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The Rediff Special



The Rediff Special / Kuldip Nayar

January 18, 1977

No editorials appeared in any of the national newspapers. No rallies were organised. Saturday was just another day, even for those who participated in the events of twenty years ago.

Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of the day when Indira Gandhi defied conventional wisdom and did the unpredictable. After 19 long months of fear and loathing, she finally revoked the Emergency, called a general election and gave India another chance to assert itself as the world's largest democracy .

In his memorable account of the Emergency and after, The Judgement Kuldip Nayar recalls the memories of another day.

On 18 January 1977, Morarji had risen early as was his habit. He went for his morning walk, his daily routine for the past many months. It appeared to be like any other day.

Though a dull routine, it was better than what it had been when he was first detained at Sona. Then he was confined to a small, dark room, with closed windows. Following protests, he was allowed to walk around the compound after nightfall. Because of snakes and scorpions in the compound he decided to walk around his cot for exercise. He was literally kept in the dark and had no idea of what was going on outside. He had no access even to newspapers.

Only when he was shifted to a canal guest house, not far from Sona, was he allowed newspapers, and later interviews. That day, 18 January, he had seen a news item in the Indian Express that elections to the Lok Sabha might be held by the end of March. He did not believe it; he had his own doubts.

He looked up without interest when some senior policemen entered his sparsely-furnished room. They told him that he was being released unconditionally and that they would take him to his house in Dupleix Road. They had brought a car along.

By now the Opposition leaders and most others had been released. The one-time figure of more than 100,000 detainees had come down to nearly 10,000.

On arriving at his house Morarji heard that Mrs Gandhi had decided to dissolve the Lok Sabha and have fresh elections. He was not surprised. "I always knew that she would release me only when she wanted to go to the polls," he told me later.

But there were others who were surprised. These included several Cabinet ministers. They came to know of the decision only that afternoon when they were hurriedly summoned and informed about it. Mrs Gandhi told them that in a democratic system the government had to face the electorate periodically. She admitted that she had taken a risk.

No minister said anything. Bansi Lal, who knew of it earlier, was visibly disturbed; Jagjivan Ram and Chavan kept quiet. They had not been consulted about the elections, just as they had not been consulted about the imposition of the Emergency. But they, like other ministers, suspected that they were coming, after Sanjay had particularly told a public meeting in Bombay two days earlier that elections might be held shortly. Over the period, they had come to accept the fact that Sanjay knew best.

What they did not know was that most of them had been written off. Everyone in Mrs Gandhi's house said that Jagjivan Ram should not be made a minister after the elections. Sanjay had his own views on who should be in Parliament and who should not. By then he even had a list of who was to be given the Congress ticket -- and most of the sitting members of Parliament were not in it. It would be futile for them to rebel and stand on their own.

Although the Congress party high command went through the motions and directed its state units to prepare their lists of candidates, most people soon knew it was only an eyewash. Sanjay had finalised most of the names and Mrs Gandhi had as usual approved what he had decided.

The Opposition parties were happy over the elections but they knew they were at a terrible disadvantage. Their leaders had all been in jail till a few days previously and were out of touch with the people; many of their workers were not yet released. They were pressed for time.

But they did not want to lose more time. The Congress (O), Jana Sangh, BLD and Socialist leaders met at Morarji's residence the day he was released. The discussion was exploratory. They again met the following day, by which time Mrs Gandhi had told the nation in a broadcast about the elections and the opportunity to "reaffirm the power of the people".

The Opposition leaders had before them a JP letter which S M Joshi, a Socialist leader, had brought from Patna. JP had said that if they did not become one party he would dissociate himself from the elections. He had telephoned a similar message earlier.

The problem before the Opposition parties was not that of merger; their leaders had discussed and rediscussed this in jail and had come to the conclusion that one party was the only answer to the Congress juggernaut. The Opposition leaders had felt the same way in their separate and collective discussions.

In fact, Charan Singh was so disgusted with the merger talks that he had written as far back as 14 July 1976 to Ashok Mehta, the Congress (O) president that the BLD 'is now fed up; even its motives have been doubted. So, it has decided to go it alone, free from the thought of any duty in this regard -- except one, viz if and when the three parties dissolve or decide to dissolve themselves in order to form an organisation based, by and large, on the programmes broadly indicated by the Father of the Nation, the BLD will make haste to join.'

What had really stalled the merger was the question: Who should be the leader? In the Opposition leaders's meeting on 16 December, when Morarji was still in jail, Charan Singh looked like heading the party. Morarji had written from his place of detention that he was interested in merger, not leadership.

However, the way Morarji handled the discussions at the Opposition leaders's meeting now, after the announcement of the poll, there was no doubting the leadership. The parties agreed to have him as the chairman and Charan Singh as deputy chairman.

The mere instinct to survive had forced the four parties to come together and constitute an electoral party, a joint front --- the Janata Party, with one symbol for the election, and one flag. It was not possible to dissolve their individual entities without holding separate meetings of the parties; but that would take time and they had no time to lose. They knew that if they lost heavily, Mrs Gandhi and her son would take it as the people's mandate for dictatorship. But if they could get enough of their men returned to form a substantial group in Parliament, she might not be able to claim a convincing mandate.

Excerpted from The Judgement, by Kuldip Nayar, Vikas, 1977, Rs 8.50, with the author's permission.


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