The years after the Bangladesh crisis were good for Indira and the Congress. In the state elections of 1972 Indira and the congress won majority at the state assemblies. Now she was in control over Center, State and the Party too. The years following the elections saw steady progress in implementation of left-of-the-center policies of the Congress. These were nationalization of banks, abolition of privy purses of princes. The critical constitutional amendments were made to the Constitution by removing Fundamental Rights to Property and compensation.
The Supreme court had annulled certain decisions of the government and due to this Supremacy of Judiciary over executive and Legislature was created. This balance was restored by these amendments as the Constitution makers also never wanted this.
However certain events led to Indira Gandhi taking a decision that threatened the Indian democracy itself. The Emergency of 1975 was a black day of democracy but thankfully was the last time this was done. The situations leading to this decision were complex.
The State of the economy worsened in 1973. There was high inflation, drought that led to food shortage and reduced power generation, industrial deflation was seen and many were laid off this caused unemployment, the Bangladesh crisis had led to depletion of grain reserves as refugees had to be fed and also the war had created a huge budgetary deficit. Prices of oil rose and this hit commodity prices. Essential items were costly and now food riots were seen in places.
Students and workers had started protesting against this. There were large scale strikes in railways, even the Police constabulary protested. Army was called to handle the situation. The workers had become dissociated from the congress. To tackle this situation a strong leadership was needed. But this wasn’t forthcoming. The Congress couldn’t handle the situation. It had lost contact with the grassroots. Even the people’s faith in the leadership had eroded as corruption allegations were leveled even against Indira Gandhi.
Even the social groups of India were now against the Congress. The poor supported it but passively whereas the middle class was against it due to price rise and corruption. The capitalists and rich peasants were opposed to it due to leftist reform agenda. the situation was exploited by Opposition parties which had been vanquished in the elections. These parties supported any movement that was against the government. The wave of Anti-Congressism was on the rise.
JP Movement and Bihar – Gujarat unrest
The rising discontent against the faction ridden congress and the poor economic situation led to student organizations creating unrest in these places. The agitation in Gujarat was of this kind. The students protested and soon even the political parties joined. To control the chaos the police resorted to brutal repression. The situation was handled by Indira Gandhi by dissolving the assembly and calling for fresh elections. Thus the opposition parties were buoyed by their success.
In Bihar too the same situation was repeated. But here the Socialist leader Jayprakash Narayan came back from retirement and organized demonstrations. He encouraged protestors to stop taxes, work and force legislators to resign. In this case Indira Gandhi didn’t repeat the decision of dissolving the assembly fearing a repeat of the Gujarat situation. Also she didn’t want the violence to spread to other states.
JP Movement started and under it JP Narayan toured the country and accused Congress leaders of being corrupt and named Indira as a threat to democracy. The movement was supported in communities of workers, students and opposition parties. The opposition and JP supported each other. However the movement lacked support of rural and urban masses and began fading. Indira Gandhi also asked JP to test popularity by contesting the general elections of 1976.
A sudden twist to the political situation was provided by the Allahabad HC by disqualifying Indira Gandhi for electoral malpractices and barred her from contesting elections or holding office. This decision she challenged in SC. The JP movement and opposition parties got ammunition due to this. They called Indira to resign and threatened launch of a civil disobedience movement for this. JP urged the people to make life difficult for the government. He also asked the army, police and bureaucracy to ignore decisions that were illegal and unconstitutional. Prior to this Indira Gandhi faced a major embarrassment when the Janata front government defeated Congress and formed a government.
It was now that Indira Gandhi took the decision of imposing a state of Internal Emergency.
Emergency: The Test of Democracy
The situation before the emergency was tense due to the JP Movement. The character of Jayprakash Narayan was that of impeccable honesty. However he had a weak personality and nebulous ideology. He talked about party-less democracy even in the past but had failed to concretely explain this. With other socialists he had called the Nehru government a imperial tool and sham. Now however his role was more important. The congress was already on the back foot due to serious economic situation in the country. JP knew that without the structured organization of the opposition he wouldn’t be able to take on Indira Gandhi. Opposition too in their taste for anti-congressism had supported him.
