Why and how Indira Gandhi became a dictator in June 1975
Hitler of Germany
‘Hitler’ of India
In a hard-hitting blog published on June 25, 2018, to mark the 43rd anniversary of the assumption of dictatorial powers by Indira Gandhi, Union Minister Arun Jaitley rightly compared her with Adolf Hitler. Both Hitler and Indira Gandhi used the constitutional provisions to get the presidential sanction of the declaration of emergency on the false pretext of a threat to the country. Jaitley also rightly wrote that Indira Gandhi was worse than Hitler because she turned the country into a “dynastic democracy” and unlike Hitler, she prohibited the publication of parliamentary proceedings in the media.
What Jaitley has written 43 years after the declaration of Emergency (June 25, 1975) about the misuse of constitutional provisions, some members of the Constituent Assembly had warned against such a possibility more than 25 years before that (June 25, 1975). Some of the memorable warnings on the possibility of the misuse of the Emergency Provisions (in Part XVIII of the Constitution) were as follows.
T. Shah:‘looking at all the provisions of this Chapter particularly andscrutinising the powers that have been given in almost every article, it seems to me, the name of liberty or democracy will remain only under the Constitution.’
H.V. Kamath: ‘I fear that by this single Chapter we are seeking to lay the foundation of a totalitarian State, a police State, a State, completely opposed to all the ideals and principles that we have held aloft during the last few decades, a State where the rights and liberties of millions of innocent men and women will be in continuous jeopardy, a State where if there be peace, it will be the peace of the grave and the void of the desert. I only pray God that He may grant us wisdom, wisdom to avert any such catastrophe, grant us fortitude and courage.”
Das:‘these provisions would make the President ‘a new Frankenstein, something like the South American Presidents who could usurp all powers…’
Shibban Lal Saksena: ‘when we were in jail in 1942, even though it was during the war, the foreign government did not think it fit to deprive us of the right of habeas corpus. So if the power is given to the President to abrogate this right, it will be a slur on our Constitution and it should not be allowed to be included in it.’
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee, tried to dispel the apprehensions. He stated that ‘these overriding powers are not the normal features of the Constitution. Their use and operation are expressly confined to emergencies only….. Could we avoid giving overriding powers to the Centre when an emergency has arisen? Those who do not admit the justification for such overriding powers to the Centre even in the emergency, do not seem to have a clear idea of the problem which lies at the root of the matter.’
He further stated, ‘I do not altogether deny that there is a possibility of these Articles being abused or employed for personal purposes. But that objection applies to every part of the Constitution which gives power to the Centre to override the Provinces…. (The) proper thing to expect is that such Articles will never be called into operation and that they would remain a dead letter.’
The question whether the emergency powers were really vested in the President or the Council of Ministers was also debated in the Constituent Assembly. Explaining the system of government envisaged in the Constitution, T. T. Krishnamachari said that ‘it has been mentioned that one of the chief defects of this Constitution is we have not anywhere mentioned that the President is a constitutional head and the future of the President’s powers is, therefore, doubtful… This is a matter which has been examined by the Drafting Committee to some extent. The position of the President (under the Indian Constitution) is not the same as the position of American President.’
Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly who letter became the first President of the Indian republic, stated that ‘we have adopted more or less, the position of the British monarch for the President … His position is that of a constitutional President.’
As a student of Political Science, I read a book “Constitutional Government in India” (published in 1960) by Dr. M. V. Pylee, a noted expert on the Constitution. I have reproduced the above observations of the members of the Constituent Assembly from that book. Dr. Pylee writes that ‘all these criticisms are serious and reflected the fears of many members of the Constituent Assembly as well as large sections of the public. Nevertheless, looking back after the lapse of about a decade, one feels that much of it was the result of imaginary fears, extreme sense of idealism, lack of appreciation of the general nature of the Constitution….. The fierce attacks made against these provisions and the fears expressed about them in the Assembly and outside during the time of framing of the Constitution seem to have lost their sharpness in the light of the experience of the last few years.’ He further writes that ‘10 years is too short a period to pass judgement based on the working of the Constitution. Nevertheless,…… the apprehension that the President may act as a dictator is not one of the acute discomforts of our political thinking.’ Referring to the provisions of President’s rule in a state in the event of a breakdown of the constitutional machinery, he writes that ‘the wisdom of the emergency provisions has been demonstrated within the last few years. Instead of destroying democracy, they have in fact helped its recovery in States, where it was seriously threatened.’
