At 8-30 PM on January 18, 1977, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced over All India Radio – first in Hindi and then in English – that she had requested the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha and order elections, possibly in March. In her broadcast to the nation, she listed the gains of Emergency and said that the restrictions (imposed with the promulgation of Emergency on June 25, 1975) would be ‘relaxed’ to allow political parties to campaign. Two days later Minister of Information and Broadcasting V C Shukla announced the government’s decision not to enforce censorship (on newspapers).
Though such a move by Indira Gandhi has been in the air for some time, the Opposition leaders were taken by surprise by the timing. Some of them were still in jails. They had launched an agitation against Indira Gandhi under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan. The agitation was intensified after the Allahabad High Court judgement in mid-June disqualifying Indira Gandhi. They were all put in jails with the announcement of Emergency.
On January 20, leaders of Congress (O), Jana Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) and Socialist Party (SP) took stock of the situation and agreed to contest the elections in the name of Janata Party. ‘The process of merger’, they decided, would continue ‘till after the elections’. It was a conglomeration of disparate parties, abhorrent of each other in normal times, but brought together by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule.
However, the people were not enthused to the extent the Opposition leaders were expecting. There were those who had seen the ‘gains’ of Emergency; some others were impressed by the leadership qualities of Indira Gandhi and favoured giving her another chance. A friend of mine, who was a fiery critic of Indira Gandhi and frequently brought me the banned literature during the Emergency, remarked that he had now nothing to say against Indira Gandhi and that he did not think the Opposition parties would be able to stay together even if they won the elections. Most important was the feeling of fear, generated among people by Indira/Sanjay Gandhi’s highhanded methods during the Emergency. Those who wanted to vote against Indira Gandhi’s Congress were apprehensive about being victimised if she came back to power. People did not discuss politics or elections in public places and talked to trusted friends only when no stranger was around.
Some change – though very minor, and that, too, among the educated class – was perceptible after January 28. Justice A N Ray had retired as Chief Justice of India on January 28 and M H Beg had succeeded him by superseding H R Khanna who was senior to Beg. In protest Justice Khanna had resigned. During the Emergency no judge would have taken such a risk. There was an impressive crowd at Ramlila Ground where the Janata Party held its first election meeting on January 30. Chairman of Janata Party Morarji Desai presided, though the main attraction was Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Jagjivan Ram resigned from the cabinet and the Congress on February 2 and formed a new party called Congress For Democracy (CFD) along with Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy. That changed the atmosphere dramatically as it conveyed the message to the people that Indira Gandhi’s Congress was now a sinking ship. Janata Party’s meetings started swelling in contrast to the crowds in Congress meetings. Indira Gandhi inaugurated her party’s election campaign at Ramlila Ground on February 5. Originally it was to be inaugurated by Sanjay Gandhi but Jagjivan Ram’s resignation had obviously pushed him into the background. The meeting was thinly attended. Even those present were not in a mood to listen to Congress leaders. Indira Gandhi had to cut short her speech abruptly as the people were leaving. The next day the same Ramlila Ground was overflowing with people coming to listen to Jayaprakash Narayan and Jagjivan ram. The BBC, in its 9-30 PM Hindi bulletin called it ominous for Mrs Gandhi. The rest is history.
Narendra Modi today is in the position in which Indira Gandhi was in January 1977. The difference is that he is more powerful than Indira Gandhi then was, more unscrupulous, more devoid of ethics and morality, more ruthless in misusing police agencies against his critics and more megalomaniac. He has a knack for manipulating elections the way Indira Gandhi could never do – even by getting inserted in voters’ lists of fake voters in large numbers. In 2014, he was elected from Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency by a margin of 3, 71,784 votes over his nearest rival Arvind Kejriwal of AAP. When a routine revision of the voters’ lists was held by the Election Commission in November 2014, over 6.47 lakh fake voters were detected in the lists.
The Opposition parties, the main pillars of a democracy, are in a worse shape than in 1977. They are more apprehensive of each other’s moves than trying to work out an effective strategy to check Modi’s authoritarianism. They need a Jayaprakash Narayan to unite them for a common cause and a Jagjivan ram to push Modi to the defensive. Both appear a distant dream as of today.