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Mainstream, VOL LV No 14 New Delhi March 25, 2017

Return of Indira Gandhi

Saturday 25 March 2017, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

In the backdrop of the BJP’s resounding success in the Assembly polls, and the elections in UP in particular, we are reproducing the editorial the founder of this journal wrote following Indira Gandhi’s spectacular return to power in January 1980 for the benefit of our readers.

The ground-swell in the Lok Sabha election has been a phenomenon that nobody could even remotedly foresee. Not only the political commentators, including the present one, are made to eat crow—as a famous American newspaper said about its mistaken forecast about Truman’s presidential triumph—but even the widely-patronised astrologers and godmen could do no better: for them too, it is crow and not oyster.

While any conscientious observer would have to honestly concede the failure to sense the mood of the voter despite all the fanfare of investigative reporting, it is worth noticing that even responsible leaders of the Congress-I have been equally taken by surprise by the staggering mandate that the electorate has vested in Indira Gandhi. Even if, in terms of seats, the Congress under Nehru had more than once won as many, if not more, seats in the Lok Sabha than what the Congress under his daughter has been able to command today, the impressive percentage of votes polled by it has to be seen against the background of the dilapidated condition of the Congress after the debacle it had to face at the 1977 poll. It is not so much the revival of the party as an organisation that can even remotedly account for this striking recovery, for the simple reason that the Indira Congress is still a sort of a campaign outfit put together hastily for the purpose of the election—with, of course, Madison Avenue-style publicity drive and a single individual undertaking the marathon campaigning.

What then are the reasons for this sweeping victory of the Indira Congress? Some leaders of the Opposition have characterised it as a negative vote: just as the Janata could come to power in a spectacular manner in 1977 because of the misdemeanour of Indira’s Emergency Raj, she in her turn has dramatically returned to power today because of the misrule perpetrated by the Janata. While this may be to a large measure true, it is obviously not the whole truth.

It is necessary to take into consideration another factor: the scars of the Emergency excesses were fresh in 1977; hence the angry electorate in north India, where these excesses were more in evidence, disowned the Congress rule. Three years later, it has been a mistake on the part of the Janata and other anti-Congress parties to have thought that those scars could fetch votes once again; the shrewd voter, harassed by the current shortages and high prices, appeared to have weighed his present hardships more than the sins of the government of yesterday. If he has voted Indira Gandhi back to power along with her son who had become the symbol of the Emergency Raj, it is because in the voter’s consciousness today Emergency has ceased to figure as acutely as the Opposition and many of us in the media mistakenly thought that it should. There has thus been the loss of linkage between the consciousness of the voter and the calculation of those who have opposed the Indira Congress. In other words, it would be incorrect for Indira Gandhi to interpret the present vote as an endorsement of her Emergency as for her opponents to accuse the electorate of having forgotten it altogether.

In the more sophisticated circles, the election verdict in favour of the Indira Congress is taken as an unmistakable vindication of the time-honoured national policies, popularly known as the Nehruite policies. While it is true that the Janata and the Lok Dal by their miserable performance have failed in their bid to distort national policies in favour of obscurantism or quasi-anarchism, the return of the Indira Congress does not necessarily mean a total repudiation of the detractors of Nehruism, for the simple reason that the Janata and the Lok Dal have retained a substantial voting strength. What can, however, be safely claimed is that the danger of enthronement in power of narrow obscurantism and an irrational peasantism has been averted.

Perhaps the decisive factor in swaying the electorate in favour of the Indira Congress is the steep rise in prices and the shortage of supplies coupled with the overall erosion of administrative functioning under the Janata Raj. The voter cannot be blamed if he reacts sharply to his economic impoverishment accompanied by the bleak prospects of no remedial measures in sight. It may be worth recalling that Indira Gandhi’s massive electoral victory of 1971 was squandered in less than three years when harvest failure and inflation hit the country: in fact, the mass discontent over these provided the happy hunting ground for JP’s Total Revolutionaries of 1974-75. This time it has been the Janata’s turn to face the brunt. From salt to sugar, to edible oil and vegetables—all have recorded unbridled price rise. The onion, or the scarcity of it, has become the symbol of the Janata’s pathetic electoral downfall of 1980. Equally, it serves as a warning to those who have just been installed in power. The urgency of tackling the precarious price situation has to be Indira Gandhi’s Number One priority. And the overwhelming majority that she has secured leaves no escape route for her government: for firm measures, firm support has been provided—no alibi will do this time.