The most prophetic statement was made by Rajendra Prasad in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 29, 1949, just before the Constitution was formally adopted. He said: ‘Our Constitution has provisions in it which appear to some to be objectionable from one point or another. We must admit that the defects are inherent in the situation in the country and the people (sic) at large. If the people who are elected are capable and men of character and integrity, they would be able to make the best even of a defective Constitution. If they are lacking in these, the Constitution cannot help the country. After all, a Constitution like a machine is a lifeless thing. It acquires life because of the men who control it and operate it, and India needs today nothing more (sic) than a set of honest men who will have the interest of the country before them.’
The moral of the story is, whatever the provisions of the Constitution, ultimately its future depends on the ‘quality of persons who controll and operate it.’
In a parliamentary democracy, the greatest responsibility is on the Prime Minister, people’s elected leader. The people expect their leader to work in the interest of the country, not in his/her personal interest. This was also the expectation when Indira Gandhi succeeded Lal Bahadur Shastri (whose death in the Soviet Union remains a mystery till date) as Prime Minister in January 1966. At that time I was a probationer at the National Academy of Direct Taxes (NADT), Nagpur. When the All India Radio announced that she had defeated Morarji Desai by a big margin in a direct contest for leadership, almost all the probationers clapped enthusiastically. I did not. Not because I was a supporter of Morarji Desai but because I had some idea of Indira Gandhi’s mindset. By and large, the people of India were also happy to have Nehru ’s daughter as Prime Minister.
During the major part of Nehru’s rule, Indira had lived in Prime Minister’s house as her father’s unofficial assistant and was learning the art of politics. In hindsight, Nehru was grooming her. In 1959 she became Congress President which was not possible without Nehru’s blessing. As Congress President, she forced Nehru to dismiss the first democratically elected Communist government of Kerala without adequate constitutional reasons.
After Nehru’s death, she was inducted in the Rajya Sabha and given a Cabinet berth solely because she was Nehru’s daughter. In 1965 I used to make frequent visits to Delhi where my eldest brother was a senior journalist. During those visits, I came to know that as a minister she was showing utter disregard for the parliamentary system of government. She never attended Cabinet meetings called by Prime Minister Shastri. A mild-mannered Shastri ignored her rudeness. During the Indo-Pak 1965, she was found making irresponsible statements in public. I remember that during an informal meeting with a Union Minister where I was also present, my brother told the Minister that someone should advise her to maintain restraint during the war. The Minister, known to outsiders as Indira Gandhi loyalist, turned his revolving chair towards the wall on which a portrait of Nehru was hanging, folded his hands before the portrait and said, ‘बाप ने तो देश को डुबाया ही; बचा-खुचा बेटी डूबा देगी।‘ (‘The father has ruined the country; whatever is left, the daughter will ruin.’) (Later, Indira Gandhi discovered that he was not loyal to her. He was seriously injured in a bomb explosion on January 2, 1975 at Samastipur in Bihar. He died next day in hospital.)
During the last days of Jawaharlal Nehru, a powerful group of six or seven senior Congress politicians led by Tamil leader K. Kamaraj had formed an informal group of power brokers, known as the Syndicate, to play the role of kingmaker and control the next Prime Minister. After Nehru’s death, they successfully sidelined strong-headed Morarji Desai and got Lal Bahadur Shastri elected as Prime Minister in the hope that they would be able to control a lightweight Shastri. Unfortunately, Shastri belied their expectations. The Syndicate expected that they would be able to control Indira Gandhi who lacked experience and appeared to them shaky and weak. The firebrand socialist leader Ram Manohar infamously called her ‘Goongi Gudia’ (the dumb doll), an adjective lapped by her detractors in her party. The 1967 general election was a big disappointment to her. The strength of the Congress in the Lok Sabha was reduced by 78 seats.
