So many articles have been written about the emergency over the last few weeks, that there’s little left to be said about it. However, none of them have adequately explained the factors that led to it. In this series of articles, we shall recount the events of the early and mid 70s which led to the imposition of the emergency.
for a clear understanding of the events of that fateful period, we shall first recall the political and economic situation in the 70s.
Indira Gandhi in Control
As we saw in the previous article, a series of electoral reverses in 1967 consigned the Congress to a slim majority at the centre and to the opposition benches in several states. The opposition had a field day during that period, helped in no small measure by the prime minister’s lack of experience.
But the early 70s saw a spectacular turnaround. Thumping electoral wins at the centre in 1971 and several states in 1972 had completely reversed the debacles of 1967. Indira Gandhi’s control over the Congress (R) (as the party was now known- more on that at a later date) was absolute. Regional satraps had been systematically destroyed and the ‘high command’- a euphemism for Mrs. Gandhi and her kitchen cabinet- took all decisions.
The dramatic turnaround was largely due to the गरीबी हटाओ (eliminate poverty) campaign in 1971 with Indira Gandhi at the vanguard, which had raised impossible hopes- a fact that would come back to haunt Mrs. Gandhi and her team.
Opposition in Disarray
The opposition space lay in shambles. Stalwarts like C.Rajagopalachari, Ram Manohar Lohia and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who had lent credibility and substance to the opposition had all passed away and there was no opposition leader even remotely approaching their stature.
With the dramatic reversal of fortunes after the heady days of 1967, the non-Congress opposition would have been forgiven if they feared being condemned to a life of insignificance. It was but natural that they would grab the first opportunity coming their way to unseat the government.
That opportunity came sooner than they could have possible expected.
An Economy in Shambles
It would be an understatement to say that India’s economy in the mid 70s was in shambles. The war against Pakistan in 1971 had left the treasury virtually bankrupt. Economic growth had steadily declined over the years: from a CAGR of 2.1% from 1954-64, per capita income grew at a pathetic 0.6% from 1967-73. Industrial production, which had grown at around 9% between 1961 and 1965 had slipped to 2.8% by 1973. The number of unemployed youth registered in the employment exchanges more than tripled from 2.6 million in 1966 to 8.4 million by 1974.
The situation was further compounded by droughts in 1972 and 73, resulting in severe foodgrain shortages that naturally led to runaway inflation. The inflation rate was a whopping 22% in 1972-73 (more than double the inflation rate during the UPA II years!). Then came the oil shock of October 1973, which sent crude oil prices shooting through the roof. India, with its dependence on imported crude oil naturally felt the impact (as it would do four decades later) of rising oil prices. By mid 1974, inflation had hit a scarcely believable 30%.
Not surprisingly, popular discontent was rife. To be sure, there’s precious little that any government could have done about it. Unfortunately for India, the government’s disastrous economic policies had successfully throttled the private sector, making economic recovery all but impossible. Worse still, Indira Gandhi- whose power over the party was absolute- effectively institutionalised corruption, which made day to day life even more difficult for the common man.
Having raised expectations sky high with the गरीबी हटाओ (eliminate poverty) campaign in 1971, she naturally felt the ire of the masses now.
Discontent in Gujarat
The chief minister of Gujarat at the time was Chimanbai Patel, who had toppled his predecessor (and fellow Congressman) Ghansham Oza in July 1973, much to the displeasure of Indira Gandhi, who had handpicked Oza for the post. Nonetheless, there was work to be done and Mrs. Gandhi assigned Patel the responsibility of collecting funds to be used in election campaigning, as elections in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Orissa were on the cards.
1973 was a particular difficult time in Gujarat. Acute food shortages had resulted in food prices increasing by 100% during the course of the year (no typo there!). Patel compounded the woes of the common man by extracting lakhs of rupees from groundnut oil traders, giving them a free hand in return. The cooking oil mafia (known at the time as “cooking oil kings”) sent groundnut oil prices spiralling beyond the means of the common man. Inevitably, popular discontent was on the verge of boiling over, earning the chief minister the name चिमणचोर (Chiman the thief).
Trouble Boils Over
On Thursday, 20th December 1973, students of Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Engineering College went on protest against a substantial increase in mess charges. In an era when political violence was rampant, the protest (inevitably perhaps) took a violent form, as the students set the college canteen ablaze and attacked the rector’s house. The authorities, rather foolishly, dismissed it as an instance of stray violence. Their delusions would soon be shattered.
