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Emergency’s legacy? How Lok Sabha polls from 1977-1989 changed India’s political landscape

From Congress losing for the first time to TDP becoming India’s main opposition party, Lok Sabha elections from 1977 to 1989 brought many surprises.

Indian politics underwent several seismic shifts in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. At the prodding and insistence of Jayaprakash Narayan, the four main opposition parties— Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal, Congress (O), and Socialist Party— came together as the Janata Party to challenge Indira Gandhi’s Congress government in early 1977.

They received a shot in the arm when Jagjivan Ram, HN Bahuguna, and Nandini Satpathy left the Indian National Congress, forming the Congress for Democracy (CFD) and denouncing Gandhi’s Emergency rule. It was a tumultuous period that saw curbs on the media, imprisonment of leaders, forced sterilisations, the rise of Sanjay Gandhi’s Youth Congress as an extra-constitutional authority, and the decline of the traditional party structure in the Congress. 

Yet, its loss in the 1977 elections came as a surprise for the Congress and Gandhi, whose acolytes had convinced her that the Emergency was popular, especially because of the populist 20-point programme she had announced in its early days.

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As a contemporary political commentator observed, Indira Gandhi had a variety of reasons to expect the polls to go in her favour:  “The country had experienced a comparatively good harvest; prices, though rising, were increasing at a substantially lower rate than in the period prior to the emergency; the government claimed some successes in its program to allocate housing sites to Harijans, redistribute land to the landless, abolish bonded labour, end or at least reduce rural indebtedness, and provide alternative housing for urban squatters.”

But come March 1977, the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party alliance received 41.32 per cent of the popular vote as well as 295 seats. The Congress retained its position as the second-largest party with 34.52 per cent of the vote share and 154 seats.

The ensuing decade saw three elections—in 1980, 1984, and 1989. Each was overseen by a different Election Commissioner: S L Shakdhar, RK Trivedi, and RVS Peri respectively. And each marked key political shifts.

Infighting, onions, bullets

The 1980 elections were held well before the expiry of the 6th Lok Sabha’s five-year term. This was on account of the infighting amongst the constituents of the Janata Dal, mainly on the issue of premiership. Morarji Desai gave way to Charan Singh in July 1979, but as the Indira Gandhi-led Congress withdrew its promised support, the nation went to hustings again.

This election not only saw the return of Mrs Gandhi but also the introduction of the ‘onion factor’ in Indian polity. Due to inflation at the time, many Indians could not afford onions. And as one writer put it, the Congress’ “swashbuckling entry had come off one peculiar promise: taming the price of onions.”

To give younger generations an idea of the consumption mores of those times, Rs 6 per kg of onions was considered absolutely unacceptable. Two decades later, Sushma Swaraj lost the chief ministership of Delhi for her failure to control the prices of onions. However, onions can bring tears even when prices crash—for farmers are voters too! Is it any wonder then that an export ban on onions is in place till 31 March 2024? And this may well be extended to cover the election period, ensuring that consumers are not outraged over onion prices.

Back to 1980, Indira Gandhi’s Congress got 42.69 per cent of the popular vote and 353 seats, one more than her impressive tally of 352 in the March 1971 elections. However, this period was also marked by turmoil in Punjab, Assam, and J&K. When Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullet on 31 October 1984, her son Rajiv Gandhi took over as the Prime Minister and called for a fresh mandate.

Riding on a sympathy wave and an aggressive campaign, the Congress won the 1984 elections by a landslide, securing 49.10 per cent of the popular vote and 414 seats—even more than the 404 seats that the BJP aspires to in the upcoming election.

The 1984 election saw the BJP contesting for the first time. The party received 7.74 per cent of the vote, but won only two seats. Interestingly, the CPM, with a vote share of 5.87 per cent, secured 22 seats. And wonder of wonders, the NTR-led Telugu Desam Party had 30 MPs with just 4.31 per cent of the vote.  It became the first regional party to become the main opposition party—a feat that has never been repeated.

Coalition collapses, ascent of BJP

The 1989 elections were held during the tenure of  RVS Peri Sastri,  by which time the voting age had been reduced from 21 to 18 per the 61st Constitutional  Amendment, thereby  adding  more than 4.7 crore electors.

It was during his tenure that the Government of India made its first attempt to expand the commission into a multi-member body by appointing two election commissioners just before the 1989 general election. This move was widely described as an attempt to curtail the powers of Sastri, who refused to be browbeaten by the government on the timing or conduct of the election. The first steps toward the use of Electronic Voting Machines were also taken during his term. Former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) CG Somiah, a 1953-batch IAS officer, paid a rich tribute to Sastri in his book The Honest Always Stand Alone.

The 1989 elections gave a fractured mandate. While the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress received 39.53 per cent of the popular vote, its tally of Lok Sabha seats fell from 414 to 197. Neither the CPM led-Left, nor the BJP, which had gained ground with 11.36 per cent of the vote and 85 seats, were willing to support the Congress, which was reeling under the Bofors allegation. Therefore, VP Singh, the leader of the second-largest party Janata Dal (which also headed the National Front), was invited by the President of India to form the government  with outside support from the BJP and the CPM-led Left Front.  VP Singh was sworn in as the seventh Prime Minister of India on 2 December 1989.  However, the contradictions between the Left and the Right made the political arrangement inherently unstable.

It collapsed  months later when BJP leader LK Advani’s Rath Yatra was stopped by Lalu Yadav at Samastipur in Bihar. The BJP withdrew its support from the VP Singh government and it lost the parliamentary vote of confidence on 7 November 1990. Thus, VP Singh’s 11-month dispensation gave way to that of Chandra Shekhar, who formed the government with the outside support of the Congress. This too was not to last. The Congress withdrew its support in June of 1991, thereby paving the way for the next elections. This time, the main focus was not on the candidates and parties, but the enigmatic TN Seshan, who had taken over as the great helmsman of the Election Commission in December 1990.

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

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