However, that did not demoralise her. The syndicate too had underestimated her. While waiting for the opportune moment to strike at the Syndicate, she started strengthening her position. To assert authority, she launched an ideological struggle. In May 1967, she got the Congress Working Committee adopt a “Ten Point Programme” that included social control of banks, nationalisation of General Insurance, ceiling on urban property and income. Quietly, she was sending signals to the corrupt officers in civil services and armed forces that she was with them. I have personal knowledge of her protecting a highly placed officer of the armed forces who had amassed wealth through corrupt means. (Link: https://www.devendranarain.biz/2016/08/when-high-level-corruption-in-india-had.html )
The opportune moment came in the second half of 1969 when the Syndicate selected Neelam Sanjiva Reddy as the Presidential candidate, disregarding Indira’s opposition. She retaliated by prompting Vice President V. V. Giri to resign and contest as an independent. She called upon MPs and MLAs for a ‘conscience vote’ (Antaratama ki Awaaz) in defiance of the whip issued by the then Congress President. Giri was elected and took over as President on August 24. On November 12, 1969, the Congress expelled her from the party. Now there were two Congress parties: Congress (Organisation) and Congress (Requisitionists) led by Indira Gandhi. Most of the MPs (only 31 deserted her) and the rank and file of the party joined her faction. The Election Commission recognised Congress (R) as the real Congress. Indira Gandhi proved that the Syndicate had overestimated itself and grossly underestimated her.
Now, she was in full command. She cut short the life of the Lok Sabha four. During the high-pitched election campaign her slogan was: ‘वे कहते हैं इंदिरा हटाओ, मैं कहती हूँ गरीबी हटाओ’ (They say remove Indira, I say remove poverty).
Her thumping victory in the fifth general election held in March 1971 – the strength of the Congress increased by 93 in the Lok Sabha – and victory in the Bangladesh war in December 1971 that split Pakistan into two parts filled her with supreme confidence to become a strong ruler. She had already started the process of getting her trusted and pliable persons in the government and the party. In 1967 she had brought P. N. Haksar, an IFS officer and old family friend from the Allahabad days, as her Principal Secretary. Haksar believed in ‘committed bureaucracy’ that suited Indira Gandhi. She patronised corrupt bureaucrats. I have personal knowledge of how she did it in the early 1970s. I will write the inside story after some time. Gradually, her regime was becoming quite corrupt. Instead of making given a show of curbing corruption, she argued that ‘corruption was a global phenomenon’. Her main political advisers were her son Sanjay Gandhi whom she was grooming to succeed her and her childhood friend Siddharta Shankar Ray, Chief Minister of West Bengal. Like Indira Gandhi, they had too no respect for the Constitution and believed in dictatorial powers.
To put it bluntly, the deadly combination of Haksar’s theory of ‘committed bureaucracy’ and Indira Gandhi’s patronage to corrupt officials in a ‘licence – quota’ raj of the socialist economy made corruption synonymous with the Congress raj. The deadly combination of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, and Siddharta Shankar Ray, all believers in dictatorial powers, charted the future course of Indian politics. Economic development of the country was not on their agenda. Only a lip service was paid to the Garibi Hatao (banish poverty) programme.
In 1974 Indira made sycophant D. K. Baruah Congress President who gave the infamous slogan that ‘India is Indira. Indira is India.’ The same year, after the end of President Giri’s tenure, Ray suggested the name of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed as the next President. In a letter to Indira Gandhi, he gave reasons which she could not ignore. He wrote:
“Dear Indira,… I think Mr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed is our best bet. Apart from being a Muslim, he is also from the Eastern region, and we have never had a president from that region. He will be completely loyal and Mrs. Ahmed is eminently presentable…. I think the CPI will fall in line in the end…”.
He could not be more correct in the choice.
Her position in the party was unchallenged but she was facing several challenges from outside. What she and her cohorts were doing in the party and the government was bound to have repercussions outside. The economy was deteriorating, unemployment was growing, food items had become scarce and inflation was rampant. As a result, there were widespread protests in several parts of the country.
Since 1973, things appeared to be going out of Indira’s control. The ‘Navnirman movement’ (movement for regeneration) started by college students of Ahmedabad was joined by factory workers and common people against the corrupt government of the Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel who was popularly referred to as chiman chor (thief). In February 1974 the central government had to intervene. It suspended the assembly and imposed President‘s rule. In March 1975 when Morarji Desai went on fast unto death, Indira had to dissolve the assembly and announce fresh election.
