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The Wizard of Oz had just ended on television, and the news update which followed unveiled news only slightly less fantastic than Dorothy's journey into the land of Oz. "India: The Congress party is trailing badly in the national elections. Both Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay, have lost in their bids for parliament."
In the aftermath of the election, Ved Mahta, an Indian journalist, wrote in the New Yorker that a dictator should never call elections unless he has taken care to rig the results. But Gandhi miscalculated in calling for parliamentary elections. Now India has 81-year-old Morarji Desai as Prime Minister, and Gandhi returns to private life after 11 years in power.
Who would have foreseen such an outcome? The state of emergency she had declared, for all its autocratic undertones, seemed popular, especially after two years of good harvests. No one dreamed that the battered and usually incarcerated opposition could mount a successful campaign against her. Naturally, Mrs. Gandhi felt that her victory was inevitable. The Congress party not only could rely on huge financial resources, but it also controlled the press and television.
Gandhi's mistake was that she began to put too much credence in her own propaganda. With the press censored and cowed, all she read was glowing accounts of herself, her son Sanjay, and the accomplishments of the emergency regime. Most of all, she was surrounded by an enclave of sycophants who never dared give her a true picture of public opinion. Ironically, Gandhi so isolated herself from the popular viewpoint during the 19-month emergency that she lost the superb political touch which had brought her such success in the past.
Gandhi's confidence in her authority caused her to foster the political ascendancy of her son Sanjay, thereby provoking the accusation that she was attempting to continue the Nehru dynasty into a third generation. Sanjay, though, lacked political experience and would hardly have been a competent successor to his mother, or anyone else. By making him the head of the Congress Party's youth wing, Gandhi not only supplanted several senior party leaders, but she also disregarded an Indian political ethos which holds that age and experience deserve proper respect. After all, Sanjay was little more than a rich, rowdy youth of questionable intelligence with a fascination for cars and airplanes. Seven years ago, he received a license to open India's third motorcar company, one which would produce cars for the "small man." Except for a few experimental models, the automobiles never went into production. Instead Sanjay used his license to become a dealer for International Harvester and Piper Airplanes, activities no doubt more lucrative but certainly less legal.
When he became head of the Youth Congress, Sanjay tried to lay his hands on as much power as he could get. Throughout India, Sanjay's crew went about harassing shopkeepers and other people to lower prices, contribute to the Congress party, or at least get sterilized. In effect, there was a "Sanjay" in every village and town. While in India this summer, I accompanied an American friend on a shopping expedition. He was considering buying something, when I advised him that it could be bought cheaper elsewhere. The shopkeeper overheard me, and he sidled up to me, saying ominously in Hindi, "What do you mean by saying that? You know, we're members of the Youth Congress."
But perhaps most infamous--and ultimately most damaging to the Congress Party--was Sanjay's organization of the compulsory sterilization campaign. He turned India's Family Planning program into what was virtually a mass castration crusade. The government not only used a wide variety of economic incentives and disincentives to encourage sterilization, but also crude, strongarm tactics. These tactics alienated the teeming peasantry and urban poor who once supported Gandhi. The Youth Congress carried out sterilization and the companion slum clearance program with excessive brutality among the Muslims in Delhi, who saw the drive as an oppressive religious assault by the Hindus. Both the poor farmer and the menial city laborer viewed the aggressiveness of these programs as an attempt to destroy the large family, which they consider the best insurance for care in old age.
The Youth Congress even put pressure on the lower level bureaucracy by making district officials fulfill sterilization quotas each month. As if this was not enough, during her campaign Gandhi blamed these officials for what actually had been Sanjay's excesses. This frightened members of the bureaucracy into supporting the opposition. It has even been suggested that worried government officials tried to 'fix' Indira's defeat.
The Congress Party's evident unpopularity made the situation ripe for government members like Minister of Agriculture Jagjivan Ram to defect and form their own parties. Moreover, for the first time in India's history the Opposition united against the Congress. Four major parties combined to form the Janata (People's) party: the Jan Sangh, the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD), the opposition 'Old' Congress, and the Socialist party. The Janata campaigned in coalition with Jagjivan Ram's Congress for Democracy party (CFD) and other smaller regional parties. Thus the opposition vote did not split, and the election became a two-party contest.
Yet, there can be no doubt that it was the arbitrary use of authority, as in the sterilization program, which ultimately led to Gandhi's defeat. Measures which suspended habeas corpus and gave the police sweeping powers touched city and countryside alike. Dislike of Gandhi, her son and her programs narrowed the gap between the urban and rural poor. As the biographer of Jayaprakash Narayan, the moral leader of the opposition to Gandhi, has written, "A good many villagers simply agreed with the farmer who said 'Just because a man is poor and maybe cannot read it does not mean that he cares nothing for his human rights.' The Congress government has tried to shut my mouth. Therefore, the Congress loses my vote."