Stability has been Indira Gandhi’s battle-cry, and the electorate has voted for it in a manner totally unexpected. In fact, many an observer wondered at the time of the election compaign if the mass mood could at all be influenced in a big way by this slogan of stability: obviously, such a calculation on the part of her critics including many of us has turned out to be wrong. What the electorate has indicated is its disenchantment with a ramshackle coalition of disparate elements. After the 1967 General Election, when in a number of States, the SVD coalitions came to office, there was hope of a move forward after the long and uninterrupted spell of Congress rule. But these SVD governments collapsed mainly because of their inner contradictions and the public disgust at their abdication of the responsibility to govern. The result was the throw-back to the Congress, which by then had been given a new look by the split of 1969. What happened at the State level in 1967-1969, has taken place at the Centre in 1977-1980. The Janata, which has been a variant of the older SVD, has been overthrown because of its own shortcomings, ensuring the return of the Congress with a more formidable majority than in the past.

The public has not failed to take note of every item in the Janata’s record: even its buffoonery has not been forgotten. From Morarji’s urine therapy to Raj Narain’s green cap and the ceremonial shaving of his beard; from the Janata Prime Minister’s “personal” views on Sikkim’s merger to his equally ignorant distinction between a nuclear blast and a nuclear explosion; Vajpayee’s China Odyssey ending in a fiasco as also his myth of “genuine” nonalignment; from the gold auction to Harijan atrocities; from the obscurantist ban on History textbooks to the tirade against Nehru to the absurd length of destroying the exhibition on his life; the near-chaos in coal to the import of coking coal; the railway bottleneck to the mismanagement of diesel distribution; the ill-gotten pile made by Morarji’s son to the intra-mural scandals round Jagjivan Ram’s son—all these, each and every one of these, was under the close scrutiny of the public. Nothing was missed, nothing forgotten.

Much in the same way, every antic of the Janata leaders right from the moment when squabble broke out over the selection of Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister in March 1977 to the ungainly squabble for his ouster in July 1979, right through Charan Singh’s melodrama of resignation from the Cabinet and his return by negotiation, through Raj Narain’s bizarre press conferences, the fanfare about punishing the Emergency guilty side by side with the reprieve for Bansi Lal—and the attempt to buy Indira’s support while thundering about punishing her—all these brought total discredit to the leaders of the Janata and its offshoot, the Lok Dal. While the press corps in New Delhi, immersed in cynicism, took these as part of a hilarious tamasha, the voter watched and made his own note. This indeed is a warning for any political leader. The voter in 1977 did not forget to note the absurdities and irregularities of Indira’s Emergency; the voter in 1980 took equal note of the absurdities and irregularities of the Janata Dal-Lok Dal’s disgraceful antics.

The inevitable fragmnentation of major combinations was coupled with the marked rise in casteist outlook—accentuated by the narrow-groove talk of promoting caste interests particularly in the Hindi belt. The drift towards regionalism became inexorable with the continuation of a weak Centre manned by people who paraded their regionalist outlook. The national fibre was damaged while national integrity was undermined. The massive vote for the Indira Congress is therefore to be taken as the electorate’s warning against this dangerous drift towards parochialism. While it would be a mistake for Indira Gandhi to misjudge the massive vote as only a call for a strong government at the Centre, her detractors would have to bear in mind that the electorate has repudiated every one of their actions that cut at the root of a cohesive national outlook—from the threat to impose Hindi to the attempts to create an artificial division between the town and the village, to the neglect of the minorities and the underprivileged, for whom the question of security is a paramount concern.

The verdict of the ballot box has not only brought Indira Gandhi back to power in a spectacular manner. It has revealed certain other significant features of our polity. The fashionable attempt of political pundits of equate the Jana Sangh and the Communists as being both cadre-based and disciplined, has turned out to be misleading. The Jana Sangh’s conspicuous collapse in its home ground of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, to say nothing of Delhi, has brought out the hollowness of this party. Its widely-published drills and discipline could hardly stand the impact of the Indira Congres offensive: although its power of mischief continues, its power to attract popularity has proved to be be phoney.

Contrast this with the remarkable performance of the Communists. Both in Kerala and West Bengal—more effectively in West Bengal—the Communists have not only been able to hold their own, but have displayed throughout a quiet but determined self-confidence, which has turned out to be justified, unlike the Jana Sangh’s absurd claims before the polls.

The emergence of the Left as a consolidated force in its base has significant potentials for the future. A unified Left standing its own ground has been unaffected by the Indira tidal wave that has overtaken the rest of the contry. While in miniature, it provides a challenge for any government promising a better deal for the millions, it presents at the same time the prospect of a durable relationship with those in the new ruling establishment at the Centre who may be seriously interested in radical socio-economic transformation.

