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

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

Note: This article was originally published on May 25, 2017. It was republished on November 19, 2020 to mark Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary.

Another presidential poll is upon us. Despite fair certainty of all but one past verdict, this major event of national life remains indicative of the likely direction of national politics. Things are no different this time too, because the Narendra Modi-led government does not yet have an overwhelming majority on paper.

Indisputably, it is well within the capacity of a spirited opposition to force the prime minister and his aides to don their thinking cap to identify a suitable choice. Given the nature of the 2014 verdict and the BJP’s overwhelming mandate in Uttar Pradesh, it will be a ‘moral setback’ if the next president is not someone clearly identified with the Sangh parivar or at least its ideology and thinking.

The imminence of the presidential contest makes it worth recalling the only time when the election of the president went down to the wire, warranting counting of second-preference votes. This was in August 1969 for the fifth presidential election, the first time a poll was necessitated midway – due to the death of President Zakir Hussain. It provided the unique spectacle of the then vice president, V.V. Giri, contesting as an ‘independent’ candidate to defeat Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, the ‘official’ candidate of the Congress party.

But this, the most dramatic presidential poll till date in which the prime minister eventually did not support her party’s candidate, cannot be recalled in isolation. It has to be contextualised in the backdrop of Indian political developments from early 1967 and the fourth general elections. This poll, 50 years ago, marked the end of an epoch in more than one way.

The aftershocks of the fifth presidential poll triggered far-reaching changes in the Congress party, government and intra-government equations. It stands out as the demarcating point in a political process when political individualism made its advent and left a corrosive mark on democratic institutions and traditions. Recalling this chapter is necessary, because it has an uncanny resemblance with current political narratives.

Indira Gandhi was elected leader of the Congress party after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death in January 1966 after a bitter contest with Morarji Desai. Yet, when the fourth general elections were held, she wielded little influence in the party and there was no surety if post poll, party bosses would allow her to remain prime minister. To counter this, however, she began charting her own course from June 1966, with the contentious decision to devalue the Indian rupee. No less contentious than Modi’s decision to demonetise high-value currency notes, the decision had even party bosses fuming. If hashtags existed at that time, #Deva would have been as widely used as #DeMo.

The decision was taken with the obvious objective of placating the US and international financial institutions, and convincing them to assist India tide over a drought-induced food and resource crisis. Yet, the prime minister did not have the essential political courage to remain consistent and in less than a month, issued a sharply critical statement following the American bombing of Vietnamese cities Hanoi and Haiphong. The consequent tilt towards the Soviet Union was the carefully-calibrated step of a leader who was planning her future independent of the syndicate, the coterie of party veterans who assumed that she would forever remain pliable.

A few months prior to the 1967 general elections, Gandhi began forging a direct relationship with the people, bypassing party organisations. When we evaluate the Gandhi era with the benefit of hindsight, this can be depicted as the first time she exhibited the symptoms of her eventual design – centralising power and leadership within the party and government.

Though forced to accept Desai as her deputy prime minister, the electoral setback for the Congress in 1967 enabled Gandhi to emerge a leader on her own merit. Her power struggles with the syndicate, comprising K. Kamaraj, S. Nijalingappa, S.K. Patil, Atulya Ghosh and N. Sanjeeva Reddy, continued for two years and more without resolution.

While the prime minister had her way and announced the populist Ten-Point Programme in mid 1967, Desai, as finance minister, wielded his autonomy to enact the Gold Control Act, which did little to increase the government’s popularity. Yet, Gandhi still awaited an opening to set up a decisive confrontation with the old guard.

The opportunity presented itself in May 1969, when fate removed a sitting president for the first time. With Hussain’s death, Giri assumed charge as president. The events worried lawmakers, as they realised the constitution’s silence on procedures in the event of the acting head of state too either passing away or demitting office. Consequently, parliament enacted The President (Discharge Of Functions) Act three weeks later, specifying that in such a likelihood, the chief justice of India would officiate as president. In the event of this position too being vacant, the senior-most judge of the apex court would discharge the duties.

Before 1969, the convention of elevating the vice president to president was followed. But the syndicate was now unwilling to promote Giri and instead wanted to elect Reddy, the Lok Sabha speaker, to the post. In Gandhi’s assessment, this was aimed to eventually evict her from office and install Desai as prime minister.

