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Indian independence came with two great gifts not necessarily vouchsafed to new nations: an all-encompassing freedom party born of decades of struggle and a commitment to full-blown democracy. The Indian National Congress, born in 1885, was a movement that embraced every ideological tendency. It was founded on the understanding that until swaraj was won, freedom was the only practical ideology that mattered. Under Gandhi, millions waged a non-violent revolution that bequeathed the country with the legacy of single-party dominance.

Perhaps more remarkable was the long-standing commitment to democracy born of a realization that there was no other means to bind the extraordinary plurality of India than a government of, for and by the people. Sceptics scoffed, Churchill among them. Elsewhere, as in the West, full-fledged democracy had been the end product of a century of education and social and economic revolution that was still incomplete in 1947. And here was a desperately poor, largely illiterate and bewilderingly plural India uncompromisingly adopting full-blooded democracy as a means of ushering in a social and economic revolution. This was standing History on its head.

The critics were falsified. Indian democracy not only held the country together but, with all its flaws, became an exemplar for the ensuing era of decolonization and a global reference point for popular governance. The Indian elections now boast an electorate of 814 million or more than that of all of Europe, Russia and North America combined.

Single party dominance was only twice breached in the Nehru era, in erstwhile PEPSU (the Patiala and East Punjab States Union) and in Kerala where a Communist regime was elected only to be soon dismissed. Opposition was building and it was with the third general election in 1967 that coalitions of small splinter parties were able to form Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) governments of lower-mid level castes who had benefited from land reforms to challenge Congress hegemony.

Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded Nehru only to be followed by an internal power struggle on his passing. Morarji Desai, the principal challenger, was isolated by Kamaraj, the Congress president, and a “Syndicate" of powerful regional Congress bosses, and Indira Gandhi was elected leader in 1966. The Syndicate’s belief that she could be manipulated and managed until one of them took over was belied and Indira split the Party in 1969 to head the Congress (Indira) as opposed to the Congress (Organization). Mrs Gandhi’s dependence on a “kitchen cabinet" and a leftward lurch marked by the nationalization of banking, insurance, coal, aviation and other sectors of the economy created alarm, resistance and polarization. Shrewd but politically insecure, she had felt betrayed by officials and experts who had advised devaluation of the rupee and a Western-sponsored economic revival package soon after she first assumed office. Somewhat furtively planned and haltingly implemented, the gambit went awry. A shocked prime minister retreated into a shell, seeking solace and guidance from an inner coterie and, more especially, her younger son, Sanjay, a callow and unscrupulous youth, who in due course virtually took over the reins of government. She also “nationalized" corruption by permitting the party’s political-election chest to be augmented by camp-followers seeking rents from the licence-permit raj and taking cuts from large domestic and foreign deals. Sanjay’s fatuous small car project backed by government patronage added to the stink.

However, Mrs Gandhi won international acclaim as “Empress of India" after India’s decisive victory against Pakistan in the liberation of Bangladesh despite the notorious Nixon tilt towards Islamabad then engaged in brokering a US-China détente. Garibi Hatao was her new slogan positioning Socialism “a little left of self-interest", as a wag remarked!

Nevertheless, continuing inner rot, including efforts to institute a “committed judiciary" and civil service coupled with mounting corruption was to lead to a nationwide anti-corruption campaign under Jayaprakash Narayan. The spark was lit by mishandling of a reservation agitation in Gujarat but became a prairie fire in Bihar where JP called on students to give up their studies for a year to join a chhatra yuva sangharsh vahini to topple the government. The call was met by repression, causing further public alienation. An all-India Railway strike led by George Fernandes upped the ante.

