The Unseating of Indira: A Day of Reckoning
It was the morning of 12th June 1975. Indira Gandhi was having a very bad day. Her close advisor D P Dhar had just died and the results of the Gujarat Assembly elections would soon start coming in. The Congress led by Gandhi was losing in the state. Things were not looking good.
Then came the body blow.
At 10 am, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court delivered one of the most historic election-related verdicts an Indian court would ever pronounce – the honourable judge set aside Indira Gandhi’s election from the Raebareli Lok Sabha constituency, a seat she had contested in the 1971 General Election. She was also barred from contesting elections for six years.
A pall descended on 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi. Justice Sinha had held Gandhi guilty of corrupt electoral practices under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. It was the first time ever that a Prime Minister’s election had been declared void.
The landmark judgement would eventually lead to the imposition of the Emergency less than two weeks later, on 25th June 1975. It had other far-reaching political, legal and Constitutional consequences as well.
When the verdict was pronounced, Sanjay Gandhi was at his Maruti factory in Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi. He rushed to console his mother as soon as he heard about the verdict. He found her in tears as the thought of resigning weighed heavily on her mind.
– “Don’t do it. You won’t get the power back,” Sanjay told her, as he tore up the resignation letter she had drafted.
Soon, ministers, party leaders and senior jurists began streaming into the Prime Minister’s official residence. Law Minister H R Gokhale and West Bengal Chief Minister and leading lawyer Siddhartha Shankar Ray were among them. Before leaving for a huddle with her advisors, Sanjay said to his mother, “Let me handle the situation from now on.”
The judgement had been delivered at 10 am. Within 15 minutes, Gandhi’s lawyers filed an appeal for a stay order. At 10.30 am, Justice Sinha passed an ex-parte order granting an unconditional stay on the judgement, for 20 days.
Gandhi’s lawyers had pleaded for a stay order on two grounds. One, that Gandhi was the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party and, in that capacity she was the Prime Minister. Two, unseating her from membership of the Lok Sabha would mean that the country would have no Prime Minister until a new leader was chosen to replace her.
The stay order meant that Gandhi was not obliged to resign but the political and public pressure on her was almost crushing. Her party’s setback in the Gujarat Assembly elections had emboldened Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and the Opposition parties that he led.
Was it the beginning of the end for Indira?
Post-Verdict: Indira’s Options
The coterie around Indira and Sanjay was planning drastic measures to deal with JP and other senior Opposition leaders. JP was in his 70s and had come out of political retirement to lead a protest movement against Gandhi. She was convinced that it would lead the country into chaos. She told her lawyers to think up ways to deliver the Opposition a dose of “shock treatment”.
But the court verdict had put Indira Gandhi’s political career at risk. Vacating the Prime Minister’s chair was out of the question but she was now vulnerable. Of that there was no doubt. So what were her options? She could appeal against the Allahabad High Court’s verdict in the Supreme Court. But what if the Supreme Court upheld the high court’s verdict? She would have to resign from the Lok Sabha.
As luck would have it, renowned jurist from Bombay Nani Palkhivala was in Delhi at the time, and the Indira camp sought his legal counsel.
– Palkhivala believed that Gandhi had been convicted of corrupt electoral practices on ‘technical grounds’ and was hopeful of securing a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court.
Gandhi took his advice and the Supreme Court heard her appeal on 24th June. While Palkhivala pleaded Indira’s case, Shanti Bhushan, the Allahabad lawyer who had won the case against her in the High Court, represented Raj Narain, the plaintiff.
Justice V R Krishna Iyer, the vacation judge, granted Gandhi a conditional stay on the Allahabad High Court order, till the court decided her appeal. He said, “While the Prime Minister could attend Parliament, she will neither participate in the proceedings in the Lok Sabha, nor vote, nor draw remuneration in her capacity as member of the Lok Sabha.”
Things could have been much worse for her. This way, she could keep her chair, and her dignity, even if only just. Of course, she would remain under a cloud till the case was decided in the Supreme Court. She was not about to wait to see which way the scales of justice tilted.
Where It All Began
Cut to the circumstances leading to the historic Allahabad High Court judgement. Few in India take election petitions seriously. Losing candidates routinely file petitions under the Representation of the People Act, challenging the election of their opponents. Some are motivated by personal vendetta, others by competitive politics.
So, few took notice when Raj Narain, a veteran socialist leader, filed an election petition against Indira Gandhi in April 1971, after the results of the mid-term Lok Sabha elections delivered a spectacular victory for the Congress. Two years before that, in 1969, Indira Gandhi had split the Congress after she was challenged by a syndicate within the party, dominated by the old guard and state satraps.
Indira Gandhi had nationalised private sector banks and mines, and abolished the privy purses given to the former rulers of the princely states. Dismissing rumblings from the Congress syndicate and the Opposition, she gave a call for “Garibi Hatao” (‘Remove Poverty’). All these measures made her immensely popular among the people.
But the Congress syndicate and the Opposition had not been dormant. They joined forces under a ‘Grand Alliance’ and raised the “Indira Hatao” slogan. Raj Narain was the Grand Alliance’s candidate from Raebareli against Indira Gandhi. He lost the election by a huge margin.
Besides being a dogged fighter, Raj Narain was also known for his penchant for gimmickry. His politics had more shock value than seriousness of purpose. That was another reason his election petition was not taken seriously either by the Congress, Indira Gandhi’s lawyers, and, ironically, even Opposition leaders.
Even Raj Narain’s lawyer Shanti Bhushan didn’t think there were sufficient grounds to win this case. But since he had close links with non-Congress leaders, he agreed to give it a try. As it turned out, it was the most high-profile case he would ever take up! Bhushan was later rewarded for his hard work by the Janata Party, which appointed him Union Law Minister.
The Case Against Indira
Shanti Bhushan framed the following charges to argue that Indira Gandhi had used corrupt practices to win the election.
- She had used Air Force aircraft for travel to Raebareli to campaign.
- The District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police had constructed rostrums for election meetings.
- The Congress party’s election symbol of a cow and calf had religious connotations.
- Expenses incurred by Indira Gandhi on the election exceeded Rs 35,000, which was the limit set by the Election Commission.
- She had used the services of Yashpal Kapoor, her election agent, while he was still a gazetted officer.
Justice Sinha of the Allahabad High Court convicted Indira Gandhi on two counts. One, she had used the services of the DM and SP in building rostrums and installing loudspeakers at her election meetings. Two, she had used the services of Yashpal Kapoor, Officer on Special Duty in the Prime Minister’s Office, for election work.
Meandering at a slow pace, the case didn’t evoke much public interest. Until Gandhi’s lawyers made a fatal tactical error – to call her as a witness.
The decision followed the poor performance of Yashpal Kapoor in the witness box. Kapoor was Indira Gandhi’s Chief Election Agent in Raebareli. He had resigned from government service on 13th January 1971 and arrived in Raebareli to take up election work before his resignation was formally accepted on 25th January.
Kapoor’s shaky performance during cross-examination by Bhushan unnerved the Congress camp. He failed to rebut Bhushan’s charge that he had taken up election work while he was still a government servant. Afraid that Kapoor’s testimony could sink their boat, Indira Gandhi’s lawyers led by S C Khare and other top legal advisors decided to present her as a witness.
The case took a dramatic turn.
Prashant Bhushan, Supreme Court lawyer and son of Shanti Bhushan, provides a riveting account of Gandhi’s appearance in court, in his book The Case That Shook India (2017). He says that on 18th March, Justice Sinha’s court was packed. Opposition leaders Madhu Limaye, Piloo Mody and others had travelled to Allahabad from Delhi to watch Indira Gandhi in the witness box, the first-ever Prime Minister in the dock. Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi were also present in court.
Justice Sinha ordered everyone in the court to remain seated on Indira Gandhi’s arrival, in the interest of maintaining the court’s decorum. She was seated in a special chair facing the judge. If she was nervous, she didn’t show it; she appeared calm and confident. Her cross-examination on the first day was smooth.
– According to Prashant Bhushan, Piloo Mody was unhappy with the cross-examination. He asked Shanti Bhushan, “Why don’t you heckle her?” Bhushan replied that it was only day one and he had merely laid the bait. Tomorrow she would walk into the trap.
The next day, Gandhi faltered while answering a question on the date she had decided to contest from Raebareli. Earlier, she had said that the final decision was made on 1st February 1971. Bhushan confronted her with a press statement from the All India Congress Committee, which clearly stated that her candidature had been finalised by 29th December 1970.
Gandhi replied, saying the AICC statement had been drafted in legal language and she had difficulty understanding it. Her answer betrayed her confusion. The next day, newspapers had a field day. One headline screamed, ‘PM can’t follow legal language’.
Why was it important to determine the date on which Indira Gandhi had decided to contest the election from Raebareli?? Under the Representation of the People Act, corrupt electoral practices come into play from the date on which the individual becomes a ‘candidate’. It was established that Kapoor had resigned after Indira Gandhi was declared the Congress candidate from Raebareli, which amounted to electoral malpractice.
The hearing in the Allahabad High Court concluded on 23rd May. Justice Sinha went into ‘hiding’ to write his judgement and to maintain absolute secrecy. However, all sorts of inducements, including hints at being elevated to the Supreme Court, came his way. His personal staff was put under CID surveillance and allegedly harassed.
Justice Sinha delivered his historic judgement on 12th June.
Countdown to Emergency
Between June 12 and 25, the Congress and the Opposition went all out to drum up public support and organised rallies and demonstrations. On 23rd June, Gandhi addressed a massive rally in Delhi’s Ram Lila ground. JP addressed a counter rally on the same ground on 25th June. It was at this meeting that JP issued his most controversial call to the police, armed forces and government servants not to obey the government’s “illegal and immoral” orders.
Sandwiched between those two days was another important date in this roster of dates – 24th June, the day the Supreme Court had issued a conditional stay on the Allahabad High Court order, pending final disposal of Gandhi’s appeal.
Indira Gandhi had been increasingly led to believe that the time had come for the JP-led Opposition parties to be ‘tamed’. Siddhartha Shankar Ray offered a solution: Impose a state of internal Emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution. Gandhi took his advice. Thus, the 12th June judgement became the trigger for the imposition of the Emergency on 25th June 1975.
It is futile to speculate on the course of history had Indira Gandhi not been unseated on 12th June or had V R Krishna Iyer reversed the Allahabad High Court judgement on 24th June. Would the country have been spared the trauma of the 21-month Emergency if she had not lost the case?
The fact remains that Indira Gandhi, in a series of highly controversial moves, went all out to amend the Constitution as well as the election laws, to nullify the Allahabad High Court judgement that had unseated her. These amendments took retrospective effect. She also got most of the Opposition MPs arrested and tossed in jail. All this, just to save her chair and herself.
On 7th November 1975, the Supreme Court upheld the amendments to the election laws under which Gandhi had been unseated, thus reversing the Allahabad High Court judgement.
Indira Gandhi had won. It was a victory that plunged India into one of the darkest periods of the country’s democracy.
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.