When MPs were voted into our republic’s first Lok Sabha in 1952, there was no Indian Express or Times of India in Delhi. The only competition to the Hindustan Times came from the Statesman, British-owned at the time.
Living with parents and siblings in a Connaught Circus flat above the offices and printing press of the Hindustan Times (my father Devadas Gandhi was the paper’s editor), I, sixteen at the time, would at times go behind the glass frame that displayed ‘Spot News’ from the HT building’s first floor to passers-by or a crowd on Connaught Circus. I had learnt to read that ‘Spot News’ panel from right to left, which is what you had to do if you were in its rear.
On counting day in 1952, ‘Spot News’ declared: ‘SUCHETA KRIPALANI DEFEATS MANMOHINI SAHGAL.’ Sucheta, a Bengali lady who had left the Congress to join the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party founded by her Sindhi husband, Acharya Kripalani, had narrowly beaten the Congress candidate, who was a Kashmiri related to the Nehrus, in the New Delhi constituency. Standing as an independent, Durga Das, the ace reporter who had left the Statesman to join the Hindustan Times, came a distant third.
In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru was widely loved and hugely popular. The Congress won 45 percent of the national vote and 364 seats out of a total of 489. Though not officially called leader of the opposition, A. K. Gopalan of the Communist Party, a Malayali Nair, led the largest opposition bloc in the Lok Sabha. His party had won 16 seats. KMPP, the Kripalani party, won 9 and the socialists 12. From Delhi, Sucheta was the sole non-Congress MP.
While Nehru’s leadership was unquestioned, he did not obtain 1952’s largest tally. That feat belonged to Ravi Narayan Reddy, the Communist MP from Nalgonda (now in Telangana), who had polled over 300,000 votes.
In 1967, twenty years after independence, when elections to the 4thLok Sabha were held, the picture was very different. Nehru had died in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966, and the mettle of Shastri’s petite young successor, Indira Gandhi, was as yet untested.
Though the Congress again won, with 40.78 percent of the vote and more than half of the Lok Sabha’s seats (283 seats out of 520), the opposition had finally scented the future possibility of a non-Congress government at the centre.
In several states, moreover, opposition parties in 1967 either replaced the Congress (as the DMK did in Tamil Nadu, the Left in Kerala and Swatantra in Odisha) or substantially mauled its strength (in UP, West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan and Punjab).
Opposition disharmony, however, was reflected in 1967’s Lok Sabha numbers: Swatantra had 44 seats, the Jan Sangh 35, CPI 23, CPM 19, SSP 23, PSP 13, DMK 24
Not foreseen by many, Indira Gandhi’s audacity split the Congress in the 1969 summer and the state of Pakistan in the 1971-72 winter. In March 1971, well before the liberation of Bangladesh, that audacity had won for Indira’s Congress (I) party 352 seats out of 545, with a vote share of 43.7 percent.
Four years later, early on the morning of 26 June 1975, my wife and I arrived at Chennai’s Central Station. Having made the journey at the last minute, we had slept on newspapers on the train’s floor. I heard someone on the platform speak of ‘Emergency’. Soon I learnt of arrests and press censorship.
A year-and-a-half later, in January 1977, Indira Gandhi made the surprising announcement that political leaders were being released and fresh elections would be held. I was once more in Chennai, and in fact staying at Kalki Gardens, where Acharya Kripalani, then 88, was also lodged, and which belonged to that incomparable pair, T. Sadasivam and M. S. Subbulakshmi.
Totally opposed to the Emergency, Dada Kripalani was too old to have been arrested. As January turned to February, and February to March, when elections to the 6thLok Sabha were held, I had the privilege of following developments in Dada Kripalani’s company and that of the Sadasivams.
The developments included the formation of the Janata Party, Babu Jagjivan Ram’s crossover from the Congress, and Mrs. Gandhi’s defeat.
For many in India, the night that began on 20 March 1977 was of mounting joy, one that had been dreamed-of but not imagined. ‘We were standing in front of the Indian Express’s Spot News,’ someone from Delhi would later recall, ‘Letter by letter the news was being flashed. When after “Indira Gandhi” the letter “D” appeared, we exploded in celebration.’
In that 6thLok Sabha, the Congress (I) won not a single seat in UP, Bihar, Punjab or Delhi, only one seat in MP and Rajasthan, and only three in West Bengal. YetSouth India voted resoundingly in Indira’s favour. In Kerala, all 20 Lok Sabha seats were won by a Congress-led alliance. In Andhra, the Congress won 41 out of 42 seats, in Karnataka 26 out of 28. And in Tamil Nadu, a Congress-AIADMK-CPI alliance won 33 out of 39 seats.
In Maharashtra, the Congress won 20 out of 48 seats in 1977.
What then does history say about elections in India? Among other things, it suggests that politicians may be daring, or stitch alliances, or build a ground-level machinery, and that those with funds may lubricate that machinery, but also that the last word has belonged to the Indian voter, who usually knows what is best for her or his country.
However, other parts of the world have sent a warning about fevers where nationalism merges with hatred. As the poet Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee has reminded us elsewhere, while Indians have usually celebrated elections as festivals, where there is malice there can be no festive spirit.
The world warns that toxicity can for a while sway large numbers. In due course toxicity seems to dissipate, but no one knows how long or short that course is.
This article was published in Indian Expresson March 17