It was at this juncture that the judgement of Justice J.L. Sinha of the Allahabad high court on an election petition by Raj Narain, her opponent in Rae Bareli in the 1971 poll, burst like a bombshell. It found the prime minister guilty of official machinery in her campaign and disqualified her from elective office for six years. Justice Krishna Iyer, vacation judge of the Supreme Court, announced a conditional stay until her appeal could be heard. But her embattled supporters, led by Sanjay and his storm-troopers, would have none of it to the echo of “Indira is India and India is Indira", the Congress president, Dev Kant Barooah’s, earlier war-cry. Aided by a cabal that included Mohan Kumaramangalam and Siddhartha Shankar Ray, an internal Emergency was declared and the “Freedom at midnight" born in 1947 was extinguished a little before at midnight on June 25 after obtaining the President’s signature without his seeing the relevant official papers.

JP had at a mass rally at the Ram Lila grounds on the evening of 25 June called on the police not to obey illicit orders. This unwise statement was seized upon to make a charge of sedition and conspiracy. Opposition leaders were arrested, censorship imposed and Parliament and the judiciary muzzled. The cabinet was summoned to Mrs Gandhi’s residence at 6 am on 26 June to be told what had happened. Only Swaran Singh attempted to protest. The light of freedom was extinguished.

Censorship was the main instrument employed. Habeas corpus was suspended by a shameful order of the Supreme Court with only Justice H.R Khanna dissenting. Most MPs had been arrested and the proceedings of the rump could not be reported. A Gujarat high court order declaring the censorship guidelines ultra vires was itself censored! The Press Council was abolished and the AIR Code rubbished. Meanwhile, Mrs Gandhi undermined federalism by holding court in Bhopal and seeking a report card from Madhya Pradesh officials, while Sanjay went on the rampage with a terror campaign of forced sterilizations and demolitions of “slums" in Delhi to relocate tens of thousands in yet-to-be-developed trans-Yamuna settlements. Fear and sycophancy ruled. But a samizdat or underground communication network flourished.

Fed on assurances of her courtiers and a befuddled intelligence that she was now on top of the situation, and urged by foreign friends to do so, Indira Gandhi called for general elections in March 1977. Opposition leaders who were previously barely on speaking terms had been thrown together in jail. They knew they needed to stand together to restore democracy. Thus was the Janata Party alliance born and took shape as soon as the Emergency was formally lifted, with a sick JP as the moral leader. Jagjivan Ram and H.N Bahuguna broke with Indira to form the CFD or Citizens for Democracy, which then merged with the Janata Party.

The elections results spelt a cataclysmic defeat for the Indira Congress with Mrs Gandhi, Sanjay and all the party’s leading lights unceremoniously unseated in the North, East and West. Only in the South, where the Emergency and censorship had sat lightly, did the Janata Party fail to make any impression. Overall, the Janata was triumphant. There was again an ungainly contest for leadership with Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram, Charan Singh and Devi Lal as contenders. Morarji was elected.

Internal dissensions soon surfaced and priority was given to hounding Mrs Gandhi rather than working to fulfil the Janata’s manifesto titled “Both Bread and Liberty". Never was such a resounding mandate so swiftly squandered by petty squabbling and intrigue. The rifts were soon out in the open. As the public worried, a group of leading intellectuals warned of a return to the bad old ways under new auspices. Reference was made to unseemly in-fighting, glorification of authoritarian tendencies, the undermining of the parliamentary and federal system (nine state assemblies elected in Mrs Gandhi’s hey-day having been dissolved). Decentralization of governance and the appointment of Ombudsman or Lok Pal were advocated.

Charan Singh had become home minister and his crude attempt to have Mrs Gandhi arrested backfired. Ever defiant, she was soon back in the Lok Sabha after winning a by-election from Chikmagalur in Karnataka. The Janata government fell on the issue of erstwhile Jana Sangh BJP members’ dual membership of both Janata and the RSS. The Party split with the former Jana Sangh members regrouping as the BJP. Charan Singh took over as prime minister with Congress support only to find the rug soon pulled from under his feet. The Lok Sabha was dissolved leaving Charan Singh a caretaker until fresh elections in January 1980.

The Janata party, now fractured, was defeated and Mrs Gandhi was returned to power. The wheel had turned full circle.

The author is a columnist and visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi​

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