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INDIA: An Election–at Last

4 minute read

India waited expectantly last week for the address to the nation by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “Some 18 months ago,” she said, “our beloved country was on the brink of disaster. Violence was openly preached, workers were exhorted not to work, students not to study and government servants to break their oath. National paralysis was propagated in the name of revolution. The government had to act and did act.” She spoke on, defending once again the virtual dictatorship under which her Congress Party had quashed all political opposition, imprisoned dissidents, gagged the press and postponed general elections.

It was a brief, straightforward speech—and then came the surprise: parliamentary elections, she declared dramatically, would be held in March. “Let us go to the polls,” she continued, “with the resolve to reaffirm the power of the people and to uphold the fair name of India as a land committed to the path of reconciliation, peace and progress.”

Mrs. Gandhi made it clear that, for the time being at least, the state of emergency would continue. But she pledged to “restore substantively those political processes on which we were compelled to impose some curbs,” so as to allow a free campaign. A few days later, she formally ended domestic press censorship (censorship of foreign publications had already been eliminated) and ordered the state governments to release all political prisoners.

A gifted tactician, Mrs. Gandhi not only stunned the electorate but once again confounded her opponents. Morarji Desai, 80, the wily leader of the Old Congress Party and an implacable political foe of Mrs. Gandhi’s, suddenly found himself released from jail only a few hours before Mrs. Gandhi’s broadcast. The relatively short campaign period, he complained, “puts a hardship on the opposition. But I am sure that the sudden declaration of an election will benefit not the Prime Minister but the nation.” Declared Piloo Mody, secretary of the Indian People’s Party: “I am happy about the long overdue election. I hope the government will lift the emergency and put MISA [Maintenance of Internal Security Act] in cold storage.”

Why Now? There was something, however, that gave Mrs. Gandhi’s critics pause. Why had she decided to hold elections now? One reason, perhaps, was that the opposition had indicated it was willing to end the disruptive tactics that had led the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency in the first place. But another, more important reason was that India’s economy has rarely been in better shape. Food grain stocks, following two bumper crops, are at an alltime high. Foreign exchange reserves, which are now more than $2 billion, are three times what they were two years ago. Moreover, prices fell sharply soon after the emergency was declared, although they have begun to rise again lately.

Thus Mrs. Gandhi can argue that India never had it so good as when the nation was under the discipline of the emergency. In addition to economic progress, she can point to improved labor relations, abolition of rural debts and bonded labor, and a more efficient bureaucracy. Said she last week: “Anyone can see that today the nation is more healthy, efficient and dynamic than it has been for a long time.”

The opposition will have difficulty disputing this claim and may be reduced to campaigning chiefly against a repressive rule that is now, after all, largely suspended. Moreover, Morarji Desai and his fellow challengers must contend with the fact that the governing Congress Party has won every national election since India became independent in 1947. One of the main reasons for this consistent success has been that the opposition parties have long been victimized by ideological differences and widespread disunity. This time the opposition will be further handicapped by a lack of funds and the disarray in its grassroots organizations caused by the prolonged imprisonment of party members and leaders.

To overcome these difficulties, four groups—the right-wing Hindu Jana Sangh, the conservative Indian People’s Party, the Socialist Party and the Old Congress Party—announced that they will form a united front and run a single slate of candidates to prevent fragmentation of the opposition vote. Said Desai: “We are interested only in getting a thumping majority.” But the betting is that Indira Gandhi will once again do the thumping.

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