It was on June 26, 1975, people in India woke up to learn about the midnight promulgation of state of ‘internal emergency’ and arrest of most of opposition politicians including those from Indira Gandhi’s own Congress party, who had been for sometime critical of her domestic policies and her growing authoritarianism. In next 18-20 months, following that declaration of emergency, there was a total subversion of the entire system of Indian Constitution and suspension of habeas corpus. With incarceration of entire opposition, the central legislature was bulldozed into passing of a spate of constitutional amendments that undermined every institution of the state. Both judiciary and press were subjected to an unprecedented intimidation through inimical and coercive tactics and were forced to toe the official line. However, the most unsettling aspect of that era was sprouting of an extra-constitution power center headed by the notorious younger son of Indira Gandhi, which during major part of the period wrought social havoc through ill-conceived social engineering directed at curbing population growth and town planning. And more than that the withering effect of that extra-constitutional power wielded by Sanjay Gandhi was that it spawned such aberrant authorities in almost every nook of the country through overzealous bureaucrats driven by the lure of power.
The details of the excesses of that period have been subject of many books, columns and gossips. But none matches the reports issued by the Shah commission that went into causes and excesses of that period with damning indictment of not only Indira Gandhi but rather entire machinery including judiciary that barring a few glorious exceptions went into over drive to further authoritarian power during that period. However, it is curious that there are very few commentaries on the causes that lead to the declaration of that ordinance on that fateful night of June 25, 1975 that virtually ended democracy in India. The immediate impetus for declaration of that infamous emergency was a judgment by Jagmohan Lal Sinha of Allahabad High Court that disqualified Indira Gandhi from holding any political office, which virtually unseated her as prime minister and less than unqualified relief from Supreme Court following an appeal. The Allahabad High Court judgment on June 12, 1975 was based on a case related to misuse of official machinery by Indira Gandhi and her officials in her Rae Barelly constituency in the elections of 1971. It was maverick Raj Narian, whom Indira Gandhi had soundly beaten in that election, but had brought that case against her. In his judgment, the concerned justice had followed law to the last letter. Pertinently, in a very recent judgment on Affordable Health Care chose to overlook four words that were in not consonant with law and decided in favor of the administration. In the judgment written by Chief Justice it is stated “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” The justices of the US supreme courts were aware of the havoc their decision to the contrary would create. In that context even Jagmohan Lal Sinha would have been aware of the consequences of unseating an elected Prime Minister would create. Congress Party under Indira Gandhi had won a huge mandate in the national election she had called in 1971 followed by another sweep in 1972 elections for state legislatures. The next parliamentary elections were already due in less than a year’s time.
Much before that judgment from the Allahabad High Court, the country had been mired in a deep agitation led by an old Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan who was joined by almost the entire political opposition of the country barring a faction of communists. And despite their numerical irrelevance in the legislature the agitation by the combined opposition had a debilitating effect on already unsteady government and Indira Gandhi felt herself under a continuous siege. Particularly, a call by the agitating parties to armed forces to disobey governmental authority a day before the declaration of emergency did not prove very helpful. The country had become a very different place compared to the time of Indira Gandhi’s 1971 election victory and her successful leadership during the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Even her stringent critics had hailed her at that time, with Vajapayee going to the extent of calling her incarnation of goddess. Following the elections for state legislatures in 1972, the Congress party under Indira Gandhi controlled all states with the exception of Tamil Nadu and Jammu and Kashmir. It was from that point on the things went only down the hill.
Although, a number of causes and circumstances contributed to the fast deteriorating situation, the main issues were political, economical and personal. India might have attained a clear victory in 1971 war, nevertheless, the costs were huge, which coupled with almost three years of failed monsoon and the agitation by the opposition itself in particular devastating railway strikes of 1974, all contributed to uncertain conditions. International economic situation of the time also added to the growing woes, in particular almost a tenfold increase in price of crude oil following the embargo by Arab states in response to Arab-Israeli Yim Kippur war of 1973 created a deep hole into national finances. Another crucial extenuating cause for the emerging situation was an inherent deep insecurity of Indira Gandhi and her distrust of people around her. That was a major promoter for the displacement of old seasoned bureaucrats like P. N. Haksar, by disturbingly brash Sanjay Gandhi and his coterie of ruffians.
People like Haksar and his peers had served Indira Gandhi well through her struggles against old guard of the Congress party. They devised plans for a spectacular victory in 1971 parliamentary elections after engineering a defeat in 1969 of Sanjeeva Reddy, the official Congress candidate for Presidency favored by the old guard that included Morarjee Desai, Nijanlingappa, Kamraj and others. Morarji Desai and Sanjeeva Reddy did ultimately go on to become Prime Minister and President after 1977 rout of Congress. But back in the days after Lal Bahadur Shastri's death in 1966 and again in 1966 after dismal performance in elections, the old guard in Congress party backed Indira Gandhi over Morarjee Desai for premiership with an ulterior motive of being able to manipulate a meek woman. It was already too late before they realized their misjudgment and Indira Gandhi, as Margret Thatcher famously said about herself, was not for turning. That started a perennial struggle for the control, which to the disbelief of later generation had an ideological component. Indira Gandhi went on to take progressive measure through nationalization of banks and abolition of privy purses and titles of erstwhile princes. The old guard in the party, failing to read the popular mood, opposed both those and other progressive measures. The bank nationalization, in particular, led to exit of Morarji Desai, a hard core capitalist, from the cabinet and ultimate split in the party.
In a cynical view, those measures by Indira Gandhi could be mere tactical maneuvers to win political battles. It remains, however, one of the follies of all times to view history through the current prism. Those definitely were progressive measures and nationalization of banks at that time had a visible effect towards betterments in society. It might be hard to understand but those were hard times with of rampant shortages and chronic paucity of liquidity; the nationalization of banks opened doors for small and medium loans for general population even in remote places that until then never had an easy access to such facilities. Her battles were not over yet; the conservative justices of Supreme Court stuck down laws nationalizing banks and privy purses, forcing further constitutional amendments. That had been in part the reason for a later decision of her government to elevate A. N. Ray as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in April 1973 following the retirement of Chief Justice S: M. Sikri and in the process three prominent judges, Justices Hegde, Shehlat and grover resigned after being superseded. Justice A. N. Ray was the only dissenting judge on the bench that had struck down bank nationalization. Unprecedented supersession of the Supreme Court judges provided further ammunition to the critics of Indira Gandhi.
It is quite interesting that Indira Gandhi had the quality of inherent insecurity in common with Richard Nixon, whereas they famously detested each other. According to Katherine Frank, they both instinctively recoiled from one another and that animosity played to full during that 1971 war and led to the famous US tilt towards Pakistan. Henry Kissinger described the talks between Indira and Nixon as ‘classic dialogue of the deaf’ and mentions in his memoirs that Nixon’s comments about Indira Gandhi afterwards were not always printable. Pertinently, it was that inherent insecurity and instinctive disinclination to trust anyone that led to ultimate downfall of both. For Nixon that downfall came through Watergate scandal and for Indira Gandhi, it was through her reliance on Sanjay Gandhi after declaration of emergency. But the declaration of emergency, as per Katherine Frank, more than that judgment was in reaction to threat from Jayprakash Narayan and Morarji Desai to reduce government to chaos and stage a non-military coup.