Home OPINION Prime Ministers of India from Nehru to Modi # 4

Prime Ministers of India from Nehru to Modi # 4

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The Janata Party that emerged as a sharp rebuff to the emergency rule defeated Indira Gandhi but could not transit into a viable alternative in the political arena. The unity of four parties collapsed like a house of cards within twenty months. It was not unity of minds to submerge individual ambitions to serve the national cause on a long term basis but merely a stepping stone for the most.  Yet it did leave a lasting impact on politics by exposing the vulnerability of the Congress that had ruled India without a break for three decades. It also laid the path to national political institutes for political activists who were forced to remain confined to play a role in rural areas only. They had no access to political parties with controls in hands of urban educated professionals.

The opposition leaders were slow in responding to the opportunity that had walked their way with the High Court verdict setting aside her election. For more than a year masses had given enough indication of their disenchantment and disillusion. But Indira Gandhi scored over them by building public opinion for her stay. The opponents could not even assemble for ten days. There was no indication of public resentment over their detention without court orders. They were segregated but did not remain ignorant of rising discontent with the administration. They were forced to stay together to get the opportunity to open their hearts. It induced them to hurriedly merge into a party without comprehensive debate within on prevalent circumstance that demanded a different approach than surviving in specific areas and clusters. Their disunity was written in their approach in the selection of candidates. Instead of applying the mind and adopting the approach of selecting the best, the quota was allotted to different merging units where they were supposed to have a strong base.

Accordingly, the Jan Sangh got sway in the selection of candidates in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Himachal while Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Orissa got allotted to Bharatiya Lok Dal, Gujarat remained with the old Congress and Bihar was left to Socialist group. Outside these nine states, four units did not have strength. The final outcome reflects this pattern. Punjab went to Akali Dal; the East went to the splinters and in six states outside it returned 75 per cent seats to Indira Gandhi.

Left to right: Charan Singh, Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram Pic Courtesy: Scroll.in

The emergence of three old men with ambitions for the top slot was another problem. Morarji Desai was chosen by Jay Prakash Narayan and Acharya Kripalani for having spent the longest time in imprisonment. Charan Singh was released within a year and the third aspirant old man Jagjivan Ram was not in the Janata Party but part of the Indira Gandhi government for two weeks even after the announcement of the election. Disunity was visible even from a distance and too ardent supporters or anti-Indira Gandhi elements. In the euphoria of the defeat of Indira Gandhi, they overlooked that people had voted her out. It was not their victory but routing her was their first priority.

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Choice of Morarji Desai sent Charan Singh to hospital with a complaint of chest pain and Jagjivan Ram to close his doors on the new crop of leaders. Ultimately Charan Singh was convinced to take the second most important slot. Jagjivan Ram responded to an appeal from Jay Prakash that was typed by a media person in his Delhi office without JP on dialysis not even aware of the drama. Only Chandra Shekhar refused o be part of the Desai government. His reason was he cannot serve under the person whom he did not consider as his leader. He gave the offered slot to Mohan Dharia. Desai government lacked homogeneity as the loyalty of each minister was to his group and not to the party. Soon eight state governments were dismissed on grounds that the Lok Sabha election results indicated the loss of popular mandate to their party. Once again eight states were divided into group lines.

His reluctance to be a member of the government prompted the Prime Minister to propose his name to be the President of the Janata Party. In the ensuing poll campaign for the assembly elections, he made abundantly clear that he intended to rule with an iron hand. The Haryana chief minister Devi Lal got a sample of it when he removed young Sushma Swaraj from the state cabinet on the ground that he had no place for the talkative young woman. Chandra Shekhar directed Devi Lal to take her back with due respect within 12 hours or be ready to face and suffer his suspension from the party. Devi Lal had to rush a dozen cars to locate Suma and bring her to the Raj Bhavan for her oath.

Only the Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat did not countenance a need for a horizontal split in his state unit. In three other states under the group rule and in three other states, the Sangh men became aggressive for pushing their agenda fiercely. Even the Sangh chief Deoras was active in seeking and pushing his ideas to different ministries. As he could no influence either Prime Minister Morarji Desai or the party chief, he concentrated on President Sanjiva Reddy and even got him to inaugurate the nursery schools launched by the Sangh. The idea was to convey how powerful the Sangh was to influence other rungs of the administration.

Jaya Prakash Narayan

Jay Prakash came to the limelight again after the freedom struggle but in an anti-establishment role sifter, he returned back to Bihar without a grand success in his mission to end the menace of dacoits. He could not stay away from when students in Gujarat and later in Bihar took to the streets to fight another demon corruption in politics. It made him target one on the night the police took away important opposition leaders. He was taken directly to the hospital in Chandigarh due to his immediate need for dialysis. Later he was brought to Delhi.

