As we saw in the previous article, Indira Gandhi became the third prime minister of India in January 1966 following the untimely passing away of Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Unfortunately for Mrs. Gandhi, 1966 was perhaps the worst time to become prime minister. The wars of 1962 and 1965 had drained the treasury. A series of droughts in the mid 60s had left the country on the verge of starvation. But for the grudging support of the Americans during that period, India would have suffered a devastating famine reminiscent of British times. Coming on top of that was a balance of payments crisis which forced a devaluation of the currency (more on that some other day).
The Lok Sabha elections to be held in February 1967 was to be the first election since independence without the colossal presence of Nehru. After 20 years of independence, there was a whole generation of young voters which had no recollection of the colonial era, for which freedom was a given. With rising unemployment and massive food shortages, the Congress was fighting the double handicap of (what we would call today) anti incumbency and the absence of Nehru.
PM Under Siege
After the initial euphoria of taking over the mantle from Shastri, Indira Gandhi found herself increasingly besieged. The decision to devalue the Rupee had not gone down well with the syndicate, especially the big boss Kamaraj, who virtually declared war on her.
The rift between the new prime minister and the party bosses led to an outcome few could have thought possible at the time: the coming together of Morarji Desai and the syndicate. Much as they disliked each other, their distrust of Mrs. Gandhi was strong enough to bring them together. With the passive complicity of the syndicate, Morarji Desai’s cohorts started openly pulling down the prime minister on the floor of the parliament.
As the 1967 elections approached, the syndicate actively set out undermine Indira Gandhi. Many of her supporters were denied party tickets. The ones who could not be kept out were allocated paltry amounts by the syndicate, which had a stranglehold over the party’s finances.
To get around the limitations forced upon her, Indira Gandhi adopted the strategy of appealing directly to the people of the country over the heads of her party bosses. Her strategy of raking up day to day issues affecting the common man and the prestige of her father meant that her rallies attracted thousands of enthsuastic supporters wherever she went.
United Colours of Opposition
In three Lok Sabha election since independence, the Congress had never won less than 361 seats in the then 494 member Lok Sabha- a crushing majority- despite the fact that it had never won a clear majority of the votes (for the record, no party since independence has won the majority of the votes in any national election). The combination of a fragmented opposition, Nehru’s towering presence and the first past the post system had given the party a virtual monopoly over power.
However, by 1967, several regional players had emerged on the stage who were too insignificant to challenge the Congress individually. After two decades on the wrong side of the fence, they joined hands with the sole objective of blocking the Congress (a recurring trend over the decade that would follow). Led by Ram Manohar Lohia, the formidable Gandhian freedom fighter turned politician, the opposition parties set up a seat sharing agreement whereby Congress candidates in most constituencies faced very few opponents- a de-fragmentation of the opposition space if you may.
The arrangements made, the opponents waited with baited breath as the Month of February entered its final week (elections were held from 17th to 21st February 1967).
An Unmitigated Disaster
As expected after two decades of unchallenged rule, the Congress vote share shrunk, going down from 45% in 1962 to 41%. However, given the first past the post system and the seat sharing agreement between the opposition parties, the results were disastrous.
The Congress won the elections- as expected- but its seat share fell by a jaw dropping 78 seats. From 361 seats in the 494 member Lok Sabha in 1962, it had plummeted to 283 out of (now) 520. At this distance in time, 283 out of 520 may appear a comfortable majority, but it was a slim majority for a party that had never held less than 70% of the seats in the Lok Sabha. Besides, the war between Indira Gandhi and the syndicate plus Desai meant that even the clear majority was no guarantee of stability.
The state elections, which coincided with national elections until 1967 (the era of unstable state governments was just beginning in the late 60s), gave the party an even bigger jolt. The Congress was ousted from power in nearly all northern states, leading to the famous jibe that one could travel from Calcutta to Amritsar without passing through a single inch of Congress governed territory.
The era of Congress hegemony was over.
Yesterday was Yesterday
The outcome of the 1967 elections was calamitous for the syndicate. S.K. Patil of Maharashtra lost his seat. Atulya Ghosh of West Bengal and K. Kamaraj of Tamil Nadu lost their seats as well as their states. Having enjoyed unbridled power since 1964, the syndicate suddenly found itself without a leg. Their stranglehold over the party was over…
…and so it seemed, until their foe turned friend Morarji Desai- the very reason why the syndicate had come into existence in 1964- unwittingly threw a lifeline. Twice denied by the syndicate, he insisted on a vote in the Congress parliamentary party to decide who would become prime minister.
After a disastrous election, the last thing the party needed was a fresh round of blood letting with unpredictable consequences. Many senior leaders, some of whom were supporters of Desai, ruled out the possibility. Quick to sense the opportunity, the syndicate brokered a truce, ruling that Indira Gandhi would continue as Prime Minister, with Morarji Desai as Deputy Prime Minister.
Third time unlucky, Desai bowed to the inevitable. Reflecting on it later, he famously said
Yesterday was yesterday, today is another day
- The biggest winner of the electoral disaster, ironically, was Indira Gandhi. The syndicate’s authority naturally waned after the electoral disaster, in which she emerged as the party’s biggest vote catcher. In her battle against the syndicate (and Morarji Desai), the 1967 elections would prove to be the tipping point
- The Congress lost power in Tamil Nadu to a regional outfit called Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). That party and a its breakaway faction- the AIADMK- have ruled Tamil Nadu ever since.
- The Congress regained West Bengal in 1971, holding on to power until it was all but wiped out in 1977. As in the case of Tamil Nadu, the party never again regained power in the state.
- The syndicate’s victory would prove a temporary one. Indira Gandhi would ultimately emerge triumphant in 1969
- The struggle for supremacy would impel Mrs. Gandhi to ideologically lean leftward, resulting in a series of socialist legislations which would shackle the Indian economy for two decades