Between a deflated Jana Sangh at one end and a robust Left at the other, the two groups which advertised themselves as the potential rulers of the country are found today in a pathetic state of utter weightlessness. Of these two, the Janata, even with the Jana Sangh in it, has turned out to be a total hoax, its so-called strongholds having just evaporated, with the biggest casualties on record: Chandra Shekhar’s dream of emerging as the Prime Minister has gone with the wind while Jagjivan Ram must be feeling that this time he has really missed the bus. The Lok Dal on its part has been cut to its real size: its sway is now restricted to the Jat land, with UP as its epicentre. In future, it would no longer be able to reach out to the national platform, but confine itself virtually to the level of a regional party.

The leviathan that has emerged with the signboard of the Congress-I has yet to consolidate itself as a viable political entity. A typhoon of mass disillusion and disaffection has swept it into power—absolute power at that, which if it wants can make mincemeat of the Constitution itself, having won two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha and commanding the same in the Rajya Sabha. Within her party she wields today supreme authority, more than at any phase of her prime ministerial career. To translate this manifestation of mass upsurge into a better deal for the nation’s majority with orderly growth is not a job which can be handled without care, caution and circumspection. It would be foolhardy on the part of Indira Gandhi to ride roughshod over those who may not see eye to eye with her on many issues. Even if the Opposition may be small in terms of numbers inside the Lok Sabha, let it not be overlooked that it has considerable support outside—not very far short of half of the votes cast.

Within her party too, cohesion is yet to be achieved—cohesion based on common attitude, approach and understanding of issues to be faced and policies to be pursued. To keep the party going, keeping it together with the single string of purely personal loyalty to Indira Gandhi may prove to be a risk which no sensible leader can afford to take for long. In her own experience, this had proved to be a liability in the past more than once and it will be more so in the difficult days ahead.

It is for Indira Gandhi to dispel the misgivings held by many people in all honesty—long before any commission of enquiry was set up—that a coterie rule had emerged particularly during her Emergency Raj. It may not be good manners for many to mention it today but it has to be clearly stated in the interest of candid give and take in political understanding that the caucus that had come to be associated with her son in the mind of a large section of the public, has not disappeared. Quite a few of its prominent figures have come to the new Lok Sabha, and insofar as they have come there by the democratic process, nobody can question their right to political activity; at the same time, it is for the leadership of the party, particularly for Indira Gandhi, to ensure that no such caucus will handle the levers of power. Many of those who have voted her back to power with such abundance of confidence have done so with the clear expectation that once having suffered defeat because of the aberrations brought about by coterie rule in the dismal days of 1975-76, Indira Gandhi will see to it that there will be no relapse into such an unwholesome state of things. Indira Gandhi’s constitutency can no longer be her house or the circle of loyal retainers; it has to be the nation at large. A ruler, like the judge, has not only to be fair-minded but has to appear in the public mind to be so.

At this hour of triumph, Indira Gandhi has to bear this in mind as she goes out, as she must, to consolidate the national consensus behind her absolute electoral mandate. Without such a national consensus, it will not be possible for any government, however powerful within the precincts of Parliament, to tackle the burning problems facing the nation—from inflation to foreign affairs, from scarcity to unemployment, and on to purposeful planning for the narrowing down of economic disparities and minimising the scourge of poverty that afflicts the majority of those who have voted her back into office, not to speak of the vast masses generally.

To forge such a national consensus, it will not be sufficient to consolidate her party or her authority over administration at the Centre. Equally important will be to ensure a viable and mutually acceptable relationship between the Centre and the States, particularly with those where her own party does not rule. This is not going to be solved by merely going in for the States where the discredited Janata or other vanquished parties still run the Ministries, however legitimate that step may be. Whether it is a variant of the DMK in Tamil Nadu, or the Left and its allies in Kerala or West Bengal, or Sheikh Abdullah’s Kashmir, Indira Gandhi has to evolve a working understanding. More serious is the problem of the North-East where the stamp of alienation could be seen even in the Lok Sabha election results.

The dramatic return of Indira Gandhi to power is certainly her moment of supreme glory. But glory can turn out to be a paralysing apparition unless it is tempered with reason and wisdom. As she gets ready to enter the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi’s South Block, it will be wise for her to keep in mind that the plaudits of the millions bring along with them high expectations whose fulfilment demands superhuman efforts in a period of serious economic dislocation and political tension both at home and abroad. Wisdom must take precedence over temptation to be domineering on the part of her lieutenants or short-cut populism on the part of her policy-makers.

There is no room for her to be dizzy with success.

(‘Editor’s Notebook’, Mainstream, January 12, 1980)

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