The final blow

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Home | Final Blow | Towards 1971 elections

It was the death of President Zakir Husain in May 1969 that precipitated the events leading to the long-awaited split in Congress. While the President’s position in the Indian Constitution is that of a formal head of the state, in case of a hung parliament, where no party enjoyed a majority, he could play a decisive political role by inviting one of the contenders for the prime minister’s office. The Syndicate was therefore determined to have a friendly man occupy the President’s office. In the party conclave at Bangalore from 11 to 13 July, the Syndicate, enjoying a majority in the Congress parliamentary board, and despite Indira Gandhi’s opposition, nominated Sanjiva Reddy, a prominent member of the Syndicate, as the Congress candidate for presidentship.

Within days of the Bangalore meeting, on 18 July, she took away the Finance portfolio from Desai on the grounds that as a conservative he was incapable of implementing her radical programme. Morarji was left with no option but to resign from the Cabinet. Assuming the Finance portfolio herself, Indira Gandhi immediately, on 21 July, announced the nationalization of fourteen major banks through a presidential ordinance. She also announced her plan to withdraw the special privileges of the princes.

The Syndicate and Desai, however, decided to swallow the humiliation, and wait for Reddy to be elected as the President. However, Indira Gandhi was beginning to play her cards. Reddy was opposed by the senior statesman, C.D. Deshmukh, as the candidate of Swatantrata and Jan Sangh, and V.V. Giri, the Vice-President, who had decided to stand as an independent, supported by the two Communist parties, SSP, DMK, Muslim League and a section of the Akali Dal.

Indira Gandhi wanted to support Giri, but did not know how she could go against her party’s candidate whose nomination papers she had filed. At this stage the Syndicate made a major blunder. To assure Reddy’s election, Nijalingappa met the leaders of Jan Sangh and Swatantra and persuaded them to cast their second preference votes, once C.D. Deshmukh had been eliminated in the first round, in favour of Reddy. Indira Gandhi immediately accused the Syndicate of having struck a secret deal with communal and reactionary forces in order to oust her from power. She now, more or less openly, supported Giri by refusing to issue a party whip in favour of Reddy and by asking Congress MPs and MLAs to vote freely according to their ‘conscience’. In the election, nearly one-third of them defied the organizational leadership and voted for Giri, who was declared elected by a narrow margin on 20 August.

In the end, on 12 November, the defeated and humiliated Syndicate took disciplinary action against Indira Gandhi and expelled her from the party for having violated party discipline. The party had finally split with Indira Gandhi setting up a rival organization, which came to be known as Congress (R)—R for Requisitionists. The Syndicate-dominated Congress came to be known as Congress (0)—0 for Organization. In the final countdown, 220 of the party’s Lok Sabha MPs went with Indira Gandhi and 68 with the Syndicate. In the All India Congress Committee too 446 of its 705 members walked over to Indira’s side.

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