When Indira Gandhi mulled resigning after court verdict

This is an excerpt from B.Z. Khasru’s upcoming book, The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link, which will be released by Rupa & Co. in New Delhi in July

Indira Gandhi had, immediately after the Allahabad court verdict, seriously considered stepping down as prime minister, but changed her mind after facing a deadlock at a Congress parliamentary party meeting called to pick a successor.

Jagjivan Ram opposed the way Gandhi wanted to choose the interim premier. He demanded a vote on the issue. Ram's opposition and his simmering rivalry with Y.B. Chavan prompted Gandhi to change her mind about stepping down.

Gandhi had surprised and shocked everyone but her immediate personal entourage by declaring the emergency on 26 June 1975, arresting virtually all major opposition leaders and muzzling the press. Although all of her actions were technically in line with the constitution, apprehension ran high about how she would return the country to democracy and restore the press freedom, which had marked the 27 years since India's independence from Britain.

With only one or two minor exceptions, the entire Indian cabinet, including influential Jagjivan Ram and Y.B. Chavan, endorsed Gandhi's action. Dissidents within Congress – and there were quite a few who criticized Gandhi in private – remained silent after she took the draconian step.

Why Gandhi imposed emergency

An explanation of what motivated Gandhi to assume extraordinary powers came from V.N. Gadhil, a Congress MP in Poona. He told an American diplomat that the move resulted directly from a crisis brewing within Congress. Gandhi faced a growing threat to her leadership from Jagjivan Ram and Chandra Shekhar, in alliance with J.P. Narayan – and not from the opposition as such.

When asked why he himself and others who differed with prime minister did not speak out, Gandhil told the U.S. political officer in Mumbai with a sense of utter helplessness that it was a “question of survival of individual party leaders.”

Gandhi herself blamed opposition provocation for her decision. Politically motivated strikes and violence as well as appeals by the opposition to the police and the military to disobey orders had left her with no choice. She referred to J.P. Narayan's agitation. He attacked her in an inflammatory speech on 25 June in New Delhi. He called upon the military, police and government employees to flout “illegal” orders. He urged students to walk out of classes, taxpayers to refuse to pay taxes and factory workers to strike. He also advocated that the information minister should be barricaded for allowing All-India Radio to “lie” for the prime minister.

The People's Front, the Akali Dal, and Congress (O) announced a plan to start a “nationwide struggle” to push Gandhi out. Morarji Desai was to coordinate the movement. The opposition was to hold daily demonstrations in front of the prime minister's Delhi home and rallies countrywide. Finally, there was the Supreme Court justice's issuance of a partial stay order for her on the Allahabad court case, an order that did not hurt the prime minister, but was widely interpreted by those around her as highly “mischievous.”

One or all of these probably pushed Gandhi over the brink.

Gandhi defended the harsh measures as a means to continue India’s forward march, which she alleged some outside powers – the United States, mainly – were out to undermine. In her mind, Congress party’s rule was indispensable to India’s national security. “There is no one political party other than ours which can hold the country together.” Gandhi, however, ruled out the possibility of one-party rule in India.

She rebuffed criticism that her move was intended to prolong her regime. She also argued that efforts by the opposition to pull down her freely elected government had gone beyond acceptable limits. She consistently denied that the court verdict nullifying her membership in parliament forced her to impose emergency. Virtually no politically sensitive person in India took this explanation seriously.

Gandhi explains her move

On 26 July 1975, exactly one month after declaring emergency, Gandhi talked privately with Rita Hauser, an American lawyer, for 45 minutes, extensively reviewing the reason for declaring the emergency. Hauser later told American diplomats that she was struck by Gandhi's feelings on the subject of the press.

The prime minister accused the press of consistently having attacked the Nehru family, both her father when he was prime minister, and herself. “They are all against me,” Gandhi told Hauser, “resorting to vicious slander and calumny, and I will not have it.”

Gandhi delivered this last remark with a slam of the palm against her desk and a tone of great intensity. She accused Indian journalists of giving slanderous material against her to foreign reporters as well. Almost all of the widely read English language press and many vernacular newspapers had suggested that the prime resign in the aftermath of the Allahabad court ruling.

At the U.S. Embassy's request, Hauser specifically pressed Gandhi on her remarks about external sources of money and publicity for the domestic opposition. Hauser asked which countries Gandhi had in mind, and whether she really believed foreign governments were involved. Gandhi dodged away from the question, saying only that she knew both private and government funds had come to certain opposition groups.

Hauser told an American official in Delhi that Gandhi was under great pressure. She was probably making her decisions almost from day to day. Gandhi constantly toyed with a paperweight while she talked with Hauser, and had a bad twitch next to her left eye the entire time. This was not conspicuous when U.S. Ambassador William Saxbe saw her two days earlier.

The United States meticulously monitored the emergency in India. Gandhi’s secretary P. N. Dhar on 21 October 1975 explained to Adolph Dubs, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, the reason for the emergency was that the Indian governmental system had ceased to be a problem-solving one. India had adopted populist politics. It had given India many of the same problems that Britain confronted. Like his boss, Dhar also insisted India could not abandon democracy.

B.Z. Khasru’s first book, Myths and Facts Bangladesh Liberation War, published by Rupa & Co. in New Delhi in 2010, was a bestseller in India. Khasru is editor of The Capital Express in New York.

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