In this month’s History Corner, we remain in 1971 for our very first international special, exploring the fifth national parliament election held in India. Facing a myriad of challenges, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the governing centre-left Indian National Congress was able to achieve a remarkable victory, confirming her dominance over Indian politics for the rest of the decade.
Hello and welcome to another volume of the Europe Elects History Corner. In the last episode we travelled back to the 1971 election in Belgium. This week we are staying in 1971 but moving geographically, in our very first History Corner global special, to explore the 1971 general election in India.
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March, 1971. The Pakistani military occupied East Pakistan amid major civil unrest, precipitating the 1971 Bangladeshi War of Independence and genocide; Led Zeppelin made its first public performance of Stairway to Heaven in Belfast; Hafez al-Assad launched a coup and became the 18th President of Syria, beginning his 30-year reign; William McMahon became the Prime Minister of Australia; the first Starbucks coffee shop was founded in Washington; and, in India, the world’s largest democracy prepared to elect its next national parliament.
The 1971 Indian general election was the fifth election held for India’s national parliament, the Lok Sabha, since the country’s independence in 1947. Incumbent Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the daughter of India’s founding Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had died in office in 1964. The premiership initially went to Lal Bahadur Shastri but following his death in 1966 – India’s second Prime Minister to die in office in just two years – she was able to gain control of the governing Indian National Congress. In doing so, she defeated former Finance Minister and Bombay Chief Minister Morarji Desai, who would go on to become one of her fiercest political rivals. Becoming the first female Prime Minister of India – and indeed, one of the first women to be appointed Prime Minister anywhere in the world – Indira Gandhi then won a full term in office in 1967, albeit on a reduced share of votes and seats.
Her position began to look precarious in the lead up to the 1971 election. The Indian National Congress had dominated Indian politics since its independence 24 years previously, but prior to the election suffered a potentially devastating split. After the 1967 election, Indira Gandhi began to govern in an increasingly socialist and centralised direction, alienating several figures within the Congress. Indeed, her ascent to the premiership was in part the product of inter-party politics as party leaders hoped they could exert control over her actions, giving her the public image of being merely party puppet in her early years.
The four years after Congress’ 1967 electoral setback has been described as a ‘period of instability, paralysis and violence.’ The loss of several key state legislatures, particularly in the north, weakened Congress’ hold on the country’s political institutions while bringing about heightened instability in state politics. The economy was still recovering from a downturn in the middle of the decade, and there was a subtle uptick in political violence, including the emergence of the Maoist Naxalite insurgency focused initially in West Bengal.
However, as a leader she would defy many of these expectations and very quickly began trying to shape the party, and by extension the country, in a further left-wing and statist direction, against the wishes of the party’s right flank. This led to two key decisions taken in 1969 without the approval of her party. Firstly, she supported independent candidate V.V. Giri for the indirectly-elected President of India against her party’s own official candidate, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. Giri was subsequently able to secure a close win with the votes of opposition-held state legislatures. Secondly, she announced the nationalisation of India’s fourteen largest banks without consulting her Finance Minister, recently re-appointed Morarji Desai. As a result of these decisions, Congress president S. Nijalingappa expelled her for her lack of party discipline.
This triggered a process of fragmentation within the party as Indira Gandhi sought to hold on to power and maintain a loyal, independent power-base. In this she proved highly successful: of the party’s over 280 members of Parliament, more than 220 pledged their support to her, while the party leadership faction retained merely 65 members, although this did include Morarji Desai who resigned both as Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi’s faction became known as the Indian National Congress Requisitionists, or Congress (R ) – sometimes also referred to as New Congress, and the rival faction became the Indian National Congress (Organisation), or Congress (O).
These two factions contested the 1971 election as separate parties. Congress (O) tended to represent the more right-leaning members of the Indian National Congress, whereas Indira Gandhi’s Congress ( R ) was able to pursue a more populist and socialist platform. Congress (O) was led into the election by former Chief Minister of Madras – later renamed Tamil Nadu – and Congress President K. Kamaraj, a significant and well known figure in Indian politics who, it was hoped, had the standing to mount a convincing challenge against Indira Gandhi for the position of Prime Minister.
