Indira Gandhi is remembered as one of the most powerful Prime Minister of India. She has been controversial in her political tenure since her accession to Prime Minister-ship till her unfortunate murder. She was brave, bright and bold in her approach and decisions.
All in time, she was very much clear about her vision and ideology and never hesitated to take policy decisions which faced opposition even within from her party. It is true that she acceded to the throne with the intent of placing the puppet prime minister remotely controlled by the coterie of then Congress stalwarts but to the surprise and shock of everybody, she not only consolidated and concentrated the power in her hand but also emerged the winner of every political battle.
This piece is the first part of a two-part series which sheds light on her political career which was full of interesting incidents, stories and controversies ranging from bank nationalization to declaration of emergency to her brutal and unfortunate murder.
Road to PM-ship
The mysterious death of then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, during Tashkent Declaration (1966) brought the discussion on succession to the fore. Moraraji Desai was a senior and in a way rightful contender to the post. But a section of Congress (Syndicate) under the leadership of K Kamraj disliked him and therefore was in a search for a name who could challenge Desai but work under the Syndicate’s shadow. Indira Gandhi who was new and inexperienced but carried the legacy of Pandit Nehru was their obvious choice.
Desai due to his seniority and position in the party felt confident about his win in the contest. He termed Indira as “ye kal ki Chokri”! However, to everyone’s surprise, Indira Gandhi in a much famous contest defeated Morarji Desai by 355 votes to 169 and became the first and the only women Prime Minister of the country.
The 1967 Election Debacle
In the general elections of 1967, Congress suffered a major setback. Though it succeeded in retaining control of Loksabha by winning 284 out of 520 seats but the majority margin in the Upper House was drastically reduced. Further to the losses incurred, Congress also lost its majority in eight state assemblies which include Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Punjab, Orissa, WB, Madras and Kerala. The major reasons for the defeat were raising factionalism and weak leadership in Congress after the death of Nehru (1964) and also united opposition which contested the elections. This was the election in which all opposition parties including Lohiya’s socialist party, communal Jan-Sangh, rightist Swatantra, CPM, Muslim League, Akalis all joined hands together and fought anti-congress elections.
Fault Lines in Congress
The outcome of 1967 elections drastically changed the balance of power inside the Congress. The powerful Syndicate got weakened as many of its loyalists including the president, Kamraj lost the Loksabha election or of state assemblies. Though Indira Gandhi had acquired a certain control over the government after the blow suffered by the Syndicate, she hardly had any organizational base in the party.
Moreover, Kamraj got re-elected to parliament by winning by-elections tried to assert his position by stating that it is the party (Syndicate) should form the policies and the government should be accountable to the party for its implementation.
However, Indira was not willing to cede control to the Syndicate. She emphasized the fact that the government acquired its power and legitimacy from the parliament and the people himself, not from any party or organization.
This way two wings, which were ideologically different, developed and later got radicalized in Indira times. One was led by Indira herself propagating socialist agenda (Congress-Left) which included Ten Point Programme and advocating closer relations with communist countries. The other wing (Congress-right) was led by Syndicate under its new president Nijalingappa (after the retirement of Kamraj) which opposed the socialist policies and demanded greater private sector participation and use of foreign capital for economic development.
The Presidential War and Split of Congress:
Though Congress had always been ideologically heterogeneous party accommodating diverse ideological strands with overall nurturing of a left of the centre image, this time the two factions were much more radicalized on both political and economic fronts. The historically subdued Congress-right faction was much more assertive and was willing to openly oppose the left-wing policies.
For example the Ten-Point Programme adopted by the left wing faction led by Indira and which comprised of many socialistic agendas like social control on banks, nationalization of general insurance, ceiling on urban property and income, curb on business monopolies and concentration of economic power etc, was aggressively opposed by the right wing section under the leadership of Desai and Nijalingappa. Moreover, the syndicate even proposed an alternate set of far-right policies which consisted of ideas like liberalization, privatization, warm relations with the West and higher reliance on foreign capital.
This rift got further intensified over the period of time and reached its peak with the death of President Zakir Hussain in May 1969. It is to be noted that while the post of President as per the Indian constitution is of a ceremonial head but at the times of hung parliament, he enjoys certain discretion and therefore could play a politically decisive role. The Syndicate which was determined to have their own man on the top position, despite Indira Gandhi’s opposition, declared Sanjiva Reddy as a Congress candidate for the Presidentship.
This was the declaration of an open war against Indira. However, she accepted the challenge and decided to give it a strong fight with all of her strength. Though She was on back-foot due to a clear majority of the Syndicate on congress parliamentarian board. Within days of the declaration, she sacked Morarji Desai from the Finance Minister portfolio on the grounds of his conservative ideology incapable to implement her radical policies. There were two other candidates for Presidentship, CD Deshmukh, a senior statesman was fielded by Swantantra and Jan Sangh while VV Giri, then Vice-President decided to stand as an independent candidate backed by communists and several regional parties.
Indira Gandhi wanted to support Giri but did not know how she could go against her party’s candidate whose nomination papers she has filed. At this stage, the syndicate made a major blunder. To ensure Sanjiva Reddy’s election, Nijalinagappa met the leaders of Jan Sangh and Swatantra and persuaded them to cast their second-preference votes, once the CD Deshmukh gets eliminated in the first round. ( Know more about the election of the President of India)
Indira immediately accused the Syndicate of having struck a secret deal with communal and reactionary forces in order to oust her from power. She now, more or less openly, supported Giri by refusing to issue a party whip in favour of Reddy and by asking Congress MPs and MLAs to vote freely as per their own “conscience”. At the time of the election, nearly one-third of them defied the official nomination of Congress and voted for Giri who was declared elected by a narrow margin.
The countdown had begun with the election of VV Giri as the President of India. The defeated and humiliated Syndicate took disciplinary action against Indira Gandhi and expelled her from the party for having violated the party discipline. Indira responded by setting up a rival organization, which came to be known as Congress (R where R was for Requisitionists. The Syndicate dominated Congress came to be known as Congress (O) where O was for Organization.
Once again at the final showtime, Indira Gandhi emerged as a victor securing the support of 220’s of party’s Lok Sabha MPs while the Syndicate got the support of just 68 MPs. Moreover, she now became the unchallenged leader of both the government and the new party which was soon to become the real Congress.
(To be continued….)