How Indira Gandhi Defeated the Combined Opposition and Finished off Feudal Forces for All Time

With her 'Garibi Hatao' programme in 1971, she essentially forged a completely new Congress party.

The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.

Fifty years later, we look back at those times and evoke some of that mood. In a series of articles, leading writers recall and analyse key events and processes that left their mark on a young, struggling but hopeful nation.

History reserves the badge of greatness only for one kind of leaders – those who preserve and rejuvenate the state order at a time of its terminal criticality. History also bestows recognition on those leaders who grab the centre-stage to transform the political landscape. Rarely do these two tasks get accomplished in a single moment. India had had that moment in 1971 and Indira Gandhi seized the opportunity and oversaw political consolidation and change.

1971 was Indira Gandhi’s year but this ‘1971’ had been in the making for more than a few years. Since his death in 1964, Nehru’s India had been flirting with a kind of stasis and stagnation. The only saving grace was that the Indian National Congress was still a serviceable instrument of the Indian state. Its leadership had neatly overseen two peaceful, orderly ‘successions’ – in 1964 and 1966, without any kind of systemic convulsions or breakdowns.

While the 1965 war with Pakistan did restore the nation’s sense of pride, it also delayed a resolution of the gathering crisis of stagnation and transformation. With Nehru gone, the unresolved struggle over the national direction and purpose reasserted itself. And, inevitably, the Congress itself got divided, confused and conflicted.

On the eve of the 1967 Lok Sabha elections the preferences and prejudices of big business, the religious right and the surviving feudal order had coalesced in a cogent denunciation of Nehru’s India. This formidable phalanx demanded that the state should vacate the commanding heights of the economy and that the politicians should stop hallucinating about a socialist India.

Also read: 1971: The Year India Felt Good About Itself

Inaugurating the annual session of the Engineering Association of India on January 2, 1967, G.D.Birla spelt out the prosecution case:

“..the Congress will come back to power, at least in the Centre but with a highly reduced majority…I believe there will be a stronger Cabinet. Some of our Ministers who are talking in slogans and leftist language, have not yet realized that it is 1967 and not 1952. The world is talking in different slogans now…”

The same charge was differently repeated a few days later by J.R.D. Tata at Ahmedabad Management Association. He argued that government should concentrate on key areas like agriculture and family planning, “leaving remaining areas to forces of demand and supply”. The ideological and intellectual assault on Nehru’s India was unmistakable.

Indeed, a million mutinies were in the works. The sadhus were on a rampage in New Delhi, demanding a ban on cow slaughter; the Naxal cadres were lighting up their own revolutionary fires in West Bengal, creating ‘liberated zones’ here and there; and, a new force, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra was questioning the notions of modern citizenship; these assorted forces, ideas and imaginations cumulatively constituted a challenge to what historian Gyan Prakash called, “the protocols of liberal democracy”. And the liberal democracy seemed to have run out of steam and stamina in sorting out these insurgencies.

Indira Gandhi and P.N. Haksar. Photo: Nehru Memorial Library

As the principal political instrument of the Indian state, it was the Congress party’s historic task to decide how India was to move forward without betraying the national ideals and aspirations finessed during the long freedom struggle. Indira Gandhi and her advisers were crystal clear: the status quo would no longer do and that a new political economy will have to be worked out. She was equally convinced that the Congress party bosses were uninterested, ill-equipped and unequal to the historic national task at hand.

Before she could take on the forces of status quo in the polity at large, she would have to have a show-down within her own party. A split in the grand old party had become inevitable. Indira Gandhi became “Indira” because she displayed strategic clarity and tactical brilliance to quarter-back the split. She frontally challenged the party bosses who responded clumsily by making alliances with the most reactionary and conservative voices in India – the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh.

As Indira and her party colleagues saw it, the choice was clear: the Congress would have to be thoroughly re-mulched, re-oriented and reshaped if it was to become the vehicle for national rejuvenation and re-invention.

Also read: Past Continuous: How Indira Gandhi Used Presidential Elections to Cement Her Own Power

The choice was stated by Jagjivan Ram, in his presidential address to the AICC session in Bombay on December 28, 1969:

“..the Congress has reached a stage when it must pursue radical policies or disintegrate..

“And it is not the Congress alone which is in the midst of a crisis. The country is passing through a phase in which practically all political parties are confronted with internal dissensions and divisions. These internal dissensions are but expressions of conflicting attitudes to the democratic functioning and the challenges of a developing nation. There is anxiety that this trend, may lead to the break-up of the democratic front and the formation of splinter groups posing a threat to democratic functioning and the stability of governments. If, however, the internal conflicts and dissensions among the political parties lead to a polarization of political forces, it would be a welcome trend and I would welcome such a development. I take this opportunity to invite all progressive forces believing in our ideology to join our organisation..”

The Bombay session passed a political resolution, calling upon the “progressive forces having faith in democracy and socialism to join the Congress to help in the process of building up a new social order.”

A new Congress had to be forged. The crux of problem had been identified by Indira Gandhi’s principal aide, P.N.Haksar as early as 1969: “.the poor would not go on voting for the Congress if it did not succeed in preserving its image of appearing to be concerned with poor farmers and landless labourers.”

