Elections that shaped India | 1967 elections and the rise of Indira Gandhi

As the clock ticks down to the general elections of 2024, The Hindu takes a look at the historic elections that have shaped the polity and political landscape of our nation since Independence. Here, we tackle the 1967 elections and the historic rise of Indira Gandhi.

Updated - May 24, 2024 12:56 pm IST

Published - April 02, 2024 10:00 am IST

The Hindu’s report on Feb 1, 1967 describing the emerging opposition to Indira Gandhi.

The Hindu’s report on Feb 1, 1967 describing the emerging opposition to Indira Gandhi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Succession questions are not the easiest to answer.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru died in May 1964. Pandit Nehru was particularly known for his ability to hold his party together notwithstanding the differences within. His successor, therefore, undoubtedly, had to exhibit these qualities. Two contenders stood in line, the tactful and mild Lal Bahadur Shastri and the more experienced, fiercely honest Morarji Desai. 

The prologue to the 1967 elections therefore was the Indian National Congress’s inaugural test of potential unity post-Independence.

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The prologue concluded with Mr Shastri succeeding Mr Nehru for the country’s top administrative job. He was, seemingly, the more obvious choice. This was primarily because Mr Desai was not on particularly good terms with party stalwarts Atulya Ghosh of West Bengal, K. Kamraj from Tamil Nadu and N. Sanjeeva Reddy from Andhra Pradesh. Mr Shastri held the position until he passed away in 1966 following a severe heart attack. 

Again, the question of succession sprang open. 

This time around, the field also included Pandit Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, who was serving as the Information & Broadcasting Minister. Morarji Desai was yet again in the fray and demanded a contest. In an intra-party ballot, Ms Gandhi defeated the senior leader 355 votes to 169.This affirmed her rise as the party’s paramount leader, in turn sowing the seeds for the first of the many internal discontentments that would later hurt the party’s prospects, and the ultimate split that took shape a few years later.

What happened in the elections? 

The 1967 elections were carried out in a state of despondency, frustration, uncertainty and recurrent agitation. It was a period of deteriorating economic conditions, inflation and a food shortage in several States, with a near-famine situation in Bihar. In fact, in 1966-67 India had imported about 20 million tonnes of foodgrainsbecause it did not have enough to feed about 480 million people. This was later one of the prime triggers for the Green Revolution in India (1967).   

In this atmosphere, law and order was also rendered vulnerable to increasing bandhs, black days, and agitations—which at times turned violent.  

This atmosphere dogged the campaign trail as well, with recurrent episodes of violence. It was during one suchrally in Bhubaneshwar in Odisha that Mrs Gandhi was hit by a rock. She had to undergo plastic surgery but continued her campaign after a short pause. Madhu Limaye, a Samyukta Socialist Party leader, was waylaid and beaten up; there were attempts to assault Congress leader K. Kamraj as well.

The elections were a brief halt enroute the culmination of the intra-party friction. It would severely expose the weakness of the Congress party. Though the party managed to retain its majority, winning 284 out of 520 seats, it was a drastic fall from 360 seats in 1962. A major setback was losing majority in at least eight States — West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. 

Congress’ two-decade long virtual monopoly over power was under serious threat. The house was divided, and this translated to loss of confidence in the public about its ability to govern. In many instances, Congress leaders were believed to be diverting their attention to addressing intra-party friction – compromising on governance. 

Anti-incumbency and anti-Congress sentiment paved the way for opposition parties in several states to come together in an uneasy alliance. The parties, notwithstanding their disparate ideologies, came together with the sole aim of defeating the Congress. Defections from the national party too helped the morale of the anti-Congress wave. People quitting the Congress would also go on to compete as independents. 

Alternatives to the Congress emerged with Jana Sangh, Swatantrata Party, Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK), Praja Socialist Party (PSP) and the communist parties. Each of these parties returned more than 100 members to State assemblies; in fact, Jana Sangh and SSP returned more than 250 each. Jana Sangh emerged as the main opposition party in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Swatantrata Party became the single largest party in Odisha. 

