On January 7th 1980, most English newspapers in India had the following headline- “It’s Indira Gandhi all the way”. There was intense euphoria that swept the nation as they welcomed a new Congress government after the Janata Dal had failed spectacularly at maintaining their power. The proportions of the 1980 election fooled many experts around the world. Mrs Gandhi was predicted to win, but the proportions with which she secured the victory were quite large. “In terms of seats won in Parliament, the Congress (I) triumph was spectacular by any standards. Overall, the party of Mrs. Gandhi won 351 of 525 seats contested. This is 66.9% of the contested and 64.8’% of the total number of seats comprising the Lok Sabha or House of the People. That 351 seats constitute a two-thirds majority of all declared seats, has an especially important implication in the context of the Indian political system. If in the elections which will eventually bring the Lok Sabha up to full strength, Mrs. Gandhi’s party should retain this two-thirds majority, the Congress (I) would be in a position to modify the Constitution since constitutional amendments may be enacted by a two-thirds majority of parliament” (Gould, 595). Harold A. Gould goes on to describe the possible reasons behind her thrashing victory. The speculation was that the failure of the Janata Party itself wasn’t the only reason as to why Mrs Gandhi’s party managed to secure this victory despite the obviously glaring and unconstitutional acts that her government had committed in its previous term.
Another important factor to consider is the reason why the Janata party was in power in the first place. Although they banked heavily on the 1975 Emergency which lasted for 11 months, their entire campaign was also based on the very foundations of “Indira hatao, desh bachao”. This slogan grounded the power and representation of Indira’s Congress as simply being constituted of her. The 1977 election saw the coming together of several different strands of the opposition and a revolutionary party was born out of this antagonism. The Janata Dal managed to be the first party in over thirty years since Independence to establish a government which was not the Indian National Congress.
The Emergency is said to be a rather dark period in the history of India. There were harsh measures that were undertaken during this period including but not limited to unlawful detainment of opposition politicians and heavy clampdowns on the Freedom of Speech and Expression. The judiciary’s power was challenged and broken down by the 42nd Amendment Act. Overall, Mrs Gandhi did what she could to consolidate her position in the wake of the Janata movement that had started to gain immense momentum and was popping up as small resistance movements across university campuses and trade unions all over the nation. The ‘Nasbandhi’ movement that was started by her son Sanjay Gandhi gained momentum and several men were forced to get vasectomies in a bid to control the booming population. Consequently, when the Emergency was lifted in 1977 and fresh elections were called, the Congress party led by Mrs Gandhi was reduced to a mere 153 seats, and the Janata Party ended up commanding the majority of the house with 298 seats. However, the next two years proved to be extremely tough for the Janata Party. Morarji Desai became Prime Minister, but soon after the government in power that fell apart and mid term elections had to be called with Charan Singh as the interim Prime Minister. What happened was truly a spectacular comeback where Mrs Gandhi managed to secure a landslide victory of 353 seats and the Janata Party was reduced to a mere 31 seats. Although the reason, apparently, is that the previous government had failed to deliver on the promises that they had set out with. However, there is something deeper to be probed here. How did Mrs Gandhi, even after the brutish Emergency reforms, manage to secure such a large victory? The answer simply cannot be the incompetence of the previous government. There had been several spaces in time when the country had witnessed droughts, famines and even dictatorial tendencies from the woman that wanted to come back to power, yet they continued to choose her again and again. There is something perverse and more sociological in the way Mrs Gandhi presented herself, especially in the 1980 elections. Harold Gould terms it as the ‘Indira factor’ and this article seeks to work around that idea. What exactly is the phenomenon of Mrs Gandhi, and more specifically, how was the Election of 1980 itself so different from others that had been carried out before?
The puzzle of this research article is this – the split in the Janata Party and their policy failures in the two years that they were in power do not seem like a sufficient explanation as to why Mrs Gandhi came back to power that was not just an absolute majority but also a sweep in terms of the seats that she got in the Lok Sabha. While it was not strange that Mrs Gandhi won that election by a huge majority, the puzzle arises from the fact that it was Mrs Gandhi herself that was back in power again and ruling with an iron fist. How do the two reconcile and what is so different about this election that it almost changed the way people voted from thereon? This argument has broader repercussions. The article seeks to tie the specificities of this election campaign to the larger idea of party politics itself and how the ‘cult of the leader’ had begun to manifest itself. This is particularly important because Mrs Gandhi has had an incredible influence on the way the Indian democracy has shaped up to be the way it is and thus, to study her persona as well as the election strategy would perhaps give us a more comprehensive answer as to why Mrs Gandhi came back to power with such a large majority despite having been reduced to a small number in the 1977 elections.
