The great Indian election saga

Tags: Op-ed
The great Indian election saga
AFP
PAST POWER: In this 1966 file photo, Indira Gandhi is surrounded by the crowd just after her election as then prime minister of India
There have been some tumultuous and epic elections in the history of independent India. I wasn’t born when the first general election was held in the country from October 1951 to February 1952. It must have been memorable. But subsequently, I have witnessed some memorable elections.

The first memorable election I can remember was when Indira Gandhi first divided the Congress. That election was fought between factions that came to be known as ‘syndicate’ and ‘indicate’. Syndicate, if I am not wrong, was the Congress of the old guard — Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress, and opposing it was the breakaway faction that had chosen Nehru’s daughter Indira as their leader. ‘Indu bitiya’ deftly pulled the rug from under the feet of all her chachas — Congress titans of her father’s time.

The first memorable general election I witnessed and remember till this date was the one in 1977. Billed as the ‘general election to restore democracy’, this was the election that took place in the aftermath of the 21-month long suspension of the Indian Constitution and the imposition of martial law of censorship and suspension of civil liberties by Indira Gandhi in 1975.

I distinctly remember those months of a police state, of the curbing of our fundamental rights, of press censorship and of arbitrary arrests and torture. Then Gandhi relented, or as is believed, was served an ultimatum by a belligerent Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw to restore democracy. She lifted the emergency, restored the constitution fully, released all the political prisoners and declared general election. Euphoria ensued because the previous 21 months had been like a bad dream. There was a determination and palpable anger, much more severe than the resentment we witness amongst the middle-class against the Congress today. Slogans such as ‘nasbandi ke teen dalal, Indira, Sanjay, Bansilal’ were very popular.

I still remember how the urban, educated middle class took to the streets and rallied around Jai Prakash Narayan. His Janta Party had tirelessly campaigned for its candidates and worked for them thanklessly. My sister and I had gone from home to home to collect donations for our Janta Party candidate. If I am not mistaken, it was Ram Jethmalani for the Janta Party from the then Bombay northwest constituency. The Congress had fielded its sitting MP and law minister HR Gokhale. This was a safe Congress constituency.

We went around from door to door distributing election cards and beseeching voters to come out and vote to restore democracy on polling day. The urban middle class turned out in droves and with their votes utterly decimated the Congress. This nationwide phenomenon saw both Indira and Sanjay trounced from their pocket buroughs. I remember how utterly shell-shocked were the Congress workers after the results were declared, for they had never suffered such a devastating defeat. Unfortunately, the Janta Party experiment soon came unravelled as in the midterm elections, Indira, Sanjay and the Congress returned triumphantly to power.

The next memorable election was in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s murder. There was a huge sympathy wave in favour of Rajiv Gandhi and it felt as if people wanted to atone for Indira’s murder and so voted for the Congress. It was a landslide victory for Rajiv Gandhi; bigger than the Congress had ever achieved. The BJP was reduced to merely two MPs, namely Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. Gandhi had won a landslide victory, but was not able to build on it. He became the biggest victim of his success. The massive mandate buried him, and led to blunder after blunder being committed by him. The constitutional amendment in the wake of the Shahbano verdict, the ill conceived opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid and the corruption allegation in the Bofors kickback case where mud stuck to his face and all those close to him, turned him from a hero into a villain. The very next election saw his party being defeated.

Post Bofors was another memorable election fought on the plank of corruption and a crusader against it — VP Singh. Singh formed a coalition government, but very soon his contradictions and knee-jerk reactions disillusioned the electorate and after he implemented the Mandal Commission and the angry reaction against it, saw the honeymoon turning into a divorce. The next election once again saw a serious challenge posed by Rajiv Gandhi. He was on a comeback trail, till his life was cruelly cut short at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu by a LTTE death squad.

This year’s general election will prove to be equally dramatic. I venture to say, the most dramatic elections ever in independent India. This time, the elections are about the destiny of India itself. A new electorate is going to decide the fate of Indian democracy and the direction it takes as a nation. Whether democracy survives or autocracy triumphs, will be seen. Will it be one that may change the destiny of Indian democracy, or will it be a short-lived experiment, only time will tell.

(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)

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