New Delhi: Forty-eight years ago, when a full-scale war started between India and Pakistan, opposition parties united behind the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi.
In 1971, Lok Sabha members, cutting across party lines, thumped tables and threw papers in the air shouting slogans of “Joi Bangla, Joi Indira Gandhi (Long live Bangladesh, long live Indira Gandhi)"; PM Gandhi received a standing ovation in the Lower House following the unconditional surrender by Pakistan in December 1971.
This was just eight months after Gandhi defeated a united opposition in the general elections held in March.
“I express my gratitude for the support of all parties during the difficult period," Gandhi said, as she addressed an all-party meeting.
An archived report published in Hindustan Times on 18 December 1971 noted, “Leaders from CPI, DMK, including Jan Sangh’s Pitambar Das and Congress (O)’s Morarji Desai, who had split from the Congress, vied with one another in praising the PM. Of all opposition leaders, CPM alone refrained from paying a personal compliment."
Other news reports from the period highlight that the opposition was united about the fact that the attack on an Indian airfield had created a situation of national emergency.
“The prime minister must now lead the country to total victory over enemy. If government wanted to secure any more powers to handle the situation, this party would not hesitate to accord its fullest cooperation," said Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as the president of the Jan Sangh, the leading opposition party that later evolved into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Communist parties including the feuding CPI, which was allied with the Congress, and the CPI(M), which was slowly emerging after its split with the CPI, also pledged support to the government. Swatantra Party, which was founded by C. Rajagopalachari, who had split from the Jawaharlal Nehru-led Congress, also extended support, along with regional parties including the DMK. An Emergency was declared on 3 December.
As India and Pakistan remained locked in battle for 13 days, Gandhi remained resolute in her support to Bangladesh, despite US attempts to force India to commit to a ceasefire.
The opposition, too, remained united against the US.
Opposition leaders, including Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha and S.N. Mishra in the Rajya Sabha, condemned then US president Richard Nixon’s “anti-India statements" in Parliament. Other Jan Sangh leaders including L.K. Advani, Balraj Madhok and Kidar Nath Sahani led demonstrations outside the US Embassy.
The CPI and other regional parties including the DMK also staged protests against the US.
Last week, after a low-intensity conflict with Pakistan ended, 21 political parties in a statement accused the Narendra Modi government of “blatant politicization of the sacrifices of the armed forces" and said that “national security must transcend narrow political considerations".
“The discourse between political parties has deteriorated. It’s important to note that 1971 was a clear war-like situation between two countries, unlike the present conflict, and there are other dominant factors at play, including action against terrorism and dominating media narrative," said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of think tank Centre for Media Studies.
Interestingly, even when the issue of postponing assembly elections was brought up in 1971, Jan Sangh leader Vajpayee and Swatantra Party leader P.K. Deo, had “strongly supported" the prime minister and maintained that the extension should be for one year, while CPM leaders wanted elections to be held within three months.
It was only after ceasefire was declared that the opposition chose to express its dissent with the government’s decision to declare a ceasefire. The major dissenting voice emerged from Jan Sangh president Vajpayee, who said he did not fully agree with the decision for a unilateral ceasefire and wanted discussion on the issue in Parliament.
“The country is not prepared to lose on the negotiation table, what our jawans have won in the battlefield," he said, “We will not allow the status quo to happen on the western front. This war must cure once and for all Pakistan’s aggression, which keeps erupting every five years or so."