The Janata party in power during the period of 1978 to 1980 was, in most senses, a truly revolutionary party. It was characterised by a plethora of groups that came together to counter the strong force that was Indira Gandhi. The idea behind the party was born out of the special circumstances that characterised the Emergency and the case of electoral malpractices that led to this. Therefore, while Jayaprakash Narayanan was alive, the movement had a strong centre and core ideology, however, soon after coming to power you could easily see the cracks in what was supposed to be the party in power.
While the party was unmistakably a culmination of several different ideologies and leaders who came from different philosophical backgrounds, once the uniting factor of Mrs Gandhi was taken away, there wasn’t much left in terms of the uniting force that held them together. There were deep rifts that had started to appear in the way the party was functioning. The dissembling process of the party started to happen and the ‘natural’ order in some senses was being restored. This regrouping and restructuring was seen by the people as disunity and inefficiency. However, it was not soon after that that the Janata Party broke apart. The process was complete by the end of 1979, but there was not a clear rift in the party. The entirety of the Congress(O) went it’s way and restructured itself while the Janata party remained under the stewardship of Jagjivan Ram and had the backing of the untouchables. Charan Singh tried to prove a majority in the floor test and failed. President of India called for fresh elections, and Charan Singh was made the interim Prime minister till the new government came to power. This background is important to note because all of this is believed to have played a large role as to why Mrs Gandhi won the 1980 election with such a huge margin. However, there is a different slightly tangential argument that can be made here— While the Janata party and its volatility were definitely significant reasons, Mrs Gandhi’s campaign and her own persona and personal politics had a far larger impact.
Mrs Gandhi’s campaign began the day that she was voted out of power. Her removal from the seat of authority had been one that the opposition had initiated as a witch hunt of sorts, where Mrs Gandhi was even sent to jail for a while. If Congress was to come to power with even greater numbers and with a renewed image, Mrs Gandhi would have had to rewrite certain structures and ways of voting that had to go above and beyond her banking on the fact that she was a Nehru. A large part of the election campaign had to answer the conundrum ‘if not Indira then who’. This is where the fight began. Indira Gandhi not only had to, for the first time, shed the old family structures that came associated with her image but also work to make it as a formidable woman,she also had the burden of working through a scandal like the Emergency while reminding the public of how she was the poster child for good governance. M.L Fotedar in his book ‘The Chinar Leaves’ mentions this incident in vivid detail –
“In Belchi, in Bihar, several Dalits were killed by zamindars in a horrendous episode of caste violence. Indiraji decided to visit Belchi, despite the advice of the state leadership to avoid the area as it was under flood waters. After a few kilometres she was taken on an elephant, as the flooded roads were impassable. She reached the village and consoled the bereaved families. Her visit would put the nondescript village on the map for all time to come. The response to her during her visit was a signal to people all over the country that Indira Gandhi was on the path of return to power.”(Fotedar, 116)
This particular incident was symbolic and important for several reasons. The idea was that Mrs Gandhi had gone to extreme ends to make sure that the downtrodden and poor were well looked after. Her old slogans of ‘Garibi Hatao’ and her pro-poor policies were resonant with the public at large, especially those that had felt slighted by the old feudal structures whose remnants were scattered throughout the country in several different forms. The fact that this action was taken by Mrs Gandhi proved to be a turning point for her and allowed her to make the comeback that she desired. The party itself needed an image makeover and Mrs Gandhi was aware. The symbol for the party, which is now synonymous with the Congress, the open hand, was fixed in this election. The Congress(I) led by Indira in this particular election laid down the foundations for the elections to come. We can read much into the way Mrs Gandhi campaigned as the campaigning itself was vast and strenuous. Katherine Frank in her book Indira— The life of Indira Nehru Gandhi —mentions this paragraph –
