Anecdotal accounts and surmises seem to be the only two basis to discussions, recently on in the media, on why Indira Gandhi declared elections in January 1977. She had ensured extension of the life of the fifth Lok Sabha until March 1978; a resolution to this effect, as required by the Constitution, was moved in the House in November 1976. An account by Ravi Visvesvaraya (The Indian Express, February 23, 2019) that Indira Gandhi had thought of putting an end to the emergency and even her own rule since September 1976, hence fails to explain why she extended the Lok Sabha’s term by another year in November that year.
This account, based on anecdotes, then, suffers in another way, as did Fali Nariman’s surmise earlier (The Indian Express, February 8, 2019). Be that as it may.
To hold that Indira Gandhi, in January 1977, rose to prove herself Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter more than Sanjay Gandhi’s mother -- as the reason why she announced elections then – is far from convincing. She had, after all, celebrated Sanjay Gandhi at the Guwahati session of the AICC in December 1975; it is also a fact that Sanjay’s hold over his mother and her party was evident, as late in January 1980. At least 150 of the 353 Congress MPs in the Seventh Lok Sabha were those handpicked by Sanjay Gandhi.
The point is Indira Gandhi did not show, even in the faintest sense, her unease with Sanjay Gandhi; she celebrated him as long as he lived. And those he had initiated into the Congress remain important men in the party to this day.
With access denied to classified documents from the home ministry and the developments pertaining to a period when the press was bound by stringent pre-publication censorship, we will have to draw upon anecdotes, surmises and circumstantial evidence to explain a development in our democratic experience that could perhaps be described significant.
Let me surmise, now, from another set of facts, on why did she order elections which she lost and lost so decisively.
By January 1977, Indira Gandhi, an astute reader of the political she was, must have assessed the state of the opposition leaders in her own way. She was aware of the confabulations among those on parole (on health grounds) and the irritants that were thrown up every time they discussed unity among them. The opposition continued to be in disarray and the semblance of unity they had established, during the couple of weeks between 11 June 1975 and 25 June 1975, had given way to mutual distrust. She was also aware that a section of the opposition, particularly Charan Singh and Asoka Mehta besides many others, was even willing to surrender.
This was evident in a letter the DMK leader M. Karunanidhi (who had opposed the Emergency in June 1975 and had suffered dismissal of his state government in Tamil Nadu in January 1976) wrote to all opposition party leaders calling them for a meeting, on 15 December 1976, to ‘discuss and find a way to normalise the situation in the country by dialogue’. Similarly, H. M. Patel, who was heading the Janata group in Parliament and was an important member of Charan Singh’s BLD, wrote to Indira Gandhi (on 26 November 1976) seeking a meeting with her to ‘help in ensuring mutual understanding and confidence’ between the government and the opposition parties.
And finally, there was a letter from Biju Patnaik (once again a Charan Singh aide) to Om Mehta, Minister of State for Home, and Sanjay Gandhi’s aide in the Emergency establishment, on 1 January 1977. The burden of this letter too was to seek a series of meetings between Mehta and the opposition leaders ‘so that large areas of agreement that exist(ed) between the government and the opposition can be strengthened and the outstanding points resolved’.
Indira Gandhi was also aware that these efforts by Karunanidhi, Patel and Biju Patnaik were treated with contempt by JP (out on parole) as well as the other leaders who were still in jail. JP had made it clear, in a letter to Asoka Mehta (dated 29 December 1976), where he referred to the idea of a dialogue with the government, that ‘the dialogue to be meaningful should begin only after all political prisoners have been released unconditionally, and civil liberties and press freedom have been fully restored so as to facilitate normal political work’.
The fact is that Indira Gandhi had reasons to believe that the opposition was splintered and that elections will only accentuate the divide among them. She hoped that by winning the elections she could legitimate the Emergency and all that happened as part of it before the international community and could also formalise Sanjay Gandhi’s position. That, perhaps, was the reason behind her announcement to dissolve the Lok Sabha on 18 January 1977.
She, in fact, did that unilaterally, in the same way as she went about the Emergency proclamation. Her cabinet colleagues were shocked and surprised this time too. They were not consulted. In any case, Indira’s calculations did not work. The opposition leaders were convinced on the imperative for merger.
The experience during the Emergency seemed to have forced them to think that way. And the merger was effected within days after Morarji Desai was let out of his solitary confinement, in the Sona Dak Bunglow, on 18 January 1977. Thereafter, on 2 February 1977 Jagjivan Ram and H. N. Bahuguna floated the CFD and announced that the new party would fight the ensuing elections in alliance with the Janata Party. In other words, things did not happen the way Indira Gandhi had charted.
Meanwhile, it is necessary to set the records straight on the date of withdrawal of the Emergency. It did not happen on January 18, 1977. It happened at the last meeting of Indira’s cabinet, on March 21, 1977. It was a day after the results of the Lok Sabha polls were out on March 20, 1977 and it was known that Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay Gandhi and a whole lot of those in the cabinet during the Emergency had lost elections in their own constituencies and the Congress party too had been reduced to a minority, unprecedented in its history hitherto.
The Emergency was on during that elections.
V.Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok.