INDIRA GANDHI: FIRST WOMAN :PRIME MINISTER, 1966-1971

A woman ruler is under a social handicap until she has  been able to consolidate her position.

                                                                                    – Economic and Political Weekly

First Women Prime Minister

After the demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri, on 10 January  1966,  the search for his successor started and there were seven contenders for the  post of India’s third Prime Minister – Desai, Indira, Nanda, Chavan, S.K.Patil, Sanjiva Reddy and Kamaraj. Kamaraj, for reasons better known to himself, withdrew from the contest. This time Desai insisted on a secret ballot. Finally, there was straight contest between Desai and Indira Gandhi. On 19 January, secret ballot was held in the meeting of Congress Parliamentary Party in which Indira Gandhi secured 355 votes as against 169 for Desai.

The Congress President K.Kamaraj played a very important role in clearing the way for Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, to succeed Shastri. Kamaraj, in his own characteristic way, justified his support to her: First, Indira knew all the world leaders; Second, she had traveled widely with her father; Third, she was grown up with almost all the  react men of the freedom movement; Fourth, she had a rational and modern mind;  totally free of parochialism, and finally, In 1967, she could win the election. Besides, she had the experience of working as a member of the Congress Working Committee (1955), the highest policy making body of the party; elected President of the Congress Party (1959) an elected member of the CWC as well as a member  of’ the Central Election Committee, which selected candidates for the 1962  election. Then she joined Shastri’s Cabinet as Minister of Information and  Broadcasting. Though Indira Gandhi inherited the name and mantle from her father Nehru, she on her own right, was eminently qualified to become the first woman prime minister of India. On 24 January 1966, the 49 year old Indira  Gandhi was sworn in as the third Prime Minister by the President Dr.S.Radhakrishnan.

 

Cabinet under Indira Gandhi

 

Indira Gandhi was the choice of the Syndicate. K.Kamaraj, therefore, insisted that she retained most ministers of Shastri’s Cabinet. She wanted to drop the Home Minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, but she was constrained to retain him in her Cabinet. However, Indira Gandhi had her way in inducting Asoka Mehta  (new Minister of Planning); G.S.Pathak (Minister of Law); Fakrudin Ali Ahmed  (Minister of Irrigation and Power); and Jagjiwan Ram (Minister of Labour), Morarji Desai was not invited to join her Cabinet! Soon she became the primus  inter pares, with a mind and will of her own.

 

Indira Gandhi’s ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ was the expanded version of the  ‘Back-benchers Club’, formed during the Shastri years.’ Her Kitchen Cabinet, a wheel within the wheel, comprised

of Dinesh Singh, I.K.Gujral, Nandini Satpati, Uma Shankar Dikshit, D.P.Mishra, C.Subramaniam, Asoka Mehta and Fakruddin Ali Ahmed. This ‘nucleus of power’ assisted and advised the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in crucial decision making. They “urged a leftist ideological view on her”. She also relied heavily on the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), particularly on the services of her Principal Secretary L.K.Jhan and later P.N.Haksar. The PMO “reached dizzy heights of power”.

 

1966: The year of Turmoil

Unrest in North-East

 

Within a couple of months after assuming office of Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, encountered a threat to national unity. There was unrest in the  North-East. The Nagas were threatening cessation from the Indian Union;  there were periodic terrorist attacks, insurgency and guerrilla activity of Nag a  rebels, “trained in China, Pakistan and Burma”.” In Mizoram, the Mizo National  Front (MNF), headed by Laldenga declared independence from India (March  1966). The Mizo insurrection was crushed. In 1973, the Mizo district of Assam  was separated and given the status of a Union Territory.” In Jharkhand, the  Santhalleader Shibu Soren formed the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) (1972),  revived the demand for separate Jharkhand and growing as a radical militant  movement. By nipping the insurrections in the bud Indira Gandhi proved that  she was capable of taking tough decisions.

 

Demand for Punjabi Suba

There had been demand for the creation of a separate Punjabi Suba by the  Akalis for a pretty long time. Nehru refused to concede the demand and left the’ problem unresolved. Shastri had taken the first bold step in this regard. Indira Gandhi faced the problem as soon as she assumed power. The Dar committee in its report dated 18 March 1966, recommended the creation of Punjabi Suba. The Boundary Commission Report dated 31 May 1966 favoured the inclusion of Chandigarh in Punjab

 

On 9 June 1966, the Government of India, after carefully considering  the recommendation of the Dar Commission decided to 1) Make Chandigarh the Union Territory, 2) Chandigarh to be the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana  and 3) Punjabi Suba and Haryana to be formed as separate states. Punjabi Sustained its old name Punjab. While the Siks were happy, the Hindi-speaking people revolted and there were riots. The creation of these states carried the  seeds of future troubles.

 

The Food Crisis, 1966

Insurrection in North-East, demand for Punjabi Suba, and agitations  part, the country was reeling and languishing under severe food crisis.  Devastating droughts stalked the land. There were food shortages and famine  conditions in several parts of the country. Inflation was on the rise and prices  of commodities were spiraling. The economy was in recession. There was a  shortage of foreign exchange. The cumulative effect of these frightening factors  was the general popular unrest as was reflected in the rice riots in Kerala. The  situation was gloomy and grim.

 

Indira Gandhi had to face the wrath of the AICC at Jaipur and was  criticized in the Parliament. She, in late March 1966, turned to the U.S. for  soccur. She visited the U.S. on a mission to get both food and foreign exchange  without appearing to ask for them.” President Lyndon Johnson promised three  million tons of food and nine million dollars in aid. At home the system of  procurement and distribution system were improved. The food crisis was tackled  for the time being. The Prime Minister’s U.S. visit was hailed as a spectacular  success and was a major achievement for Indian democracy.”

 

Devaluation of  Rupee, June 1966

 

The economy of the country had reached the rock bottom. A conspiracy  of circumstances, aggravated by war and drought, had brought the economic  growth to a grinding halt. There was scarcity staring straight on the face of  India. There was forex crisis and industrial capacity was rendered idle, resulting in retrenchment. Exports had come to a halt. Small industry was hit hard. In short, the economy was in the brink of disaster. Since rust-aid measures proved  ineffective, Indira Gandhi decided to administer stronger medicine in order  to restore the nation to economic health”.

 

But there were difficulties. The US stipulated conditions to restore economic aid suspended during Indo-Pak war in 1965. The World Bank and the  International Monetary Fund (IMF) stipulated that the rupee be devalued. Indira Gandhi appointed a committee to consider the issue.” The committee supported  devaluation. On the night of 6 June 1966, Indira Gandhi announced on AIR the devaluation of the rupee by a hefty 57.5%. The decision to devalue the rupee  made her unpopular. She was criticized right and left. The CWC passed a
resolution denouncing the decision. The Congress President Kamaraj was  furious that he was not consulted and lamented over making her the Prim Minister. A great man’s daughter, a little man’s great blunder”. Nevertheless  Indira Gandhi proved that she was capable of taking unpopular decision.

 

Other Agitations

Monsoon failed again for the second consecutive year. The drought
continued unabated. The promised U.S. economic aid was slow to come and
when it came, food shipments were irregular. Drought coupled with devaluation
ignited the volatile situation. There was a spate of agitations, demonstrations
and strikes. Government servants, middle class professionals, teachers,
students, farmers and others participated in these outbursts. Often the agitations
turned violent, resulting in lathi charges and firings, damages and death. These
popular agitations climaxed in 7 November 1966, when a trident – bearing mob
of naked sadhus staged a demonstration in front of Parliament calling for an end
of cow-slaughter. The anti-cow-slaughter demonstration degenerated into
looting, arson and violence. Six sadhus were killed in police firing. The
demonstration brought forth nothing except confounding confusion.

 

Fourth General Elections 1967

1966 was the year of turmoil, and 1967 may be called the year of elections – general elections and the election of the President of India. India’s fourth  general elections were held when the combined effects of the India-China war  1962, the Indo-Pak War 1965, the successive droughts of 1966 and 1967 and the  extremely bad economic situation had aroused popular discontent against the  congress party. Surrounded by opposition hostility and adversity Indira Gandhi decided to directly appeal to the directly appeal to the electorate. She chose Rae Bareilly, her husband  Feroz Gandhi’s constituency, instead of Phulpur, her father Nerhu’s constituency,  to test  her strength. At 50, she stood for Parliament for the first time in the  election  held at the twentieth anniversary of Indian independence.

 

Rift in the Congress

The Congress Party was deeply divided by groupism and factionalism.  The  dissident groups had been the. bane of Congress. The Syndicate had  become the sanctuary of the senile leaders. The young were longing for  leadership. The single point agenda of the divided opposition was to some  how  defeat the Congress. Neither Indira Gandhi nor the opposition leaders  raised ideological or basic socio-economic issues, the election being ‘a means  of political survival’. She presented populist solutions to India’s pestering  problems in all her campaigns.

 

Election results

 

India’s fourth general election was held in February 1967. Indira Gandhi   by a   comfortable majority but the syndicate stalwarts like Kamaraj, S.K.Patil  tulya Ghosh and C. Subramaniam were defeated. Morarji Desai, “Indira’s  mesis’ had been returned. The Congress secured 284 out of 520 seats, though  majority was reduced from 228 in 1962 to 48. The Congress also lost its  majority in eight states – Kerala, Madras, Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar, Utter Adesh, Rajasthan and Punjab. At the national level the CPI and CPI(M), the, wantantra Party and the Jan Sangh had improved their position. In the states, he parties – national and regional- entered into incompatible alliance. “The
lection of 1967 forms a watershed in India because the voters for the first time  wed concern for governmental performance” .In a way, the elections were  bad result for the Congress, but a good one for Indira Gandhi” . Derisively  referred to as ‘this girl’, ‘dumb doll’, ‘this mere chokri’, ‘this little woman’, Indira Gandhi came to be called ‘Mother Indira’ since this election. The majority in the party was behind her.

 

Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister

 

On 15 March 1967, Indira Gandhi was sworn in as the Prime Minister
for a second time. Now her position in the party and the government was much
stronger as the Syndicate was truncated in size and status. Her freedom to
hose her Cabinet was curtailed since she had to accommodate Moraji Desai as
the Deputy Prime Minister with Finance Portfolio, thanks to the wafer thin majority in the Parliament. However, she made it clear that the Deputy PM did
not imply ‘any duality of authority’. She dispensed with the system of rank III
cabinet ministers, instead they were alphabetically ordered “rendering cabin
positions meaningless as indicators of future power line-ups”


Election of Zakir Hussain

 

After Indira Gandhi was reappointed as Prime Minister she was self assertive. When the Syndicate wanted the President Dr.S.Radhakrishnan to continue in office for the second time, the Prime Minister preferred the vie President Zakir Hussain for the post. The opposition put up Justice Subba RUII  Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who had resigned his post shortly before nomination day, as its candidate. Supported by Indira Gandhi, Zakir Hussam  won with comfortable majority. Y.Y.Giri, a south Indian trade union leader, was elected Vice-President. Their victory strengthened the hands of Indira Gandhi

weakened the Syndicate and sabotaged the opposition unity. Zakir Hussain  was the first Muslim President of the Indian Republic.

 

Election of Party President

 

In the elections for the party presidency, Indira Gandhi was not favouring Kamaraj continuing in the post but the Syndicate got its candidate Nijalingappa elected to the post. Indira Gandhi was offended. When the ‘Young  Turks” within the party accused Desai of conniving in the corruption of his son Kantibai, she did not defend her Finance Minister in Parliament. She ignored  the directive of the CWC to rebuke the Young Turks either. The gulf between  the Old Guard and Indira Gandhi widened.

 

Election of V.V.Giri

On 3 May 1969, President Zakir Hussain died of cardiac failure. Indira  Gandhi suggested Jagjivan Ram for the post, but the Congress President Nijalingappa, supported by the Syndicate, proposed Neelam Sanjeeya Reddy, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, as the official candidate. Indira Gandhi signed Reddy’ nomination papers, but she allowed her supporters to vote according to the conscience! She tacitly extended support to V.V. Giri – unofficial candidate On 20 August 1969, Y. Y.Giri was elected President of India. The conscience

vote’ was a superb tractical maneuver.

 

Bank Nationalisation 20 July 1969

From the beginning of 1968, the Syndicate, still headed by Kamaraj, strongly supported by the new Congress President Nijalingapa and the desperate Desai “wanted to oust Indira”.” Her opponents in one voice unequivocally condemned the dismissal of non-Congress governments and the imposition of President’s rule in West Bengal, Utter Pradesh, Bihar and the Punjab, following example of Kerala in 1959. Influenced by the ‘kitchen cabinet’ and egged on the Young Turks, Indira Gandhi had taken a leftist ideological line.

 

In July 1967 in pursuance of Indira Gandhi’s leftist stance her statement  the ‘stray thoughts’ on economic policy was read out at the meeting of the  AICC. These thoughts were based on her 10 point programme formulated in 1967, which included social control of banking, a check on monopolies, nationalization of general insurance, curbs on property, rapid implementation land reforms, state control of food grains and exports, provision of house – to the rural poor, and the abolition of the former privileges and privy  purses. On 16 July she relieved Desai of the finance portfolio since he was opposed to bank nationalization. Four days later, fourteen commercial banks’. Nationalized by presidential ordinance. Bank nationalization was a bold, deft and shrewd political move. It was ,lily greeted by public euphorea. The farmers, traders, small businessmen,
low paid government and other employees, taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers, the
unemployed and others welcomed the radical measure. The CPP endorsed the
progressive programme. But the Government decision was criticized as “a political move designed to isolate, out flank, and defeat her inner party opponents”.” By nationalizing the private banks “the Government controlled monopolizable savings and assisted the capitalist class to diversify their investments and products”.” Bank nationalization was “a populist move … clearly motivated by her drive for self-preservation as Prime Minister”. “Never had the people applauded any economic step as much as they did this one”.”

 

The ‘Great Split’ of Congress, 1969

Rival Groups

The year 1969 was the year of the Great Divide in the Congress. The nearly a century old Congress suffered a serious and .irreparable split in 1969. The ‘unity’ talks between the Syndicate and the ‘Indicate’ – the followers of Indira Gandhi – failed. On 1 November 1969, two separate CWC meetings were convened by the respective rival groups, one at the AICC head quarters at Jantar Mandar Road and the other at Indira Gandhi’s residence at 1 Sabdarjang Road. The parallel meetings were represented by those who stood for status quo and conformism and those who were for radical socialism and change – a conflict between two diametrically opposite mind-sets.

 

The Split

 

On 12 November 1969, the Syndicate found Indira Gandhi guilty of I)  creating a ‘personality cult’. 2) indiscipline and defiance of party leadership  and 3) her intention of selling India to the Soviet Union and expelled her from  the party (13 Nov). The infuriated Indira blamed the ‘undemocratic and fascist  persons’ for the fiasco. A total of297 MPs, of whom 220 from the Lok Sabhn,  supported Indira Gandhi. Besides 446 out of705 members of the AICC were  solidly with her. The Congress Party was split. Thereafter, Indira Congres
came to be called Congress (R) – for Requisitionist and the Syndicate cabal as  Congress (0) for Organization.” The split “has launched a new unprincipled  era in Indian politics”.” The eighty year old Congress tottered and faltered.

 

The Impact

As a result of the split I) Indira Gandhi lost her majority in both houses
of Parliament. 2) She had become a Prime Minister in her own right. 3) transformed
the Congress party into a radical organization. 4) heralded the triumph of the  Parliamentary over the organizational wing of the party. 5) emboldened her to
extend her control to the states beyond New Delhi, and 6) the party “degenerated
into an unaudited company for winning elections”.

 

Abolition of Privy Purses, 1970

 

The year 1970 witnessed dramatic developments. After the nationalization of banks, Indira Gandhi introduced a strong dose of radical reforms. The most dramatic and highly controversial of them was the abolition of the purses and privileges of the former princes. Their purses, pensions and  privileges were guaranteed by the Constitution. Indira Gandhi sought to derecognize the princes through a constitutional amendment. In August 1970.
the Amendment Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha by 339 to 154 votes, but it was
defeated in the Rajya Sabha by one vote. Undeterred Indira Gandhi proceeded  to abolish the privily purses of the princes through a presidential proclamation  (6 September 1969). In December 1970, however, the Supreme Court invalidated  both the ordinances and the bank nationalization law.” However, Indira Gandhi’s sweeping popular programmes of radical social change excited a mass response and public acclaim, though the rival Congress (O) and the Jan Sangh joined together to oppose the move.

 

Fourth Plan Performance, 1966-1971

The Indo-Pak War (1965), two successive years of drought (1965-66 and 1966-67), devaluation of currency (1966), rise in prices of essential commodities, and erosion of resources available for plan implementation derailed the fourth plan. Instead, three annual plans were formulated within the frame work of the draft outline of the fourth plan in between 1966-69. Efforts were made to restore normalcy in the economy. Emphasis was laid on High Yielding Variety Programme (HYVP), minor irrigation projects, better seeds etc. Focus was on farm sector. Industrial capacity was better utilized. Consumer goods industries received better attention. As a result, the supply position with regard food grains and other non-agricultural commodities improved. Prices declined.
The national economy was stable.

 

The 1971 Elections

Dissolution of Lok Sabha

Though Indira Gandhi wielded “far greater power over both party and  Government than had been enjoyed by Jawaharlal Nehru”, her party was in a  minority in Parliament depending on the outside support of the CPI, CPI(M), the  DMK, Akali Dal, fewSocialists and some independents. The way out of this  anomaly was to call for a mid term poll. So, on 27 December 1970, Indira Gandhi  dissolved the Lok Sabha and called for elections in February 1971, a year in  advance. She sought a fresh mandate from the people for her progressive  programmes. The Supreme Court judgements on the bank nationalization case
well as the abolition of Privy Purses were said to be the reasons responsible  for the mid-term elections.

 

‘A Referendum’

Indira Gandhi made the most of the 1.91.1 election. Throughout January and February she campaigned with conviction and courage. Unlike the previous elections, she had no strong party organization, nor had the support of stalwart colleagues. Since the early mid-term poll separated the parliamentary from the state assembly elections, the focus was on the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her government’s performance. In other words, the election would be a referendum on herself and her performance ”Never had attention been so focused on one individual candidate”.”

 

Garibi Hatao Rhetoric

Virtually, the election was between Indira Gandhi and the so-called Irand Alliance, consisting of Congress (0) Jan Sangh, Swatantra and the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP). The grand alliance targeted Indira Gandhi. It’s Ingle point election agenda was to defeat her at the hustings. It was a  personalized campaign. ‘Indira Hatao’ (Remove Indira) was the slogan of the Grand Alliance. As a counter attack, Indira Gandhi came out with a more catch’ blistering slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ (remove poverty). Indira Gandhi’s popular
rhetoric clicked well with the people. The new slogan reverberated throughout
the country. During the eight weeks campaign, she shrewdly avoided personal
attacks on the opposition and highlighted national issues .. In effect, Indira
Gandhi successfully converted the election campaign into a people’s movement
Her carefully calibrated campaigns attracted the peasants, workers, women
middle classes and the youth as never before.

 

The Mandate

The election results were on expected lines. Indira Gandhi’s party won 352 out of a total of518 Lok Sabhaseats. The rival Congress (0) was humiliated with a paltry 16 seats. The Swatantra was reduced from 44 to just 8 and the Jam Sangh from 35 to 22 seats. The grand alliance suffered a demeaning defeat Among the opposition parties CPI (M), CPI and DMK fared well. The election was a personal triumph for Indira Gandhi.

 

The 1971 election restored the Congress party to its dominant position
in Indian politics, conferred the mandate she sought, endorsed the radical agenda
for change and stability, proved that people would rally round national issues
and dashed the hopes of the status – quoists and raised the expectations of th
poor. But the Bangladesh war shifted the attention of the nation from Gariht
Hatao to Simla Summit in 1972.