INKredible India: The story of 1977 Lok Sabha election - All you need to know

War. Inflation. Mass protests. Emergency. These developments in the years leading up to the 1977 Lok Sabha election would see Congress ousted from power for the first time ever in independent India.

INKredible India: The story of 1977 Lok Sabha election - All you need to know
File photo of Morarji Desai. (Photo sourced from DNA)

The significance of the Lok Sabha election in 1977 may well be far more than that of any other general election held in independent India. Its deep-rooted political ramifications continue to reverberate in the country till date and the election itself showcased that India was a democracy in its truest sense – where the ultimate power lies in the inked finger of the citizen.

India had seen close to three decades of absolute dominance by the Indian National Congress – in the 1950s, 1960s and most parts of 1970s. And while political dominance is one thing, the 1970s also saw 21 months of a perverted sense of dominance when the pitch black shadow of Emergency clouded over the entire country. Many justifications have been given for suspending democracy between 1975 and 1977 – both by Indira Gandhi at the time, as well as several others since. The overwhelming arguments against it, however, drive in the point even today that democracy cannot be subservient to any other factor. Back in 1977, it was the return to democracy – and the election – that sought to heal the scars of Emergency.

Congress (R) was trounced.

Indira Gandhi lost from her Rae Bareli stronghold.

India had the first-ever non-Congress government in power.

Lok Sabha election of 1977, indeed, was a new dawn in the country’s political horizon.

Emergency – Defining the tumultuous years between two elections

The aura of Jawaharlal Nehru – the country’s first Prime Minister, and then of Indira Gandhi was across the length and breadth of India. Despite several opposition parties attempting to provide a viable second option to people at large – and with limited success, the national appeal of Congress leaders was almost incomparable at the time. While there were many – within and outside Congress – who doubted Indira’s abilities to lead, Indira herself had shown the credentials to secure strong wins in the Lok Sabha elections in 1967 and 1971. While under her, Congress did lose 78 seats in 1967, the party – after a split in its ranks – gained 73 seats in the 1971 election.

While her supporters saw the 1971 election as a resounding stamp of approval from people for Indira, the result itself had seeds of discontent that would sprout into a massive anti-Indira, anti-Congress agitation.

It was Indira’s win from the Rae Bareli constituency, agree most political analysts and historians, that resulted in conditions which eventually led to the Emergency being declared in 1975. India had fought a war against West Pakistan shortly after the 1971 election and liberated East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. It was a decisive show of Indian military might which ought to have helped further cement Indira’s political clout. Instead, the very foundation of that political clout came to be challenged.

India, despite the military win, faced numerous problems in the early years of the 1970s. High inflation, drought and an oil crisis were just some of the challenges which plagued the country and despite Indira’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan during campaigning for the 1971 election, on-ground results were woefully few.

The biggest blemish in Indira’s career, however, was the allegation of electoral malpractice levelled by her Rae Bareli opponent Raj Narain. Narain, a staunch and vocal opponent of Indira’s policies, accused her of using government machinery to help her win in Rae Bareli. He would subsequently file an election petition and the charges were eventually upheld by the Allahabad High Court on June 12th of 1975. The court declared the election of Indira as null and void while also barring her from contesting in Lok Sabha elections for a period of six years.

At a time when there was a growing movement against Indira’s policies and ‘inability’ to deal with problems like inflation and poverty, the Allahabad High Court’s verdict came as a deafening blow to the stature, credibility and political personality of Indira. It was much like a catalyst to the civil and political unrest that was already in play even though restricted mostly to north-Indian states.

Jayaprakash Narayan, who had been at the forefront of the opposition to Indira, immediately called for her resignation. On June 25 of that year, his rally at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi was attended by 100,000 people and it is here that JP recited Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s ‘Singhasan Khaali Karo Ke Janata Aati Hai.’ He called for Sampoorna Kraanti or Total Revolution, even calling Police and the Army to join in.

Instead of ducking, Indira hit back by standing firm – a decision influenced by her younger son Sanjay -  and imposed Emergency on the night of January 25 of 1975. “Brothers and sisters. The President has proclaimed Emergency. This is nothing to panic about.”

The very next day, JP and several other opposition leaders – along with dissenters in Congress, were arrested. Newspapers could not report the development for two whole days due to power outage. And in the meantime, more political rivals and activists were imprisoned.

Indira then, and some of her admirers even till date, justify the Emergency as the imperative need of the hour. According to them, Navnirman Andolan in Gujarat, the JP Movement and the railway strike led by George Fernandes had contributed to extra-parliamentary functioning which had a) become a threat to the country’s security and democracy, b) created an environment ripe for foreign intervention to destabilise the country. “The entire continent has been destabilised,” she told Thames Televisions’ Jonathan Dimbleby in a 1978 interview. “Had it been only internal (upheaval) with no foreign interference, one could have dealt with in a much easier way.” She would also go on to say in the interview that her decision was ratified by the cabinet and by the Parliament. “It was not only accepted but was applauded by the entire nation,” she said, claiming that if elections were held in 1976 – and not 1977, her party would have won.

Indira also had said that there was a need for quick economic development and welfare of the underprivileged, and sought to portray Emergency as the best way to achieve these goals.

Even as civil and political unrest continued to apparently ‘frighten’ Indira, the Emergency was used to systematically, and often harshly, clamp down on dissent.

The charges against the government of the time included detention of people without a formal charge, torture under detention, clamp down on mass media, using mass media to propagate government policies and views, forced sterilization, enactment of laws – often by making modifications to the Constitutions.

These charges would remain till the official end to Emergency on March 23rd of 1977, close to two months after Indira had called for fresh elections that were to be the 1977 Lok Sabha election.