To make matters worse for Indira Gandhi, Congress (O) assembled a coalition of opposition parties, dubbed the Grand Alliance, which intended to prevent the opposition vote splitting under India’s first past the post electoral system and thereby provide a more substantial electoral challenge. The Grand Alliance included four other minor parties, all of whom had gained ground in the 1967 election and appeared to be in the ascendant. This was the first time a unified alliance had been pitted against the incumbent government.
Its largest component member was the Swatantra Party, led into the election by former Governor General and Home Affairs minister C. Rajagopalachari, a former Congress member. Swatantra opposed the extent of state influence under successive Congress governments and tended to take a centrist stance on economic issues. The next largest party was the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, or BJS – the predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party which rules India today. BJS was a right-wing Hindu nationalist party which sought to challenge the dominance of secularism since independence while also favouring a move away from the country’s federal structure. BJS was led into the election by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh state. Finally, the Grand Alliance incorporated two minor socialist parties – the Samjukta Socialist Party, or SSP, and the Praja Socialist Party, or PSP, who had won 36 seats between them in 1967.
The election was also contested by India’s communist movement, which continued to gradually grow in influence in this period. India’s communists had suffered a split in 1964, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) splitting away from the Communist Party of India, or CPI which retained the former party name. This split traced the Sino-Soviet split in global communism; the CPI backed China and adopted a more left-wing Maoist stance while the CPIM tended more towards the Soviet Union. The CPI was led by Mumbai MP Shripad Amrit Dange while CPIM was led by Andhra Pradesh state representative Puchalapalli Sundarayya.
1971 saw over 50 parties run for election as India’s political landscape continued to burgeon and diversify, but two other parties are worth highlighting. In the state of Tamil Nadu and the union territory of Puducherry, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, a centre-left regionalist party, enjoyed growing influence. The party had seized control of the Tamil Nadu state assembly in 1967, becoming the first ever opposition party to win an outright majority in any state, and accordingly went into the 1971 election led by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and prominent Tamil writer M. Karunanidhi. DMK sought to assert greater autonomy for India’s states and opposed the imposition of Hindi as the country’s sole official language.
Another regionalist party, Telangana Praja Samithi or TPS, had been formed in 1969 and prepared to contest its first election. TPS campaigned for Telengana, a region in the north of Andhra Pradesh state, to achieve its own statehood. TPS was led by Marri Chenna Reddy, a former state minister in Andhra Pradesh.
Indira Gandhi’s hopes for re-election thus faced a myriad of challenges: her party was bitterly split and an opposition coalition had united against her, while communist and regionalist parties gained in strength. Moreover, since the Congress’ split in 1969, she had been deprived of a majority in Parliament, only able to stay in power as a minority government with the support of DMK and other regionalist parties – an unstable arrangement which marked a considerable reversal for India’s once-hegemonic party which only a decade previously had controlled three-quarters of seats in the Indian parliament. At the state level, Indira Gandhi had utilised an instrument called President’s Rule in order to assert control over opposition-held states in the north. This however led to snap elections in several states in 1969, which merely produced further setbacks for the Congress.
Facing these challenges, she placed all her political hopes on an expansive programme of poverty eradication. Her electoral slogan was ‘Remove poverty, rescue the country,’ a play on the Grand Alliance slogan, ‘Remove Indira.’ ‘Remove Poverty,’ or Garibi Hatao, was intended to have regional appeal that could cross caste, religious and regional boundaries. Backed by an electoral platform pivoting clearly to the left, Indira Gandhi framed the election as a referendum on her own leadership and personality; an interpretation the opposition, united largely in opposition to her, was more than willing to endorse. In doing so, she gained cautious support from one other party, the CPI, which hinted at a willingness to form a coalition government after the election.