Beyond the Congress’s electoral fortunes, a strategic cunning was at work: a new political imagination had to be devised in order to steer the impatient and impoverished masses away from their dormant revolutionary impulses and instinct. The Congress had to renew the credibility of the very idea of peaceful democratic transformation in India.

All politics is about the struggle over allocation of resources. Indira Gandhi went about refashioning the Congress as the party that was prepared to rig the game in favour of the poor. The nationalisation of fourteen private banks was projected as the most consequential step in favour of the haves-not arrayed against the forces of status quo and big business; and, when on December 15, 1970, the Supreme Court struck down a presidential order ending privy purses and privileges for the ex-princes, Indira Gandhi shrewdly converted this into a cause celebre. She sought a new mandate for an agenda of social transformation in the great electoral battle of 1971.

Also read: On Her Birth Centenary, We Need to Pay Tribute to the Early Indira Gandhi

The 1971 Lok Sabha elections became the most ideologically contested stand-off. On one side had gathered, under a Grand Alliance marquee, the assorted forces of old order, digging their heels in status quo; on the other were votaries of new ideas, change and innovation. The election became a personal contest when in response to Indira Gandhi’s slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao‘ the Grand Alliance responded with its own counter war-cry of ‘Indira Hatao‘. Without anyone wanting it, the 1971 election became a referendum on Indira Gandhi and her promise to steer India towards a social transformation.

The ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan carried with it an unprecedented undertaking that India’s political economy would be rearranged in a fundamental way. Indira Gandhi discovered her voice, connected with the masses, led from the front to seek a mandate for a new national direction.

Perhaps the most consequential aspect of Indira Gandhi’s political victory was that at her urging, the electorate signed the final death warrant of a particularly anachronistic arrangement surviving in free and democratic India: the former princely order, still strutting around with its special privileges and a Privy Purse. Indira Gandhi had counter-mobilised the legitimacy and popular endorsement inherent in the electoral democracy and got the better of the most feudal of the feudal Indian order, which insisted on flaunting its traditional sway over its former subjects.

Indira Gandhi taking her oath of office from President S. Radhakrishnan, 1966. Photo: YouTube

The abolition of the Privy Purse was the perfect dramatic break with the past. While the conservative forces, traditional voices and the Supreme Court disapproved of the reneging of a promise made in the constitution, Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party insisted that special privileges served no social purpose and were incompatible with an egalitarian social order, an affront to democratic pretensions and practices.

Admittedly, even before the 1971 battle, a handful of these princes had been enticed by the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh to be their candidates in the parliamentary and state assembly elections; and, invariably, the former feudal scored easy victories. But 1971 was to be different.

Never before had the princes as a class arrayed themselves against the Congress. Perhaps the most dramatic rhetorical intervention was made by the Maharana of Mewar, the most respected among the erstwhile Hindu rulers. Through paid advertisements in newspapers, the Maharana invoked his traditional authority as ‘a descendant of the Maharanas of Mewar, who have been for 1,400 years in the forefront in uphold the faith, culture and freedom of our people, without distinction of caste and creed;” he positioned himself as the “inheritor of a great tradition of service and sacrifice handed down for fourteen centuries by [my]ancestors”. His exhorted the people to reject “concentration of political and economic power” and alerted them to the danger of “a totalitarian pattern under which neither individual freedom nor democratic process will survive.”

Also read: Interview: ‘Many Differences but Also Similarities Between Now and Emergency in 1975’

This had all the making of a prize-fight. Former feudal rulers versus the democratic leaders. The princes had pitted their traditional legitimacy of a monarchical system, laced with trapping of religiously-sanctioned divine rights, against the authenticity of the constitution, which in turn drew its acceptability and sustenance from democratic urgings and aspirations articulated during the long freedom struggle. At stake was the soul of a modern democratic arrangement.

The princes’ traditional authority was anchored in a hierarchical social order which unapologetically legitimises benevolent despotism. Till only a little over two decades ago these rajas and maharajas held unaccountable, unrestrained and unchallengeable power of life and death over their ‘people’.

And, now these very feudal lords and landlords had opted to pose a frontal challenge to the democratic order, envisaged in the constitution of India. The sub-text of the 1971 battle was that India had firmly turned its back on the feudals and all the antiquated values and sentiments. The democratic revolution was final and complete.

After the 1971 electoral success, it was widely conceded by both sides of the battle that it was a personal triumph for Indira Gandhi. She was now deemed to have acquired ‘charisma’. Her sway over the Congress was complete and she used the electoral mandate to bring in new, progressive voices like Mohan Kumaramangalam, K.V. Raghunatha Reddy and K.R. Ganesh, Nurul Hasan in her council of ministers. The Congress stood re-energised as a robust instrument of the Indian state. A kind of personality cult got consecrated and this was to produce its own deleterious effects within a few years.

1971 was a historic moment because Indira Gandhi restored the citizens’ trust in the very institution of government by grafting a sense of purpose and direction.  The Indian state was good for another two decades.

Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.