The ‘Navnirman movement’ inspired Jaiprakash Narayan, who had been raising voice against rampant corruption under Indira Gandhi, to launch a similar movement in Bihar which came to be known as ‘JP movement’. His movement to raise what he called ‘the collective consciousness of the society’ lead to a large number of clashes between common people including students and police. In June 1974, he organised a large protest march through the streets of Patna in support of ‘total revolution’.
To add to Indira’s woes, socialist leader George Fernandes’ railways strike call in May 1974 led to violent demonstrations in several towns and paralysed movement of goods and people for three weeks. She crushed the strike with an iron hand. Thousands of employees were arrested and their families driven out of their quarters.
Indira and her advisers felt that the situation might go out of control. On January 8, 1975, S. S Ray had suggested strong action. He sent a draft ordinance to Indira with a letter in which he suggested a plan of action to direct the state chief ministers to arrest prominent RSS and Anand Marg members. He had mentioned in the letter that ‘I hope the President will be readily available to sign the ordinance.’ Indira did not on the advice.
The immediate trigger for the assumption of dictatorial powers came on June 12, 1975, when Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court found in the Gandhi guilty of corrupt practice under section 123 (7) of the Representation of the People Act by having obtained the assistance of gazetted officers of the UP government, declared her election from the Rae Bareilly constituency “null and void” come and barred her from holding elected office for six years. On appeal, on June 24, 1975, the Supreme Court granted a conditional stay of execution of the High Court order.
Meanwhile, Siddharth Shankar Ray had rushed to New Delhi to save his friend. On June 25, 1975, he drafted the resolution to declare Emergency, carried Indira Gandhi’s letter and the draft resolution to the Rashtrapati Bhawan, woke up the sleeping President and got his signature on the dotted lines on the “Proclamation of Emergency”
“In exercise of the powers conferred by Clause (1) of article 352 of the Constitution, I Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, President of India, declared that a grave emergency exists whereby the secretary of India is threatened by internal disturbance.”
Indira had sent the proposal to declare the Emergency to the President even without consulting her Cabinet colleagues. She informed them only on the morning of June 26. The world and the people of India came to know of it when the BBC broke the news in the morning of 26. In the night of June 25-26, using her dictatorial powers, Indira Gandhi had suspended fundamental rights, sent all the prominent critics behind the bar and muzzled the press.
This is how Indira Gandhi became India’s ‘Hitler’. Like Hitler, she did not abrogate the Constitution but used the constitutional provisions to transform democracy into a dictatorship.
She proved all those who had dismissed the apprehensions of misuse of the Emergency provisions as ‘imaginary’ wrong. She proved that not a President but a Prime Minister could misuse the provisions and become a Frankenstein Monster, especially when the President has no personality of his own. She proved that she was one of those against whom the Constituent Assembly President Rajendra Prasad had warned the people in his last address to the Assembly on November 29, 1949.
The provisions regarding the indirect election of the President are such that a political party enjoying the majority of the electoral college can elect a puppet President. Fakruddin Ali Ahmed and Giani Zail Singh were such puppet Presidents. Their being totally pliable was the only criterion for which Indira chose them.
Indira was a selfish person with an evil mind. She considered self and family much above the country. She had no capacity to tackle problems in a legal and constitutional manner. Justice Sinha’s order declaring her election “null and void” was not a big deal. The ‘corrupt practice’ she had indulged in was not a serious problem. She was not found guilty of spending unaccounted money or using unfair means to influence voters. Moreover, Justice Sinha had granted absolute stay on the execution of the order to give opportunity to her to go to the Supreme Court in appeal, a rare concession in election cases. Had Indira been a democratic leader she would have resigned and re-contested election. But she was not a democratic leader.
Had she been a patriotic person with a democratic mind, she could have changed the shape of India for better. She had the personality to take tough decisions and for years she had massive popular support. Had she done so, she would have got an honourable position in the history. Unfortunately for the Congress and for the country, she used her personality and capabilities for personal gains at the cost of the country.