This is what President Pranab Mukherjee’s book says about one of the most momentous events in india. He looks at various happenings of the seventies, but doesn’t reveal much
By Rashme Sehgal
If any politician needs to learn a tip or two from Pranab Mukherjee’s book, The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years, it is none other than her grandson, Rahul Gandhi, who can do with her spunk. Mukherjee’s book scores in providing details about the reasons that led up to Indira Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency in June 1975, her sudden decision to lift it by announcing general elections on January 18, 1977, and the Congress party’s functioning, both after facing the stunning defeat in 1977 and then, returning to power in 1980.
FIGHTER TO THE CORE
Not only was the Congress party trounced in the elections, but both Indira and Sanjay Gandhi lost their seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi respectively. Several leading Cong-ressmen, including ministers such as Jag-jivan Ram and YB Chavan abandoned the party. In the early euphoria of the Janata Party’s victory, it seemed as though Indira Gandhi would be forced into political exile. But she did not lose heart. A fighter to the core, she began a mass people-to-people contact program, touring the length and breadth of the country, even going to the extent of meeting Jaiprakash Narayan in Patna.
It was JP’s exhortation from the grounds of Ramlila Maidan in Delhi on June 25, 1975, to both the army and the police to disobey “illegal” orders and to citizens to take part in a massive civil disobedience program that has been cited as one of the key factors that led Indira to impose Emergency. And yet, she was large-hearted enough to go back to both JP and Vinoba Bhave to seek their blessings. She met huge crowds wherever she went.
The culmination of this campaigning was her visit to the site of the Belchi massacre, where 11 Harijans had been burnt to death by rich farmers belonging to the Kurmi community. Mukherjee describes this visit at great length. Belchi village did not have road connectivity. The jeep carrying Indira got stuck in the mud and a tractor was brought to pull it out. But that too got stuck. So determined was Indira to go forward that she pulled her sari above the ankle to march ahead. How-ever, an elephant was requisitioned for her. This spunk remained with her throughout her life. If Rahul Gandhi had shown the same fighting spirit, the Congress would not have been in the doldrums it is in today.
Mukherjee’s book also documents various happenings during the Seventies—East Pakistan’s struggle for independence in 1971, the oil crisis of 1973 and how it adversely impacted the Indian economy, coalition politics from 1977 onwards….
Mukherjee’s description of Indira Gandhi’s arrest by the CBI makes for interesting reading, especially as there were no cell phones or round-the-clock television to heighten the drama. On October 3, 1977, Mukherjee got a tip-off from a UNI correspondent that Indira, along with KD Malaviya, HR Gokhale, PC Sethi and DP Chattopadhyaya, had been arrested. He too, he was informed, was on the hit list. Mukherjee writes: “I req-uested a friend (who was visiting) to go and fetch my wife, Geeta, who had gone out to watch a movie. And then I waited on the lawn with my pipe, tobacco, matchbox and a small suitcase. I decided I would not apply for bail and prepared myself for an indefinite stay in jail. Geeta came back and together we waited for the police but nobody came. After about 11pm, I told Geeta that instead of waiting for the police, we could go to Indira Gan-dhi’s residence and find out what was happening there. We left a note with our servant in case the police came looking for us—that we would be at 12 Willingdon Crescent.”
Indira with Pranab Mukherjee, who stood by the party even after the 1977 riot
Mukherjee admits Indira had a finger on the pulse of the nation, which he didn’t have, which is why he took a disastrous decision of contesting from Bolpur in West Bengal.
Indira Gandhi was able to use the blundering manner of her arrest to her advantage. Attempts by Janata Party leaders to isolate her also backfired, as did attempts by some Congress leaders, who hoped to take over control of the party.
Mukherjee dismisses rumors that post- Emergency, Indira continued to be surrounded by a caucus of leaders who had been active during the Emergency. The author writers: “The contention did not contain a grain of truth…. Although Zail Singh, Dr Jagannath Mishra, Devraj Urs and I continued to be summoned by various commissions, prominent leaders and activists during the Emer-gency like Om Mehta, Bansi Lal, VC Shukla and Rukhsana Sultana were nowhere near the group.” Another interesting fact is that home minister K Brahmananda Reddy signed the letter, which led to the imposition of Emergency, on a plain sheet of paper and not a letterhead of his ministry. The book also produces the letter written by Indira Gandhi to President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed on the night of June 25, 1975, recommending imposition of Emergency, as there was a “danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbance”.
However, the author does not reveal much. The book alludes to the functioning of the Shah Commission and the manner it went about gathering evidence, but that is all. Pranab also does not criticize the Emergency, though he admits that as part of the Union Cabinet, he failed to understand its far-rea-ching impact. All he says is that “it was perhaps an avoidable event” for which both the Congress and Indira had to pay a heavy price.
Needless to say, Mukherjee remained a Gandhi loyalist through the turbulent years. He attributes this to his own upbringing. His father, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, was a Congress loyalist all his life. In 1978, when the Congress split, his father told him: “I hope you will not do anything that will make me ashamed of you. It is when you stand by a person in his or her hour of crisis that you reveal your own humanity. Don’t do anything that will dishonor your forefather’s memory.’ His meaning was clear, and I didn’t, then or later, waver from my loyalty.”
Jaiprakash Narayan’s rally on June 25, 1975, that triggered the Emergency
Indira Gandhi, he writes, had a finger on the pulse of the nation, which obviously, he didn’t have. And that is why he insisted on contesting the Bolpur constituency in West Bengal against her best advice. The result? A resounding defeat by a margin of 68,629 votes. When a demoralized Pranab was told that Indira wanted to meet him, he drove to 12 Willingdon Crescent. “It would not be an understatement to say that she was unhappy about my insistence to contest the election…. It was about 9 pm and Indira Gandhi was sitting in the dining room at one end of the long dining table. She had a bad cold and was soaking her feet in a tub of warm water. Standing at the other end of the dining table, I received a vociferous dressing-down for what seemed to be an interminable span of time. I was rebuked for taking the ill-advised decision of contesting from Bolpur against her advice, and was told that such imprudent decisions nullified all my other hard work. Having recognized my folly, I could do nothing till she calmed down. She then sent me home with a basket of fruit.”
The Dramatic Decade is the first of a trilogy. The subsequent books are expected to cover the periods between 1980-98 and 1998-2012. We hope he will write about his colorful political career with more candor.
The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years
By Pranab Mukherjee
Published by Rupa
Pages: 321; Rs. 595