While in opposition, Indira Gandhi continued her politics undaunted but faced dissent within the party. In 1978, the annual session of the Congress in Bangalore – now Bengaluru – saw another split in the party. Devraj Urs, the chief minister of Mysore, formed the Congress (U) and was joined by senior leaders including Sharad Pawar, AK Antony, and Y Chavan.
The Janata Party in its two-year government, in addition to removing Indira Gandhi’s constitutional amendments and restoring democratic credentials, also formed the Mandal Commission for socially and educationally backward classes in 1979. It identified these classes and considered class-wise reservations for the underprivileged to address the problem of caste-based discrimination. This commission would have a significant impact on Indian politics in the coming decades.
The commission found that marginalized classes made up slightly more than half of India’s population. It recommended 27 per cent reservations in government jobs for these classes.
The fall of the Janata government in 1979 was of its own making. It was a motley of diverse ideologies from the right-wing Jana Sangh to pseudo-left socialists. There were caste politics and personal ambitions of Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram, Jayaprakash Narayan, and Raj Narain, all of them were conspiring to remove the good old MJ Desai from his office as PM.
Charan Singh who had earlier managed to snatch the CM UP slot now hoped for a replay in New Delhi. He began by calling his own government weak for not arresting Indira Gandhi, and in protest resigned as home minister.
The Janata government convinced him to rejoin by appointing him as the deputy PM. And while the government arrested Indira for a day, the people of India – who already got tired of the Janata government in two years – saw it as the victimization of the former prime minister, who also happened to be a 62-year-old woman.
The month of July proved to be eventful as the Janata Party formally split when Charan Singh and Raj Narain formed the Janata Party (secular), withdrawing his support to Desai. Then Raj Narain was reported to be holding secret meetings with the Congress to bring down Desai. In the last week of July, health minister Narain also resigned.
Charan Singh thought that his rainbow coalition would give him a winning edge. He openly talked about the possible death of the octogenarian PM Desai. Then there was a vote of no-confidence that Desai lost and Charan Singh assumed charge as PM, hoping to get the Congress’s support. In the two years of the Janata government, Jana Sang leaders Advani and Vajpayee, who were union ministers, kept themselves active in the RSS too. Secular leaders of the Janata Party objected to it, resulting in the resignations of Advani and Vajpayee.
Caste politics once again emerged from the box it was locked in by Nehru who rejected caste-based reservations in 1955. The Singh-led coalition of the JP (secular) and the Congress (U) relied on expected support from the Congress (Indira) and the CPI. Charan Singh appointed Y Chavan as deputy PM and Bahuguna as minister of finance – both former leaders of the Congress.
Indira Gandhi withdrew her support within three weeks, and Charan Singh became India’s only PM to demit office without facing parliament even once. The president dissolved the Indian parliament and asked the government to continue as caretakers.
The Charan Singh government continued till January 1980, but in that brief period, it sowed the seeds of virulent caste polarization of Indian politics. Jayaprakash Narayan died in Dec 1979, and Morarji Desai retired from politics. In the 1980 elections in India, there were six national parties with two factions each of the three formerly united parties: the Congress (I) and Congress (U), the Janata Party and Janata Party (S), and the two communist parties – the CPI and CPI-M.
In the 1980 elections, the people of India rejected the Janata party; the Congress (I) staged a resounding comeback. It reclaimed its heartland, winning the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and UP, while dominating in Gujarat and Maharashtra. It won a total of 353 seats, twice as many as it did in 1977. The Janata Party (secular) of Charan Singh could win only 41 seats while the CPI-M came third with 37 MPs. The original Chandra Shekhar-led Janata Party secured 31 MPs. The Tamil regional party, DMK, managed 16 sectors and the Congress (U) could win a meagre 13.
The CPI and the CPI-M, with their combined seats of 47 seats, could have been the second largest party had they formed an alliance. A significant point to notice is that by 1980, the top ten political parties in the Lok Sabha were all tilted towards the left side of the political spectrum and had fairly strong secular credentials. There was no strong right-wing presence in the Indian parliament. But the tide was about to turn, and that would happen by the end of the 1980s.
Indira Gandhi’s return to power was marked by a tragedy when in June 1980, her son Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash. Indira followed the quasi-socialist policies of industrial development and re-established close relations with the Soviet Union which had shaken a little during the Janata government. One significant development in the early 1980s was the emergence of another regional political force in Andhra Pradesh led by the veteran Telugu film star, N T Rama Rao. He formed his Telugu Desam Party in March 1982, and nobody expected him to be a major leader anytime soon.
In the 1983 state elections, held in six states, the CPI-M retained its power in the northeastern state of Tripura, and the Congress faced defeat in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. N T Rama Rao bulldozed his way to power in an unprecedented victory in Andhra Pradesh while the Janata Party defeated the Congress in Karnataka. Among the four southern states, the Congress of Indira Gandhi was out of power in three, apart from a coalition government in Kerala. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka had their first non-Congress governments since the birth of the two states in 1956, following the reorganization of states.
N T Rama Rao became the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1983, within nine months of the formation of his party. The early 1980s also saw the rise of forces that could have disintegrated India. Sikh separatists in Punjab resorted to violent means to assert their demands for separation. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale occupied the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, which is the holiest shrine for Sikhs. In June 1984, Gandhi ordered the Indian army to attack and oust the rebels from the complex.
The shrine and the adjoining buildings sustained major damage and around 500 Sikhs lost their lives – some estimates by Sikhs claim that human losses were in the thousands.
It was a couple of months after this attack that I landed in New Delhi and stayed at Ajoy Bhavan – the CPI head office – for a few months. The atmosphere in India was tense in the aftermath of the Golden Temple tragedy.
Communists in India had their opinions about this development. Many comrades informed me that it was Indira Gandhi who initially used Bhindranwale for her political purposes, but later he turned against her.
To be continued
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: email@example.com
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