The timing of the election also proved fortuitous for her. After a severe period of drought in 1966 and 1967, food production had begun to increase again, and India’s Green Revolution, a sometimes controversial process of modernisation and industrialisation within the agricultural sector, was gaining speed. This contributed significantly to economic growth, particularly in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, as the country recorded an average GDP growth of 4.5% in her first five years in office. A court ruling just months before the election that struck down the government’s policy of ending payments and other privileges to former Princes also allowed Indira Gandhi to adopt the issue as part of her populist, anti-elite campaign.
It was perhaps impressive that she was able to develop such a focused, personalist message considering India’s media landscape in 1971. All India Radio had the largest reach of all media platforms but still could not reach every voter, newspapers had relatively low readerships and television coverage had yet to extend much beyond Delhi. Divisions within Congress also weakened local party organisation across many constituencies.
Yet, Indira Gandhi’s socialist, anti-poverty platform proved enormously popular. She was rewarded with 43.7% of the national vote, a slight increase from 1967 although not quite reaching the levels of support achieved by her father. Nevertheless, this dwarfed the 24.3% won by the Grand Alliance, of which the largest share – about a third – went to BJS. This was a reduction from the combined 27% won by the alliance parties in 1967, indicating a total failure for Congress (O) to siphon votes from Indira Gandhi to the opposition. Both Communist parties won around 5%, equivalent to their previous results, while DMK also remained steady at 4%. TPS, standing in just one state, debuted with 1% of the national vote, while independent candidates netted 8% of the vote.
The Grand Alliance’s failure to match the New Congress vote share allowed Indira Gandhi to make a significant sweep of seats. The New Congress easily regained its majority with 352 seats, an increase of 69 from 1967 and 91 seats above the majority threshold. While again not quite replicating the landslides achieved by Nehru, this still constituted over two-thirds of seats and a constitutional majority. By contrast, the Grand Alliance lost over half the seats it had secured in 1967, falling from 115 in that election to 51 in 1971. Of these, 22 were won by BJS while Congress (O), far from unseating Indira Gandhi, emerged with merely 16 seats.
The CPIM increased its seat tally by six to reach 25, while CPI remained steady with 23 seats – between them the communist parties accounted for just under 10% of seats in parliament. The next largest party, DMK, suffered minor losses, falling from 25 to 23 seats, while TPS performed well in Telangana, securing ten seats. In total, regionalist parties increased their national vote share from 10.1% in 1967 to 13.2% in 1971 and rose from 41 seats to 49, also representing around 10% of parliamentary seats.
The election also saw the debut of the far-right Shiv Sena party based in Bombay and Maharashtra State, campaigning initially on an anti-migrant platform – particularly targeting south Indians – while also promoting Hindutva ideology. The party only gained 0.2% of the national vote and failed to win any seats but would grow in later decades to become a significant player in both state and federal politics.
With a victory on this scale, the New Congress unsurprisingly won a majority of seats in most states, including across the north of the country where it regained much of the ground lost in 1967, though there were some notable exceptions. Tamil Nadu remained outwith the government’s grasp as DMK retained its leading position, while West Bengal, on the border with East Pakistan, swung heavily to CPIM, who won a narrow majority of seats, beginning its 40-year period of electoral dominance over West Bengal’s politics. CPIM also gained both seats in the eastern state of Tripura, while nearby Nagaland was also a rout for Congress as the regionalist United Front of Nagaland secured the state’s sole seat.
Although winning the plurality of seats, the New Congress also faced significant competition in Kerala in the south and Gujarat in the north, being deprived of majorities in these states. In Gujarat, the Grand Alliance was even able to finish with a higher vote share than the New Congress, though this failed to translate convincingly into seats. Congress (O)’s greatest haul of seats came from Mysore – soon to be renamed Karnataka – where it won every single one of the state’s 27 seats. Its gains were particularly prominent in urban seats, producing especially large swings in Bombay and Delhi. Meanwhile, most of Congress (O)’s support was concentrated in just three states – Gujarat, Mysore and Tamil Nadu – as it failed to emerge with any meaningful national presence.
After a difficult first five years in office, the 1971 election finally consolidated Indira Gandhi’s hold on power. The following term would be even more tumultuous for India. Months after the election Indira Gandhi mobilised the military against the Naxalite insurgency, marking the beginning of decades of counter-insurgency efforts. Then, in December, she staged a short military intervention across the Bengali border in Bangladesh, successfully defeating the Pakistani military, ending the Bangladesh genocide and bringing about the creation of an independent Bangladesh. Her popularity reached an all-time high and the New Congress achieved stunning victories in state elections the following year.
After 1973 India’s economy would be hit hard by the global energy crisis, exacerbated by a major railway strike in 1974. In the same year India would test its first nuclear explosion in the Rajasthan Desert, paving the way for the development of a nuclear weapons programme in subsequent decades.
However, this term would be most notable for the dramatic fashion in which it ended. In 1975, a court judgement declared the 1971 election in Indira Gandhi’s constituency void on account of electoral malpractice and banned her from running for office for a period of six years. Citing internal security threats and economic crisis, she responded by implementing a state of emergency, remembered in India simply as the Emergency, a two-year period in which she effectively ruled by decree. These years saw unprecedented repression against opposition politicians and activists, as well as widespread media censorship. Most infamously, the government used this opportunity to implement a mass campaign of forced sterilisation aimed at reducing India’s high birth rate, leading to over 10 million sterilisations over the two-year period.
The parliament elected in 1971 was finally dissolved in 1977, one year later than initially scheduled. The subsequent election produced a huge backlash against Indira Gandhi and the Congress was removed from power for the first time, achieving what the opposition had failed to do in 1971, with Morarji Desai taking the top spot – though India Gandhi would return as Prime Minister in 1980.
The 1971 election can therefore be seen as an important turning point in the leadership of Indira Gandhi, one with enormous implications both for India and the entire subcontinent. Prior to the election she was in an embattled and precarious position, her future uncertain. The electoral landslide of 1971 allowed her to finally gain a position of unchallenged leadership with the ability to shape India’s future direction for much of the coming decade. However, in retrospect, this would prove to be merely a reprieve from the trends towards fragmented, coalition politics, and did little to stem what has been described by Atul Kohli as a ‘Crisis of Governability’ that plagued India from the 1960s to the 1990s, widening political, economic and ethno-linguistic faultlines.
The election has also been interpreted as a step towards the nationalisation of Indian politics. While local factors remained important, the emergence of a focused campaign around the person of Indira Gandhi and the issues she championed created a stronger sense of national coherence than had been present in previous votes, a shift that proved enormously successful for her political fortunes. At an electoral level, the decision to hold an election a year ahead of schedule decoupled federal elections from most state elections, leading to the busy electoral calendar that India experiences today.
Finally, the election helped to solidify the Nehru-Gandhi family’s dynastic hold over the Congress Party, one which has continued throughout the decades to this day. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi succeeded her as Prime Minister in 1984 following her assassination and the party’s candidate for Prime Minister in the 2014 and 2019 election was none other than her grandson, Rahul Gandhi, aged just nine months old at the time of the 1971 election. Unfortunately for the Congress, he would prove not to have the same electoral appeal as his grandmother – twice losing to incumbent Prime Minister, Narenda Modi.
Khare, Harish, ‘How Indira Gandhi Defeated the Combined Opposition and Finished off Feudal Forces for All Time,’ The Wire (8 March 2021): https://thewire.in/history/1971-elections-indira-gandhi-garibi-hatao-socialism-privy-purse
Kulke, Hermann & Rothermund, Dietmar, A History of India (Abingdon, 2016).
Weiner, Muron, ‘The 1971 Elections and the Indian Party System,’ Asian Survey 11.12 (Dec 1971), pp. 1153-66.