Status of states:

The 1977 Lok Sabha election was conducted across 31 states and union territories in India. These were:

Andhra Pradesh

Arunachal Pradesh

Assam

Bihar

Goa Daman and Diu

Gujarat

Haryana

Himachal Pradesh

Jammu and Kashmir

Karnataka

Kerala

Madhya Pradesh

Maharashtra

Manipur

Meghalaya

Mizoram

Nagaland

Orissa

Punjab

Rajasthan

Sikkim

Tamil Nadu

Tripura

Uttar Pradesh

West Bengal

Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Chandigarh

Dadra and Nagar Haveli

National Capital Territory of Delhi

Lakshadweep

Pondicherry

Political parties in the fray:

There were five national parties and another 15 state parties which fought the Lok Sabha election in 1977 – apart from independent candidates. There were also 14 registered (unrecognised parties).

The national parties:

Bharatiya Lok Dal

Communist Party of India

Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Indian National Congress

Indian National Congress (ORG)

The state parties:

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam

All India Forward Bloc

Jammu and Kashmir National Conference

Kerala Congress (Pillai Group)

Kerala Congress

Maharashtrawadi Gomantak

Muslim League (Opposition)

Muslim League

Peasants and Workers Party

Shiromani Akali Dal

United Democratic Front

Vishal Haryana

The registered (unrecognised) parties were:

Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha

All India Gorkha League

All India Labour Party

Jharkhand Party

All India Jharkhand Party

All India Shiromani Baba Jivan Singh Mazabhi Dal

Bihar Prant Hul Jharkhand

Revolutionary Communist Party of India

Republican Party of India

Republican Party of India (Khobragade)

Akhil Bharati Ramrajya Parishad

Shoshit Samaj Dal (Akhil Bharatiya)

Socialist Unity Centre of India

Tripura Upajiti Juba Samiti

Election 1977:

Fairly confident of her prospects of winning yet another election to remain the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi – in a broadcast to the nation - called for the sixth Lok Sabha election on January 19 of 1977. And with it came the announcement that the Emergency was being relaxed. The decision to announce elections – after the government’s term had been extended twice previously - was taken after an emergency cabinet meeting.

The reason given out by the government of the time for calling for elections was that the Congress sought the fresh mandate of people to continue with its policies and programs.

For others, it was seen as the rightful return to the democratic process.

The decision to conduct Lok Sabha elections held special significance for not just opposition parties and trade unions but for all those who were or had been jailed during the long-drawn Emergency. It was hailed by people at large as the comeback of democratic processes.

The total number of seats in Lok Sabha went up to 542 as against 518 in 1971. The total number of candidates nominated, however, fell from 2,784 in 1971 to 2,439 this year. Never has the number of candidates for Lok Sabha elections fallen below this figure since.

The number of polling stations across the country was 3,73,910 – the highest till that point in time.

With the elections scheduled to be held between March 16 and March 20, political parties began a rhapsodic campaign to woo voters and a bulk of their electoral strategy revolved around the Emergency – one way or the other.

The biggest political development that took place around this time was the coming together of the main non-Communist opposition parties to fight Indira. Congress (Organisation), Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal and the Socialist Party led the bulk of the challenge under the banner of Janata Party under Morarji Desai who had been released from prison just two months before the elections.

Apart from making a number of allegations against the incumbent government, the Janata Party manifesto made several promises which ranged from safeguarding and extending democracy, holding the price line, revitalisation of the economy, eradicating poverty in a decade, social reforms like mass public housing and importance to eradicating illiteracy. The manifesto further claimed that all forms of colonialism, neo-colonialism and racialism will be opposed as part of the country’s foreign policy while friendship with all and freedom from the influence of any power bloc would be given vital importance.

The Congress manifesto, among other promises, underlined the need to have a strong central government. The promises, however, did not hold much water as the eventual result would showcase.

Congress was decimated in the so-called Hindi heartland with defeats in Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Bihar and even in the traditional fortress of Uttar Pradesh. Even more shockingly, Indira lost to Narain in the Raebareli constituency by over 55,000 votes. Son Sanjay lost to Ravindra Pratap Singh of Janata Party in Amethi by an even larger margin of 75,884 votes.

In West Bengal, defections became an added problem which severely hit Congress. Here, the Janata alliance secured 38 seats while Congress plummeted to an all-time low of three seats.

While the result was mixed in the western states of the country, Congress did gain vital grounds in the southern states – especially in Tamil Nadu where its alliance with MGR-led Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam bore fruit. Here – and in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, Congress’ vote share actually went up. A line of political thinking at the time felt that the reason for this was because the impact of Emergency was felt much more by north Indian states than the states in the southern part of the country.

Supporters of Indira and the Congress party, however, cited the performance in south India to argue that it was incorrect to say Indians at large had rejected the Emergency period and a sizeable population still saw Indira in a positive light.

Nonetheless, even the biggest supporter of Congress at the time could not deny that the party had secured just 189 seats – a fall of 217, and that the overall vote share had dipped by massive 9.3 per cent. Interestingly, this is the exact dip in per cent point drop in Congress vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election as well.

Therefore, while it won’t be statistically correct to claim that the whole of India had come together to oust Indira and the Congress party, it would be prudent to conclude that Congress was dealt the knockout punches in states it had traditionally called home. And the bulk of the force behind the punch came from the pent-up frustration from the almost two years of Emergency, combined with the state of the economy and drought. Many would also credit the Janata Party for providing India with a strong and viable alternative to Congress and for reaching out to the masses in exposing the pitfalls of Emergency as well as in highlighting their plan of action.

India got her fourth Prime Minister in Morarji Desai while a wounded Indira stared at torrid few years which even included her arrest on charges of plotting to kill opposition leaders during Emergency.

The time in jail, however, would be a blessing in disguise.