Consequently, at the crucial meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Board in Bangalore on July 10, she tossed Jagjivan Ram’s name into the fray as the Congress candidate. She argued that in Mahatma Gandhi’s centenary year, electing a Dalit as president would be befitting tribute to the Mahatma and reaffirm the party’s commitment to social inclusion.

But she was outvoted and forced to accept proposing Reddy as the party candidate when he filed his nomination papers. By that time, however, Giri announced his candidature as an independent candidate. People have speculated about whether Gandhi was privy to Giri’s decision, but no evidence exists either way. Since the prime minister, in her capacity as leader of the party’s parliamentary party, refused to issue a whip citing the Presidential and Vice Presidential Act, 1952, it appears Giri’s decision would have had her nod.

Moreover, several Congress legislators gave a call for a ‘conscience vote’ and as the results showed, 163 Congress MPs voted for Giri. He also secured a majority in the electoral college in 11 out of 17 states, of which the party was in a majority in 12. This indicated that support for Giri was widespread across the nation and his victory was not solely due to the backing of communists and regional political parties.

Members of the syndicate, though the dominant group in the party, made a cardinal error: they asked its supporters to cast second-preference votes in favour of C.D. Deshmukh, the candidate propped up by the Jana Sangh and Swatantra Party. This enabled Gandhi’s supporters to polarise the electorate between the Left and Right. The prime minister had already embarked on tactical leftist posturing from 1966. Her choice became a ‘leftist cause’ overnight.

Looking for an opportune moment to move on her plan to nationalise private banks, Gandhi stuck within days of being forced to accept Reddy as the official Congress candidate. She removed Desai as finance minister on July 16 and in a dramatic notification, nationalised banks on July 20. Significantly, this was the last official order Giri signed as acting president before he stepped down to enter the fray. The manner in which the decision was taken bears close resemblance to events last November. On both occasions, the decision was a single individual’s and the cabinet was presented with a fait accompli.

A total of 8,36,337 votes were polled in these elections and the halfway mark was fixed at 4,18,169 votes. Giri secured 4,01,515 and Reddy bagged 3,13,548, necessitating the counting of second-preference votes. Candidate after candidate from the bottom of the list of 15 candidates were excluded and their second-preference votes added to the top two. Eventually, Giri accumulated 4,20,077 votes while Reddy fell short with 4,05,427 votes. Gandhi had ‘her’ president and this spirit dictated her choice in 1974 (Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed) and 1982 (Giani Zail Singh).

This was not the end of the story and following these events, there was no way Gandhi and her rivals could co-exist in the same party. In November 1969, the spectacle of two parallel Congress Working Committee meetings – one at the party office and the other at the prime minister’s residence – was witnessed. After 84 years, the Indian National Congress split into Congress (Requisionists) and Congress (Organisational).

Events beginning 1967 marked a complete process, altering the political culture and governance structure of the country. Gandhi used an ideological plank to rework the balance of power in her favour. Strong regional satraps and organisational bosses gave way to ‘yes-men’ in the party. The cabinet system of governance was weakened and the process of the prime minister’s office becoming the driver of policy and action was initiated and later perfected.

To the idea of ‘committed judiciary’, the notion of ‘committed bureaucracy’ was added and it was now argued that commitment was not a bad word. Like now, the civil services were encouraged not to remain politically neutral and instead become ideologically oriented. Hereafter, personal loyalty to her was equated with loyalty to the party. But more importantly, loyalty to the leader also came to mean faithfulness or allegiance to the country, and opposition to her meant being anti-national.

The roots of much of what has worried large sections of Indians in the past three years lie in this period. The presidential polls, when she seized the opportunity for total control, provided cover for a more disturbing idea: that a single leader is capable of deciding what is best for the nation and its people.

In an interview to writer Ved Mehta, Gandhi termed the parliamentary system as ‘moribund’. In the past three years, the current regime has spoken on similar lines, depicting the Upper House as evidence of the “tyranny of the unelectable”. The 1969 presidential poll initiated the process of what historian Sunil Khilnani has termed the Congress party becoming “an unaudited company” to win elections. Today, when the ruling party’s president makes the unabashed declaration that winning polls is his main job, there is no way one can avoid approaching the impending election of the highest office with trepidation.


Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin