The Congress leadership at the centre and state levels had become apologetic and seemingly guilt-ridden, failing to realize that the electoral success of the Janata Party and the Congress’ debacle was a part and parcel of a parliamentary democracy. They allowed themselves to be carried away by the propaganda of the times, which said the “Emergency excesses” were the sole reason for the Congress’ defeat. If they had looked beyond their noses, they would have realized that it was the non-Congress vote in the Hindi heartland, coupled with strong organisational backing of support groups, that had ensured the success of the Janata Party.

The Congress never ruled by securing the majority of votes in any election; it ruled by securing the majority of the seats. In all general elections when the Congress won a majority of the seats, it did not get more than 43-48 per cent of the total votes polled. The remaining votes were shared by other political parties. Such an outcome is inevitable in a multi- party democracy.

The way in which the Congress could secure a majority of seats was by bagging the single largest chunk of minority votes which, however, accounted for less than 51 per cent.

But that chunk of votes helped the Congress get more votes than any of its opponents. The Congress leadership should have realized that it was only a matter of time before the Congress vote bank, which had diminished in the Lok Sabha elections, grew back in size again. They should have taken note of the improvement in the percentage of votes manifest in the assembly elections only a couple of months after the Lok Sabha polls. But what could you expect from a leadership that was suffering from a crisis of confidence? How could they instil confidence in the minds of the grass-roots Congress worker? Laudable as their theory of constructive cooperation with the Janata Party government appeared to some, it was nothing short of a spectacular surrender to a ruling party determined to destroy the Congress organization in its entirety. In their heart of hearts, they wanted to come out of the shadow of the past and completely delink themselves from Indira Gandhi’s leadership, without having the courage or conviction to act on their own. These leaders became hesitant, weak and faltering, to the disgust of the members at the grass- roots.The latter found in Indira Gandhi the promise of undaunted struggle, clear focus and iron will. After the first couple of months following the crisis, it took her little time to re-assert her leadership.

That the fighting spirit of the Congress was revived under the leadership of Indira Gandhi was evident from the action programme recommended by the CWC and approved by the AICC at its meeting in January 1978. It included ‘Organizing Dissent and Resistance’. The programme outlined by the resolution touched the most sensitive and the weakest sections of the community. Little wonder, therefore, that when the other Congress outfit concentrated only on the so-called ‘Emergency excesses’ perpetrated by Indira Gandhi and her alleged caucus, a vast number of common Congressmen plunged into resistance movements and identified themselves with the suffering millions. The base of Congress (I) had thus been firmly established among the masses. Political programmes in different forms stretched across 1978 and 1979 and by the time the Janata Party crisis occurred, in mid-1979, the Congress (I) under Indira Gandhi had become the only viable alternative to the Janata Party government.

Y.B. Chavan made a sarcastic remark to the media when Indira Gandhi was elected as the Congress President after the split.

‘Thank God,’ he retorted, ‘they have not declared her the Prime Minister of the country.’ He went on to ask: ‘Who are they to elect her as the Congress President? They are nobody in Congress.’ This was followed by C. Subramaniam, senior Congress leader and former Finance Minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, contending that the ideological roots of the Congress split lay in ‘Emergency excesses’. Indira Gandhi reacted to this in a meeting of the CWC on 21 January: ‘It is true, as has been stated by Shri Subramaniam, that ideological differences are at the root of the present Congress change.’ But she dismissed the charge that such ideology had anything to do with the alleged ‘excesses’ during the Emergency. She reiterated that the Emergency was a stringent measure taken to meet the demands of a particular situation prevailing at that time. The very proclamation of Emergency was to preserve and protect the Congress ideology of upholding the integrity of the nation and introducing discipline which was threatened by the breach of law and order throughout the country.This was due to the defective implementation of certain programmes taken up at various stages by the administrative set-up.

Indira Gandhi said:

A campaign of vilification engineered by the reactionary and communal forces throughout the length and breadth of the country resulted in the defeat of the Congress party in the general election. Even then, on many occasions, regrets had been expressed for the hardship and other difficulties suffered by the people.The real ideological conflict involved in the present change, as also in the earlier, emanates from the implementation of progressive Congress policies of emancipating the poor masses from their economic and social miseries. No doubt, the policies of the Congress have always been there and will remain there but as and when the implementation is taken up in earnestness, only then the spokesmen of the vested interests in the country feel uneasy and resort to confrontation with those who are determined to move forward and implement the radical programmes and policies of the Congress with vigour. As in 1969, in the present also, the basis remains the same.

We wanted the Congress to be strong, vigilant and a positive opposition party. But, to the utter surprise of Congressmen, our so-called collective leaders started adopting an apologetic and defeatist attitude in every forum, under the guise of constructive cooperation to the Janata Party government.

This had a demoralizing and disheartening effect on some of our members’ pride but that the rank and file of Congressmen throughout the country remained confident and determined to face the onslaught of the Janata Party government and to resist the growing repression and harassment of the Congressmen as well as the poor, the minorities and the weaker sections. An impression had been created that there was a possibility of the Janata Party government being able to edge out the right reactionaries. On the contrary, the actual power is increasingly getting concentrated in the hands of Jan Sangh and its militant wing, the RSS, and the BLD which is promoting casteism in a big way. It is in this context that the Congress party feels called upon to play its historic role as champion of the downtrodden, the oppressed and the depressed, kisans and peasants and working classes. After the Janata party government came to power at the centre, we became obsessive with the happenings in court. The important question is whether the Congress is merely to exist and that too with an understanding with the Janata Party or are we to move firmly on our chosen path of democracy, socialism and secularism? The Congress can survive only through its dynamic programmes and policies by complete identification with the masses.

We are fighting not only for the survival of the Congress but for the cause of India’s great mass.

This observation by Indira Gandhi clearly highlights the philosophy behind the grand split in 1978. She correctly assessed the mood of the masses supporting the Congress and the undaunted spirit of a large number of Congress workers.They were ready to fight and face any eventuality. They just needed leadership, which was lacking.When Indira Gandhi came forward with her indomitable grit, they flocked around her.

Excerpted with permission from The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years, Pranab Mukherjee, Rupa Publications.

Pranab Mukherjee is the President of India.