On 18 January 1977, Mrs. Gandhi suddenly announced that elections to Lok Sabha would be held in March. She also simultaneously released political prisoners, removed press censorship and other restrictions on political activity such as holding of public meetings. Political parties were allowed to campaign freely.
The elections were held on 16 March in a free and fair atmosphere, and when the results came in it was clear that Congress had been thoroughly defeated. Both Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi lost their seats.
Mrs Gandhi issued a statement accepting the verdict of the people with respect and stepped down from her post to allow Morarji Desai to take charge.
Whatever the character of the JP Movement or of the Emergency regime, there is no doubt that the decision of Mrs. Gandhi to hold genuinely free elections, and her defeat and the Opposition’s victory that followed were a remarkable achievement of Indian democracy. The years 1975-77 has been described as the years of the ‘test of democracy’ there is no doubt that the Indian people passed the test with distinction if not full marks.
Immediately after coming out of the jails in January 1977, the opposition leaders announced the merger of Congress (0), Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) and Socialist Party into the new Janata Party. The Congress was dealt a blow by the sudden defection from it on 2 February 1977 of Jagjivan Ram, H.N. Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy who formed the Congress for Democracy (CFD). Along with DMK, Akali Dal and CPM it forged a common front with the Janata Party in order to give a straight fight to Congress and its allies, the CPI and AIADMK in the March elections to the Lok Sabha.
The opposition front made the Emergency and its excesses, especially forced sterlizations and the restriction of civil liberties, the major issues of its election campaign. The people also treated the elections as a referendum on the Emergency. With the popular upsurge in favour of them, the Janata Party and its allies were victorious with 330 out of 542 seats. Congress trailed far behind with only 154 seats, with CPI its ally getting 7 and the AIADMK 21 seats. Congress was virtually wiped out in North India—it won only 2 out of 234 seats in seven northern states. Both Indira Gandhi and Sanjay were defeated. The electoral verdict was, however, mixed in western India. Surprisingly in the South, where the Emergency had been less vigorous, and the pro-poor measures of the Twenty-Point Programme better implemented. Congress improved its performance, winning 92 seats in place of 70 in 1971. Janata won only 6 seats in the four southern states. The Congress for Democracy merged with Janata Party immediately after the elections.
There was a near-crisis over the issue of prime ministership between the three aspirants, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram. The matter was referred to the senior leaders, Jayaprakash Narayan and J.B. Kripalani, who ruled in favour of the 81-year-old Desai, who was sworn in as prime minister on 23 March.
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