India’s date with democracy

Twelfth June is a significant date. It was on this day, 38 years ago, that a sitting PM was unseated
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First Published: Thu, Jun 13 2013. 01 14 AM IST
On 18 March 1975, Indira Gandhi became the first Indian prime minister to appear in person before a court. Photo: PIB
On 18 March 1975, Indira Gandhi became the first Indian prime minister to appear in person before a court. Photo: PIB
Updated: Thu, Jun 13 2013. 06 11 PM IST
Depending on the year, virtually every single date in the calendar takes some significance. Going as far back as 1665, on 12 June, the English renamed New Amsterdam as New York. In 1964, on the same date, Nelson Mandela was jailed for life as he campaigned for an end to the oppression of black South Africans.
Twelfth June is also an important date for Indian democracy. On this date in 1975, judge Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad high court declared prime minister Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha void, unseating her as prime minister. The series of events before and after the verdict are quite remarkable and worth revisiting.
It all started on 1 February 1971, when Indira Gandhi filed her nomination papers to stand for elections in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh. Armed with her new brand of socialism and her garibi hatao (eradicate poverty) slogan, she waged her parliamentary campaign. Her main opponent in Rae Bareli was Raj Narain, a Gandhian socialist from the Samyukta Socialist Party. She won the seat comfortably with 66.3% of the votes to Narain’s 25.9%. She also led a successful countrywide campaign and the Congress party won 351 seats in the Lok Sabha, which gave the Gandhi-led government sufficient majority to pass constitutional amendments that were previously defeated. This was the peak of her power in politics. She accelerated her nationalization agenda immediately.
Raj Narain filed a petition challenging the prime minister’s election for violating the Representation of the People Act, 1951, an event that was largely confined to judicial circles and did not make any headlines.
Over the next three years, Raj Narain’s petition went through amendments and appeals, mainly regarding the documentation and questioning of Indira Gandhi. On 18 March 1975, Indira Gandhi became the first Indian prime minister to appear in person before a court. The Allahabad high court had witnessed the appearance of many generations of the Nehru family, though not for facing corruption charges. Both Motilal Nehru and Jawaharlal Nehru had practised law there. Unlike the times of her father and grandfather, on 18 March 1975, a metal detector was installed outside the courtroom. No one stood up as the prime minister entered, a mark of respect reserved only for the presiding officer of the court, in this case justice Sinha. He addressed Indira Gandhi as the witness throughout the proceedings and she was cross-examined by opposing counsel, Shanti Bhushan, for 4 hours and 20 minutes. After her testimony, the case progressed smoothly and all arguments ended on 23 May.
On the morning of 12 June 1975, in room No. 15 of the court, Sinha found Gandhi guilty on two counts for corrupt practices under Section 123 (7) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. The first was for using the services of her election agent Yashpal Kapoor while he was still in government employment and the second was for obtaining assistance of state government officials, the district magistrate, the superintendent of police, officials of the public works department and irrigation engineers for constructing rostrums for her campaign speeches in Rae Bareli. She was acquitted on 12 of the 14 counts against her.
Sinha declared Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha void and she was unseated. She was also barred from holding an elective post for the next six years. Given that she was also prime minister and the party needed time to appoint another leader to smoothly transition the functioning of the government, Sinha unconditionally stayed the judgement for 20 days. He retired to his chambers amid applause. Along with Sinha, that morning the people of Gujarat had also given their verdict against Gandhi and the Janata Front led by Jayaprakash Narayan was set for a clear win in the state election.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the case was heard on 24 June by a vacation judge, justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who granted a conditional stay on the verdict declaring her election void. His order allowed her to address Parliament, but barred her from participating and voting in the Lok Sabha.
While her appeal was pending in the apex court and under immense pressure from the opposition and some senior members of her party to resign, Gandhi issued an ordinance on the evening of 25 June declaring a state of internal emergency. Elections, constitutional rights and civil liberties were suspended, while she ruled by decree. For the first time, Gandhi wholly grasped the meaning of political opposition and her first order after the declaration of emergency was to arrest leading members of the opposition.
In the current political environment, it is important to remember the events of 12 June. It shows what a principled and vigilant opposition can achieve in the face of a corrupt government. Jayaprakash Narayan and Raj Narain provided such opposition on many occasions before and after this verdict. This important event in Indian history is usually forgotten because it was eclipsed by the emergency that precipitated immediately after the order.
Remembering this verdict, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley should pause to reconsider their role as the incumbent leaders of opposition in Parliament. In the spate of corruption scandals that have been exposed in the last three years, they have not been successful in making the Prime Minister testify before a joint parliamentary committee, let alone in a court of law. It is particularly disappointing as both started their political careers opposing the emergency with Jayaprakash Narayan as their inspiration.
Shruti Rajagopalan is a Bradley Visiting Fellow in the department of economics at the New York University.
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First Published: Thu, Jun 13 2013. 01 14 AM IST