A Shocking News
India awoke on Tuesday, 11th January 1966 to a shocking news. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was dead. Gulzarilal Nanda, who had played caretaker following the death of Nehru in 1964, had been sworn in as acting prime minister yet again.
It was barely 19 months since Shastri had succeeded Nehru after a series of behind the scenes machinations that we recounted in the previous article. Whereas Nehru’s deteriorating health had given the syndicate ample time to plan the succession, the untimely and wholly unexpected passing away of Shastri caught everyone off guard.
The actors in the succession drama of 1964 sprung into action yet again.
Hats in the Ring
Having been thwarted 19 months ago, Morarji Desai now saw a golden opportunity to realise his long cherished dream. This time his opponents were unprepared and there was simply no Congress leader whose stature even remotely approached his. Besides, at 70, Desai was not getting any younger. Expectedly, the aged Gandhian left no doubt that he intended to stake his claim to the prime ministership.
To forestall a repeat of 1964, Desai insisted on a free and confidential vote by the Congress parliamentary party. With no obvious reason to deny it, the syndicate accepted the suggestion with the rider that the issue would be voted on by the Congress Grand Council, consisting of all members of parliament plus the state chief ministers- a point Desai could hardly refuse.
At this stage, an unexpected entrant threw his hat into the ring. Second time bridesmaid Gulzarilal Nanda lost no time in meeting I & B Minister Indira Gandhi to ask her if she would like to be prime minister. Mrs. Gandhi told him that she had no such ambitions- for the time being at least, she had no intention to make public her ambitions (Shastri had effectively sidelined her- so much so, that she had been contemplating quitting her post and living for a few years at least, in the UK where both her sons were in university).
Sensing an opening, Gulzarilal Nanda asked her if she would support his candidature. Mrs. Gandhi prudently replied that she would not stand in his way if Nanda could get support from the others. Wrongly interpreting it as an offer of unconditional support, Nanda approached Kamaraj asking to be named prime minister on a permanent basis until the forthcoming general elections in 1967. As a rider, he added that Mrs. Gandhi was the only candidate who would have his support.
Characteristically, Kamaraj heard him out without committing himself to any course of action. He would have to go to Delhi and consult with fellow syndicate members before taking any decision.
No Hindi, No English
With elections just a year away and the party facing the prospect of its first elections without the towering presence of Nehru, Kamaraj figured that Indira Gandhi was the best bet until the elections. She enjoyed the prestige of being the great man’s daughter, quite apart from the fact that she was not associated with any particular region- giving her the benefit of universal acceptability. With no serious challengers to Desai in the horizon, she was the only alternate to the finance minister.
To be sure, there was an element of risk therein- Mrs. Gandhi was already an experienced politician with a well established political base. Either Kamaraj underestimated her, being a woman (Ram Manohar Lohia would famously call her ‘gungi gudiya‘- dumb doll), or else figured that with all party organisations firmly under the control of the syndicate, they could easily keep her in check.
However, Kamaraj found that she was a far from unanimous choice. Atulya Ghosh and S.K. Patil were both opposed to the proposal, insisting instead, that the Madras strongman take over the mantle. Kamaraj, who only spoke Tamil pithily replied “No Hindi, No English, how?” In response Ghosh and Patil insisted that under the circumstances, Nanda should be named the prime minister until the 1967 elections.
Yet another factor now entered the equation: a unanimous declaration by Congress MPs from the Hindi speaking states that they were not going to allow the prime ministerial seat to go out of their region, effectively shutting Desai and Kamaraj out of the race. Gulzarilal Nanda did not have the stature to garner adequate support.
In effect, that left only candidate in the fray.
Settling the Issue
By now Indira Gandhi was surely aware of the fact that she was one of the favourites in the race to succeed Shastri. Nonetheless, she played her cards carefully, declaring that she would act on the advice of the party president and that she would prefer unanimity in the party ranks.
As it happened, that unanimity was far from forthcoming. The grand council meeting on Friday, 14th January witnessed a series of heated debates which ultimately proved fruitless. The only decision taken that day was to defer any decision until the 19th. In the event, behind the scenes manoeuvres settled the issue well before that date.
The following morning, D.P. Mishra (then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh) called a meeting of chief ministers from 8 states: the Hindi speaking states (UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh) and the five electorally important states under the control of the syndicate (Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Mysore and Andhra Pradesh). The chief ministers of the Hindi speaking states were firmly in support of Mrs. Gandhi. This naturally clinched the issue for the syndicate, which was hitherto divided.
Completely outnumbered by the big 8 (which collectively accounted for more than 66% of the total strength of the then 494 member Lok Sabha), CMs from other states naturally opted to jump into the bandwagon rather than be left alone. As if in a trice, the vexed issue of succession had been resolved.
The country, unaware of the machinations behind the scenes, awaited with bated breath as the Congress Grand Council went to vote on Wednesday, 19th January 1965.
To those who were in the know, the outcome came as no surprise, even if the scale of victory did. Indira Gandhi beat Morarji Desai 355 to 169 to become the third prime minister of independent India
- Indira Gandhi would serve nearly two decades as prime minister, save a 34 month period from March 1977 to January 1980 when she was dethroned…
- …by Morarji Desai, who finally realised his cherished dream of becoming the prime minister at the ripe old age of 81. His premiership lasted all of 28 months (how it happened is a long story, to be taken up at a later date)
- Indira Gandhi would work under the imposing shadow of the syndicate until the 1967 elections unleashed new forces (more on that in this article)
- Mrs. Gandhi would lock horns in a prolonged battle for supremacy, in the course of which the syndicate would subsequently ally itself with Morarji Desai to keep her in check. The power tussle would result in the demolition of the syndicate and Mrs. Gandhi’s ultimate triumph in 1969 (more on this in a subsequent article)
- The Congress never again chose its leader by voting
Note: it had been erroneously stated earlier that the total strength of the Lok Sabha was 520 in 1962. It was actually 494, increased to 520 in 1967 and 543 in 1977 (unchanged since then). The error has been corrected.