“In the run-up to the January 1980 general election, Indira spent sixty-two days on the road (and in the air), covering 40,000 miles and addressing up to twenty meetings a day. An estimated 90 million people – or one in every four of the Indian electorate – throughout the country saw and heard Indira Gandhi in the course of her last and most arduous campaign. Indira stood not only for her old constituency, Rae Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, but also for a new one, Medak, in Andhra Pradesh, (Indian electoral rules do not prohibit a candidate from standing for more than one constituency). She won both contests by a large margin. And she carried her party with her all over the country – Congress captured 351 out of 542 Lok Sabha seats. As the Times of India headline put it, ‘It’s Indira All the Way’. Reluctantly, Indira decided to resign from Rae Bareilly, allowing Sanjay who was elected as the MP for the neighbouring constituency of Amethi to look after Uttar Pradesh. Indira hand-picked a young family member named Arun Nehru – a successful businessman and precocious political manipulator – to take over in Rae Bareilly. In time he would become Rajiv Gandhi’s key adviser and right-hand man. Shortly after she was sworn in as Prime Minister for the fourth time, on 14 January 1980, Indira moved back into her old house at 1 Safdarjung Road. Before she returned, however, she sent in a dozen Hindu priests to purify’ the house and also workmen to tear out the Desais’ traditional Indian bathroom and replace it with the original Western-style one. By the time Indira and her family settled in, it was almost as if they had never been gone.” (Frank, 365)
The idea here is this— the persona of Indira Gandhi and the sheer reach of her campaign is what propelled her to win the elections by such a large margin. The fact that image building was a large part of the way she ran her campaign is the reason why the decisions of the Shah commission or that her previous election had been declared null and void due to electoral malpractices, were erased from the public conscience. The point isn’t that the failure of the Janata party itself was enough for her to secure such a large margin, it lies in the fact that her cult as a leader allowed her to bank on her victory. The ‘Indira factor’ as Harold A Gould calls it, was particularly important. The fact that her speeches were heard by at least one in every four voters in the electorate allowed her to have the interpersonal touch that had been absent from a party like the Janata Party. The party structure of Congress itself allowed her to bank on the fact that there would be a reach that was massive in nature. This extensive campaign allowed her the leeway to create her own persona. Mrs Gandhi became a cult in her own right and managed to garner the votes of millions of Indians because it was her at the helm. The impact she had would have increased manifold. The fact that people could see her meant that in a time when the means of communication were still very limited, Mrs Gandhi managed to reach every nook and cranny of the country. She relied on this extensive reach and her own interpersonal interactions massively to improve the image that she had been carrying for the majority of the time.
I think there are some interesting questions that could be asked about how that played with the idea of her being a woman in politics, one that has had such a tenuous history with being considered a feminist. The idea was that Mrs Gandhi while being formidable in her own right, presented a version of herself that was Indian and traditional. She wore muted saris with her head covered and her hand in prayer. Her presence was to reinvent her formidable personality to one that was more receptive to the general public. The campaign ran on the very fundamentals of restoring the ‘natural order’ and that could only be done when Mrs Gandhi was seen doing it. She began to represent the modern Indian woman that was still bound by tradition. We can see remnants of this in the politics of Sonia Gandhi as she tries to make her own space as a foreigner in the Indian political scenario. The idea is that a woman is only receptive as a politician when she acts like a ‘woman’, a definition which is contentious in and of itself. Her attire was there in place to create this dissonance between the strongman Indira and the one that was trying to redeem herself by trying to yield to the poorest sections of the society.
Indira had managed to completely rework the image of the congress party in the public’s imagination. The short revolution that the Janata party had brought, had changed some structures but the Congress returned again and again. The symbol of the hand became this violent cry for more unity and an active call for action. Mrs Gandhi worked and reworked the ideas of the party and herself into the fabric of the country in ways that were indeed very pervasive. Her highly immersive campaign and incredibly well thought out strategies including several calls for togetherness worked in tandem with the already withered Janata Party.
There is a lot to be said about how this, in particular, left an everlasting impact on the way the Indian public voted. Harold A. Gould’s suspicion is that the change in many ways is from a ‘ministerial’ set up to a ‘presidential’ one, a set up where the larger public votes for a single person and not the ground level candidates.
Fotedar, M. L. The Chinar Leaves: a Political Memoir. HarperCollins Publishers India, 2015.
Frank, Katherine. Indira: the Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. HarperCollins, 2005.
Gould, Harold A. “The Second Coming: The 1980 Elections in India’s Hindi Belt.” Asian Survey, vol. 20, no. 6, 1980, pp. 595–616. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2643675. Accessed 11 May 2020.
Roy, Devapriya, and Priya Kuriyan. Indira. Context, 2018.
Prerna Vij is a second year student pursuing political science and literature in Ashoka University.