When differing ideologies collide

Notwithstanding their anti-Congress stance, their otherwise disparate ideologies did create divergences between the members of this alliance. For example, communist parties would advocate that India take the initiative to settle issues with China (after the 1962 war) despite the latter’s rejection of the Colombo proposals. This was something the Jan Sangh would never agree to. Swatantrata Party’s stance to open dialogues with Pakistan too would not find takers in Jan Sangh. Their positions were expected to be starkly dissimilar on economic issues. 

However, they did manage to join forces in several states. The CPM, Akalis and Jan Sangh partnered in Punjab, and in Tamil Nadu, Swatantrata Party, CPM, Muslim League and the DMK joined hands. Thus, what emerged was a total bridging of the left and right divide. 

An average showing by the national party 

The incumbent Congress, even though it managed to secure 56% seats in the lower house, saw a sizeable chunk of its stalwarts losing their seats in State assemblies and Lok Sabha. Leaders and incumbent cabinet ministers Atulya Ghosh (West Bengal party chief), Sachin Chaudhary (Finance Minister), Raj Bahadur (I&B Minister) and A.M. Thomas (Minister for Defence Production) — were defeated. 

Three incumbent Chief Ministers of the Congress, K.B. Sahay (from Bihar), Prafulla Chandra Sen (West Bengal) and M. Bakthavatsalam (Tamil Nadu) met the same fate. The blow to Congress in Tamil Nadu was the most severe and resonates till date— Mr Bakthavatsalam was the last Congress Chief Minister to have administered Tamil Nadu. What magnified the loss further was Tamil Nadu being home to the President of the Congress, Union Food Minister and the Minister of State for Industries. It returned only three MPs to the lower house whilst DMK secured 25 seats. DMK had fought the election basing their campaign around anti-Hindi protests, food scarcity and inflation. The party was the perfect balance of powerful orators and administrators as C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi and V.R. Nedacheziyam, alongside the very popular actor M.G. Ramachandran. 

When asked about whether the debacle of the party in the State came as a surprise, K. Kamarajresponded, “Yes, to everyone.”  

Politics, not just of politicians 

In a paper for the Asian Survey, Norman D. Palmer noted a phenomenon as being a potential first in the history of the Indian electoral scene— the more active and direct participation of princes, big businessmen, former ICS officers and retired military officers. Most prominent in this lineup were Rajendra Singh Narayan Deo, the last Maharaja and Ruling Chief of Patna State of Bolingar (Odisha) and businessman R.K. Birla who defeated the incumbent Congress MP from Jhunjhunu (Rajasthan). Mr Deo went on to serve as the Chief Minister of the State between 1967-71. 

Prelude to what is to come 

Despite securing the Lower House notwithstanding a lower majority, Congress’ troubles were far from over. The question of succession between Morarji Desai and Indira Gandhi was far from resolved. The verdict had to be unanimous for, as also articulated by Mr Kamraj, a divided treasury in parliament would encourage the opposition benches to force a show-down, compelling a mid-term election. A short-lived truce attempted to quell the friction, with Mr. Desai agreeing to serve as the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister in Charge for Finance under Ms Gandhi. However, this did not sit well with his supporters, who opined that he had compromised on his values. 

It was later in 1969 that Ms Gandhi would snatch Mr. Desai’s ministerial portfolio. Less than a decade later, as a victorious Janata Party candidate, he would be sworn-in as the unanimously elected leader of the House and India’s Prime Minister. 

Meanwhile, the lowered majority in the House meant that Indira Gandhi was required to be more assertive, which did not go down well with a section of the party. In 1969, Ms Gandhi was expelled by the party’s working committee for “attempting to capture the Party machine by pressurising the rank and file and subjecting them to false and misleading propaganda to make them toe her line.” This decision was taken by incumbent party President S. Nijalingappa. Mr. . Nijalingappa, succeededMr. Kamaraj who was bought in to work on the distrust visible during the 1967 elections; his decision formalised the split in the national party. 220 MPs stood in her support forming what came to be known as Congress (Ruling). Ms Gandhi now had to rely on smaller parties for support in the Parliament – something that did not particularly enthuse her. She advised that the parliament be dissolved, calling for fresh elections with a year left in her tenure. 

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