Two weeks later, on 3rd January 1974, the students went on strike again. This time hostel and college furniture too was destroyed. The college authorities called the police. Scores of students were arrested and hundreds beaten up. The news of the police violence (magnified, one imagines, several times over) quickly spread around in the student community. In the surcharged atmosphere, the news was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Students of the colleges and high schools in Ahmedabad went on strike. The demands of the striking students came to include resignation of the education minister and arrest of the hoarders and black marketeers responsible for the price rise. The Congress government instantly developed cold feet, releasing all the students who had been arrested, but doing nothing to address the other demands. The government’s half-baked, bumbling attempt was inevitably seen as a sign of weakness by the emboldened students, who smelt blood.
A week later, on 10th January 1974, the student leaders called for an Ahmedabad bandh. School and college teachers, bank workers, middle class people and (far more significantly) all opposition parties threw in their lot with the students. Large scale rioting ensued. The authorities predictably replied with even greater force. Far from dying down, the protests spread to all major cities in the state.
The Fall of Patel
The presence of the RSS and its student wing- the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) gave the student movement the dual benefit of a dedicated, efficient cadre supporting it as well as organisational support. Needless to say, the presence of the ABVP gave what was until then no more than a student protest, fresh impetus as well as a new direction.
The students announced the formation of a नवनिर्माण युवक समिती (Navnirman Yuvak Samiti– youth committee for regeneration)- an organisation dedicated to waging a non-violent struggle to achieve, among other things, purification and rebuilding of society. The list of demands issued by the samiti now included resignation of the hugely unpopular chief minister Chimanbhai Patel and dissolution of the state assembly (the Congress held 140 seats in the then 168 member Gujarat state assembly, which was expanded to its current capacity of 182 members in 1975).
With no sign of their demands being met, the samiti called for a statewide strike on 25th January. Owing to popular discontent, the strike was astonishingly successful across most towns and cities in Gujarat. With violence virtually paralysing the state of Gujarat, Indira Gandhi bowed to the inevitable. Chimanbhai Patel resigned from his post on 9th February 1974.
The Movement Becomes Militant
The resignation of Chimanbhai patel only served to embolden the protesters, who pressed on the demand for the dissolution of the state assembly and fresh elections. At this crucial juncture, their movement received the blessings of veteran freedom fighter and legendary leader Jayaprakash Narayan (or JP as he was popularly known), who visited Ahmedabad on 11th February. As he would write some months later:
For years I was groping to find a way out..I have been searching for the right way to achieve (my objectives)… Then I saw the students of Gujarat bring about a political change… and I knew that this was the way out
To drive home their demands, the students started using far more militant methods. State assembly members were convinced or coerced to resign their posts through a combinations of gherao, destruction of property and public shaming- in one extreme instance, a Congress leader was stripped and paraded naked. Nearly all opposition legislators and as many as 40 Congress MLAs had resigned before the end of February. One of the most vocal opposition members calling for the dissolution of the assembly was, ironically, Chimanbhai Patel. Angry and disillusioned after being ditched by his leader, he had by now formed a new political party.
The last straw came in the form of veteran leader Morarji Desai who, as we have already seen, had scores to settle with Indira Gandhi. On 11th March, he went on an indefinite fast demanding the dissolution of the state assembly. After playing the waiting game, Mrs. Gandhi finally bowed to the inevitable and dissolved the state assembly. Gujarat came under presidential rule and fresh elections were announced, to be held in September 1975 (when they were due anyway).
- Desai started a second fast unto death in April 1975, compelling Indira Gandhi to advance the Gujarat state assembly elections to June 1975.
- The success of the student movement in Gujarat would inspire their counterparts in Bihar who, coincidentally, were engaged in a similar movement in 1973-74
- The student movement in Gujarat would snowball into a wider crusade against corruption under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan- popularly known as the JP movement (more about it later)
- A 23 year old RSS pracharak called Narendra Damodardas Modi rose to prominence in the RSS ranks with his tireless work in support of the Navnirman Samiti, earning himself the ‘workaholic’ tag he carries to this day.
- Never before or since has a democratically elected government with a clear majority in the assembly been forced to quit before its term in the history of independent India.
- The navnirman movement was and remained a movement of the urban middle class. The workers were uninvolved until a railway strike in the summer of 1974
- Chimanbhai Patel returned to become the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 1990 with outside support from (incredibly) the Congress party. He retained his position until his death in February 1994, by which time he had rejoined the Congress.
- Inder Malhotra, After the victory, the unraveling, Indian Express (23rd June 1974)
- R. Nagaraj, Growth Rate of India’s GDP, 1950-51 to 1987-88, Economic and Political Weekly, 30th June 1990
- Bipan Chandra, In the name of Democracy, Penguin Books India (2003)