JP movement wasn’t totally based on ideology as it had elements from communal groups as well as the far left Naxal elements. It had no political goal other than to remove Indira Gandhi from government. The movement itself wasn’t democratic as JP never demanded elections to decide who would lead the government but favored mass agitations and civil disobedience. There was a danger in this tactic of undermining the democratic institutions as seen in Italy and Germany where democracy replaced by revolution led to rise of fascist elements. The same fascist elements existed in the movement too Opposition consisted of even communal and reactionary forces.
JP himself would never have planned a revolution but others would have. As the movement was increasingly coming into the influence of radicals. Extra legal, extra constitutional means were adopted by the opposition. Morarji desai and others even threatened to blockade the PM’s residence and force her to resign, A Coup. The movement also got a boost by the Allahabad HC harsh verdict on a technicality. This further boosted the confidence of opposition who didn’t want to risk waiting a year for the general elections as situations change rapidly in politics.
Indira Gandhi too was flawed in taking the extreme step of imposing an emergency. The justification was internal unrest and threat to political stability by the JP Movement. However once this situation was dealt with there was no reason for the 19 month long emergency. The draconian measures of curbing civil liberties, stiffing press, arresting leaders and police action were unjustified. In all over 1 lakh people were arrested in the country. State governments too were brought under strict control, chief minister’s too were replaced and non-congress governments were dismissed. Internal democracy within the party too was curbed and the Sanjay Gandhi led Youth Congress became more important than the parent organization.
Legislation’s too were passed like the Defense of India Act and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act to curb civil liberties and demonstrations. The country had become a police state.
Reactions to the Emergency
Intelligentsia reacted negatively to the Emergency but the vast masses either accepted it or were unconcerned. This was due to many factors. Firstly, dictatorship wasn’t going to be created and that the emergency was as per constitutional procedures and approved by courts. The situation of growing strikes, agitations, violence came to an end. Many communal’s and reactionary elements were arrested and calm prevailed. Students and teachers returned to normalcy, people too saw that economic situation had come back and no agitations were seen. It was felt that after the emergency measures the crisis was over. Indira government too launched a 21 point agenda for social and rapid transformation. The landless, marginalized derived benefit from such schemes. Thus, public were mostly un-agitated over the emergency till mid 1976. However it should be noted that the measures taken could have been taken without the emergency too.
Soon people became disillusioned by the emergency measures. The economic situation worsened. Governments socialist plans never became fully operational. Rural agrarian reforms were stalled by Rich peasants and inefficient and apathetic bureaucracy. The police and bureaucracy enjoyed harsh powers under the new legislation’s and grievance redressal was also not available to the public. The courts couldn’t entertain petitions related to abuse of fundamental rights. Civil servants became intolerant and public were repressed. A major reason for the tension was Sanjay Gandhi whose youth congress became more powerful than the parent congress.
He was now a parallel government. He would order even chief ministers and bureaucrats. He launched his four point agenda which became more important than the government’s 21 point agenda. One of the objectives was family planning and restricting family size to two. Government servants were given fixed quota’s to complete and this led to forced sterilization, vasectomy. This created an atmosphere of fear amongst the people.
Surprise elections were declared in 1977 in which the unpopularity of the emergency cost the congress and many leaders including Indira Gandhi lost their seats. The Dark Period of Emergency was over and civil liberties and other democratic processes were restored. Though Indira Gandhi had got the parliament to extend emergency for one more year she called for elections, this surprised people. The reason quoted was that she was basically a democrat who believed in validating the declaration of emergency through the ballot. She was aware of the excesses committed during the emergency and wanted the cycle to end even if it meant her defeat.
The political situation which was grim during the emergency led critics to comment that just like other post-colonial countries India too would become authoritarian state. In a country with a large mass of poor and illiterate this transformation was inevitable. The other opinion felt that economic development needed an authoritarian regime which Indira Gandhi had provided and both couldn’t coexist. The radicals felt that democracy is only class domination and bourgeois under the facade of democratic polity and that emergency had only removed that facade. Regarding Indira Gandhi’s removal of emergency some felt was a move made due to influence of sycophantic supporters who had misjudged the public opinion of Gandhi.
However it cannot be argued that when the elections occurred the same illiterate people exercised their franchise intelligently. Arguments regarding democracy, freedom and civil liberties were understood by them and ultimately this led to Indira Gandhi’s defeat. Thus, this election was a test through democracy emerged with flying colors.