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His health was the cause of worry for the Janata Party president as both had graduated in a similar ideology. Morarji was never cowed down by any personality. He respected them but never was a devotee of anyone. Yet he had courage as was reflected in his steep walk of eight km through dense jungle to reach the nearby village to ask villagers to rush to rescue passenger trapped in his plane that had crashed nearby. Many commented that he run away to save his life instead of helping the trapped passengers including his son. His explanation was at the age of 85 years, he had no strength or stamina to remove metal scraps to pull out passengers. Instead, he ran to the best of his strength to get the help of the young for rescue work. Chandra Shekhar admired it but could not forgive him for the wrong announcement of the demise of Jay Prakash under treatment at the Jaslok hospital in Mumbai. Later on, medicos attending on JP admitted to their too early diagnosis that led the intelligence bureau to flash the wrong message. Morarji’s mistake was to rush to Parliament to apprise of news instead of waiting for official confirmation.

In July, Indira Gandhi decided to emerge out of her isolation. She rushed to the poor stranded in rising floods in the River Yamuna to ensure they’re being moved to a more secure ace. She also decided to visit the Parliament House during the Monsoon session. She feared that hostile media men may cause trouble for her during her first visit. She sent her two party members, both women Rajya Sabha members to elicit promise. According to arrangements worked out she came to the Central Hall, spent few minutes with Kamlapati Tripathi and moved to the group of 20 media persons asking one whether he can organize a cup of tea for her? Ten media persons ran to get eatables for all present in the hall. She asked them was anyone harassed during the Emergency Era. Everyone said no complaints.

Pic: Mint

On her way out she asked the media man dominating over the group why did he insist on her asking him for a cup of tea? He explained whether she was prime minister or not. She was Indira Gandhi and every media person in that group would proudly say she asked them to buy a cup of tea for her. She asked him to escort her out as she saw the galleries and open space from the main door of the hall to the exit overflowing with curious employees of Parliament eager to have one look at her when she was not in the office.

Her visit to Belachi in Bihar where the Dalits had suffered a massacre and death of nine axed heads during the state assembly election, posed a serious impediment due to slush caused by heavy rains. She was told to use elephant ride as Mahatma Gandhi had for his visit to Champaran in 1921. She did and enjoyed the first and last elephant ride of her life. But the popularity gained by her increasing public appearances also became the cause of the conversion of simple politics into a politics of vendetta. The home minister Charan Singh sought to get her arrested and tried on charges of misuse of authority and corruption. The arrival of the CBI team brought several Congress leaders also to her home. She had lived in her home alone from July to October as most avoided being caught in the espionage network. Her dramatics came to the fore as she was taken away under arrest in the night and came back on October 4 after the magistrate dismissed the basis of arrest as frivolous and released her in few minutes.

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It was a triumphant return but more important was ending her fear of persecution in future. She immediately visited South Gujarat to be overwhelmed by the rousing reception she received from surging massive crowds. She could not believe Sanat Mehta, the party leader from Gujarat who had come to invite her to launch her return trail from Gujarat. He narrated a real occurrence on a bus from Surat to Vyara in August 1977. A tribal youth was occupying the seat next to a retailer in the bus. The middle-class man teased him to say that his mother was defeated, what would he now do? Mother was in reference to the fact that most tribes in every state considered and called Indira Gandhi as ma Indira. After the retail trader repeated hiss jibe a third time, the young tribal delivered a hard slap on the face of the teaser and loudly, my ma may have lost but she gave strength to my hands.

The narration was etched out on her mind deeply. After the second split in the Congress in January 1978, the need came up for a new election symbol for her party. She ruled out every suggestion and preferred the palm. It was symbolic of the strength, she believed, that the tribal people felt had come to their hands because of her rule. She was also told Tribal folks worshipped her as Indira amma.              

Shanti Bhushan, law minister had hurt the sentiments of Charan Singh in a review meeting after the Indira Gandhi arrest fiasco with his caustic remark, “She was not presented in the Baghpat court. It was the Delhi Court.” The hurt home minister insisted on a Commission of Inquiry into cases of political abuses, administrative excesses and corruption in the emergency rule. It was the pure pursuit of vendetta but he had his way and the Desai government was obliged to find a judicial luminary to preside. JC Shah, one of three judges who had resigned after they were superseded in 1971. Indira Gandhi was immune to be disturbed by such embarrassments.

In mid-1978, Charan Singh began to use his fangs and his new devotee Raj Narayan was ready to serve his politics. As his politics became intolerable due to his public utterances, he was removed from the cabinet. Raj Narayan descended to the lowest level of baseless allegations to tarnish the image of leaders and even circulated obscene pictures of the love affair of Suresh Ram, son of Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai got the approval of his Cabinet to ask Charan Singh to step down as his activities had tarnished the party image. Charan Singh submitted his resignation. Several leaders, particularly the foreign minister Atal Behari set to work out a compromise. His faction would suffer the most in the collapse of the Janata Party regime was his obvious fear. Charan Singh was back as the deputy prime minister with finance under him. Jagjivan Ram also benefitted with higher designation without yearning for it.

But Indira Gandhi had also fortified her base by imposing a second split on her party. It was essentially to spite DK Barooah, the party chief for insulting her immediately after she handed overpower. Her logic was she could not defy the mandate though she did defy the court verdict. In effect, she regained the reputation as a true democratic leader. She was not invited to the Working Committee meeting on April 4, a week after the transfer of power. His defence against the eruption of anger in the Committee as she was ex officio member of the Committee but she was no more the prime minister. She was no more entitled to attend the Working Committee meeting. But Committee sent YB Chavan and Brahmanand Reddy to usher her in with due respect. She did not utter a word in two hours of deliberation but Barooah was eliminated unceremoniously.

After the grand revival of her influence as she witnessed in October 1977, the plans for the second split were finalized. She was selective on whom she will have in the party. The coteries that exploited and used her son during the emergency were kept out. So also leaders were kept out, who had their base to win elections without holding her hand. Kamalapati Tripathi wanted to be ahead of her party. She conveyed to him through her emissaries that she would head the party and none else. He was welcome to take his decision. Tripathi arrived meekly with his tail in legs after Indira Gandhi had completed her inaugural address to outline the need for the formation of the new party. YB Chavan became the leader of the opposition with the truncated Congress Parliamentary party having 102 members. 51 stayed in the new Indira Congress.

After the formation of her new party, her son took over to streets politics to cause troubles to show the weakness of the government in the saddle. The government of the Janata Party had its own problems due to the erratic behaviour of Raj Narayan with overt support from Charan Singh. Charan Singh’s resignation gave courage to India Gandhi to contest the by-election in Karnataka and win. However, she was expelled from the House o charges of misdeeds during the Emergency period. It was opening for the return of Charan Singh. His only budget was an unmitigated disaster. He knew nothing of economics. Piloo Mody told him, Sir for you India is only from Baghpat to Jhansi. You know nothing of India outside this belt.

Most politicians believe by hurling allegations of corruption against political opponents in power or formerly in power can be a formidable method to tarnish the image of opponents and get rid of them. However, over the years this weapon was chosen to tarnish images and demolish political opponents but cartridges used proved to be blank. In Janata regime also weapon was used without the live cartridges. Many in opposition and media kept wondering why Kantibhai Desai did not get engaged in some earning activities instead of idling in the front room of his house while Morarji Desai was in the seat of power or not. They did not know the circumstance and incidence of his not being in any earning job.

He was still in the final year of his degree course while Morarji Desai was chief minister of Bombay state, Kanti Desai was put on the salary register by private insurance firm New India Assurance by his salary was three times of other beginners. Morarji questioned his son but found no satisfactory explanations. The old man immediately told him that he was being paid a high salary not for his ability but due to his inherent status as the chief minister’s son. Kanti Desai went to the office to submit his resignation. He also could not protest when his younger sister committed suicide only because Morarji had insisted that her chosen life partner must vow to wear Khadi all his life. Morarji had no objection to his being Muslim. The boy refused to be dictated on his daily apparels. The frustrated daughter committed suicide. Morarji Desai who had left for Delhi by train was informed at the Dadar station by stopping the train. He refused to break his journey. Only 16 mourners attended the funeral and cremation. Such episodes do not form part of Biodata included in official publications. Hence most politicians were unaware of them. They believed Kanti Desai without engaged in any paying job must be amassing wealth through corrupt means.

NKP Salve of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha built the plausible case of corruption against Kanti Desai. He moved a resolution in the Rajya Sabha seeking a commission of inquiry in corruption charges. Vasant Sathe served notice of his intent to move a similar motion in the Lok Sabha. After the Rajya Sabha approved the legislation in the Rajya Sabha, Sathe refused to move the Lok Sabha. It was obvious the majority in the Lok Sabha would reject it overwhelmingly. The Congress party did not want to allow the Morarji government to have the advantage of not following the Rajya Sabha resolution and not appoint the Commission of Inquiry into corruption allegations. It was clever exploitation of the mistake by parliamentary affairs minister Ravindra Verma or of rules as existed.

Chandra Shekhar was aghast by the lack of political immorality and delivered ten minutes of the oratorical blast but Indira Gandhi was in the political ring where no rules barred hooks and punches that positions of opponents presented. Nothing emerged in the Commission inquiry but by then the Morarji Desai government had reached the point of no return. In any case, India Gandhi was preparing her strategies not based on corruption charges but she found more appealing issues that affected normal life and purses of the common man. The soaring prices had made onion miss daily meals of not so reach. It was a more effective weapon in her armoury. In 21 months after her electoral debacle when she lost the entire north and east she was able to perform the dramatic return more due to wider divisions in her opponents’ ranks.

The return of Charan Singh reflected a weakness of the top leadership as well as a weak structure amenable and bendable for various usages with little pressure. It may have given ideas to the socialist leader Madhu Limaye who felt was reduced to be secondary levels. He was an office leader who can device various theories but not a mass leader like his close colleague George Fernandez who could bend the minds of the masses with his oratory skills. Limaye was the general secretary of the party but the chief Chandra Shekhar rarely consulted him. Ultimately communal riots in Jamshedpur in Bihar came in handy to enable him to outshine others. His campaign gained momentum with his demand to eliminate the Sangh elements from the party unless they swear to secular ideal. In other words, he demanded they denounce their links with the Sangh. He presented evidence sufficient to establish linkage of and incitement by a legislator who was the Jan Sangh legislator before the formation of the Janata Party.

Neither Morarji Desai nor Chandra Shekhar responded to his demand. They had seen the extremely cooperative and non-communal approach of both senior ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. The only bad coin was the communication minister accused o demanding Rs. 500 for a grant of a phone connection and was dismissed from the cabinet within months of formation of the government. both seniors from the Jan Sangh had approved and appreciated the punishment.

Charan Singh saw an opportunity in parting to realize his lifelong ambition. He parted from the Janata party with demand to throw out the former Jan Sangh element. Or at least the party weed out the communal elements from its’ ranks. Indira Gandhi was initially reluctant to move a no-confidence motion against the Desai government. A number of those parted with Charan Singh was not large. Bahuguna parted and George Fernandez was persuaded to leave within hours after his brilliant defence of the Desai government in the Lok Sabha.  But George regretted his decision to change the side. Finally, Morarji Desai stepped down from office but not from the leadership of the parliamentary party.

There was a strange side drama. After Fernandez joined the other camp, Jagjivan Ram also sent his resignation to the party chief Chandra Shekhar who was however attending the party executive meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence and did not know of it.. As Jagjivan Ram was told that Desai was resigning, he rushed to the executive meeting though he was not a member as he had maintained his party. Meanwhile, a media person informed Chandra Shekhar through a member that Jagjivan Ram had sent in his resignation as well. Shekhar shared it with both Desai and Vajpayee. Morarji was eager to ask Jagjivan Ram to confirm but Shekhar would not allow him to speak and Vajpayee snatched away the note that Morarji scribbled to ask Jagjivan Ram to confirm whether he had sent in his resignation as well. In desperation, Morarji whispered. Turning to Chandra Shekhar he said ‘you do not allow me to speak and Vajpayee does not allow me to write. How shall we know the reality?’ It prompted Chandra Shekhar to walk up to Ram to confirm whether he had sent the resignation? Ram confirmed it but pleaded to treat it as cancelled now that Desai had decided to resign. In the excitement of fast-moving developments, everyone did not even realize that Jagjivan Ram was an intruder in the executive meeting. He had maintained the separate identity of his party. Hence he was an intruder in the Janata Party executive meeting

The Janata party split vertically as soon as Morarji sent his resignation. The Jan Sangh element opted to support Jagjivan Ram while Indira Gandhi kept her options open. The Congress under the leadership of Yashwantrao Chavan adopted a stance of waiting to which side the camel sits. Indira Gandhi did not trust Jagjivan Ram. She suspected he would destroy her at the first available opportunity. She even sent VC Shukla to Morarji Desai and Chandra Shekhar to get a guarantee on her future but both refused.

President Reddy used his prerogative to ignore the claim of Jagjivan Ram and invited Charan Singh for the Oath ceremony. Enraged by patently immoral decision, Chandra Shekhar led his party men to demonstrate against the President. Indira Gandhi went with Charan Singh to the oath ceremony but declared at the exit that her party cannot support him. In effect, she had blocked the path of ascension for Jagjivan Ram as she suspected his politics and his intents. She did not trust him even though she secretly negotiated with the possibility of his return to Congress as elections became inevitable. Charan Singh had lost the majority support with her dropping him like an unwanted potato as soon as he was sworn in. He could not prove his majority. The President accepted the recommendation of the cabinet even without it proving its majority and thus having the constitutional right to recommend. Indira Gandhi had destroyed the bizarre political experiment that was responsible for her ouster from the saddle only 21 months ago.

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Vijay Sanghvi
Political Commentator and Analyst Vijay Sanghvi, 81 has created a niche for himself as a seasoned media person with proven credentials and political, economic and social analyst since 1962. Sanghvi worked for five years in Mumbai for Gujarati papers before shifting to Delhi and continued to work for various dailies in Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi and English as well as for international media. He has many newsbreaks to his credit as well as inside view of many epoch making events. He covered parliamentary proceedings from 1967 till 2007.

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