The electoral returns reflect the similarity in voting behavior between city and village. All the seats from Delhi went to the opposition, just as they did in the surrounding rural states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Because most of the excesses of the emergency had occurred in the North, a North-South split replaced the Urban-Rural gap. The Congress won only four seats out of 244 from the eight northern states which comprise the main Hindi-speaking belt. In the four southern states though, the Janata party won only three out of 130 seats.
Just as the Munchkins celebrated the death of the Wicked Witch of the West, India celebrated Gandhi's defeat last month. But now that the celebration is over, India, unlike Munchkinland, has to face the most crucial question: how will the new government differ from the old one? Will it improve the government or break down because of the factionalism that Gandhi suggested in her campaign slogan 'Stability or Chaos?'?
The four parties which comprise the Janata differ in ideology and background. The Jan Sangh, which is the largest group, was a rightwing, communal Hindu party, a less vehement descendant of the militant RSS that allegedly murdered Mahatma Gandhi. The BLD was largely made up of small-time landowners from northern India. The Old Congress was the conservative wing of the Congress Party which split away in 1969. Finally, there are the Socialists led by trade union leader George Fernandes, a group rather mild as far as Socialists go, but the only leftist element in this coalition.
Despite these ideological differences, it is unlikely the Janata party will fall apart very soon. Apart from the basic fact that they will have to hang together if they are not to hang separately, there is another reason which Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Myron Weiner pointed out last week. Weiner had been in India at the time of the elections and had the opportunity to speak with some of the politicians. Apparently, during their time in jail, many, particularly Jan Sangh and Socialist members, had discussed their views with each other. For some, it was the first non-acrimonious, honest dialogue they had had in years. It helped them to find common ground, which they might not have, had they just been contesting elections. The Janata party may therefore be much less of hastily glued hodge-podge than it seems. The Congress party, rather, is in danger of falling apart since its members stand to gain personal power only by defecting, something which Indian politicians rarely have qualms about doing. If the Congress Party does hold together, there is a chance that the foundations of Indian democracy will be strengthened by the existence of two coherent national parties.
The new Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, is a close follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a man of Spartan ways. Not only is he a teetotaler, but he is also a rigorous vegetarian. Despite his rigid views on such matters, he is recognized to be an excellent and experienced administrator. His Foreign Minister, A.B. Vajpayee, was a Jan Sangh member and a known opponent of Gandhi's policy of supposed nonalignment which actually leaned towards the Soviet Union. In one of his first statements, Desai declared that India would follow a course of 'truer nonalignment.' "The Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty must not come in the way of our friendship with any other state--we won't have special relations with any country," he said. However, Indo-American relations will probably improve since, beginning with Nehru's friendship with former president John F. Kennedy '40, Democratic administrations have generally favored India. Still, India does depend on the Soviet Union for most of its military equipment (especially spare parts), and Desai will have to face that reality.
Regarding internal policy, the new government is likely to be more conservative than Gandhi's. To protect their interests, BLD members will try to slow down the inplementation of land reforms, particularly the Land Ceiling Acts which limit the amount of property an individual may own. However, rural India will benefit from the decentralized administrative policies and the small-scale village industries which the Janata party advocates. Urban private industry will find the new government more cooperative, with H.M. Patel, a firm believer in free enterprise, as Minister of Finance. Of course, the Socialists would oppose any conservative trends, espcially those which impinge upon the rights of labor and the urban poor. Whatever the case, the ideological diversity of the Janata will lead to greater intra-party and intra-cabinet democracy. Compromise and consensus will form policy, rather than the arbitrary fiats of Gandhi.
Most imperative for the new government is to repeal the laws which curbed civil liberties during the emergency. These include the Press Censorship Act, the Publication of Objectionable Matter Act, the law which suspended habeas corpus, and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act under which thousands of political opponents (including most of the new cabinet) were imprisoned. Since many of these laws were constitutional amendments, their repeal will require a two thirds vote in both houses of Parliament and ratification by a majority of the states. With the Congress Party still controlling the upper house of Parliament and nearly all the state assemblies, the process of repealing will be slow. Meanwhile, the new rulers will have to demonstrate their good faith by resisting the temptation to use these measures to guarantee their own power.
After an election victory in 1969, Gandhi said, "The soundness of our democratic structure has been fully vindicated. The Indian electorate is fully aware of its democratic rights, and I have every hope that it will always exercise these rights with discretion for the national good." If she recalls these words, the recent election surely cannot have disappointed her. Hopefully the new government will not disappoint the people of India.
Vivek R. Haldipur '79, an Economics concentrator in Quincy House, lives in New Delhi, India.
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