultimately this led to
Indira Gandhi's defeat. Thus, this election was a test through
democracy emerged with flying colors.