June 25 saw the completion of 40 years from the day Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975. Since then, we’ve been bombarded with narratives around just how terrible and taxing this time was for India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it “one of the darkest periods in Indian history” (and, in our 3,000 years of recorded history, we’ve had some pretty dark periods). LK Advani was more specific: he compared Indira Raj to the British Raj, claiming that “in so far as the ruthless assault on our liberties is concerned, there was nothing comparable in those days to the Emergency”.
We mark 40 years of one of India’s darkest periods- the Emergency, when the then political leadership trampled over our democracy.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 25, 2015
That the Emergency was not a good thing is a truism. But with the Bharatiya Janata Party assuming power in 2014, a new apocalyptic narrative of the Emergency seems to have sprung up. This narrative ends neatly with the Congress’ defeat in the 1977 General Election: a ballot box Raavan dahan, which affirmed all that is good in Indian democracy. As Coomi Kapoor writes in her excellent personal history of the Emergency: “As the result of the election in March 1977 would demonstrate, millions of Indian like George Fernandes were not willing to forgive Indira Gandhi or Sanjay, or forget the excesses committed during the Emergency.”
The numbers, however, aren’t as clear-cut as this narrative would have you believe. While millions did indeed refuse to forgive Mrs Gandhi, millions of voters didn’t really seem to mind this so-called ruthless assault on their liberties. The data of the 1977 elections, therefore, tells a rather interesting tale of how Indians at the time really perceived the Emergency.
The Congress did see a drop in vote share but only as much as in 2014
Firstly, from 1971 to 1977, the absolute number of votes cast for the Congress increased. It was a small increase of 2%, which of course is easily accounted for by the increase in population.
That said, its vote share went down by 9.3% points. That is, from 43.9% in 1971 to 34.5% in 1977. This means it performed badly. But how badly? As it turns out, the Congress’ drop in 2014 was exactly the same.
The impact, then, of the United Progressive Alliance II’s misrule was pretty much the same as Mrs Gandhi’s suspension of democracy itself.
Even then, more people voted for Indira Gandhi in 1977 than Modi in 2014
If Indira Gandhi bought in one of the darkest periods in Indian history, she should surely get a smaller percentage of votes than Narendra Modi, a man who swept into office with the promise of ushering in a brave, new world for India.
Well, that didn’t happen.
More voters voted for Indira Gandhi months after the Emergency than Narendra Modi after five years of the misrule of UPA II.
The South actually saw a pro-Congress surge
So, a lot of people were angry with the Congress. The forced programme of sterilisation, especially, had spooked many parts of India, especially the cow belt. And they gave it back good in 1977. Congress vote shares in the Big Two of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar plunged.
But, as it turns out, a lot of people were more optimistic, preferring to see the glass half full. In the four southern states, Indira Amma actually managed to increase her vote share post the emergency.
In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, specifically, not only did Congress not lose votes, its vote shares went up dramatically. In Tamil Nadu, in fact, the Congress almost doubled its vote share in 1977 as compared to 1971.
Even this limited electoral impact on the Congress was short-term
If, after 70 years, the Raj came back and stood for an election, would it get a lot of votes? Probably not. But the people who imposed the Emergency had better luck. The Congress saw a 9% point dip in 1977 but in 1980, just three years after lifting the Emergency, its vote share was almost back to the 1971 figure.
In 2015, the mainstream narrative around the Emergency is that is was too terrible to even speak of – this when most Indians have no actual memory of the period. Why then did voters in 1980 – people who had actually experienced the Emergency just three years back – not feel the same way?
How influential was the RSS-BJP’s role in the Emergency?
Very, if most of the chatter in the media is to be believed. The roles of Advani, Jaitley and Subramanian Swamy are being lauded and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s cadre is supposed to have provided the bulk of people for the jail bharos in protest of the emergency.
How then did the people reward these efforts in the service of democracy? Not very well, it seems.
While the Bharaitya Janata Party’s vote share is unavailable for 1977 and 1980 (since it fought as part of the Janata Party), in 1984 it had almost the exact same vote share it had in 1971. The Emergency, it seems, made no actual difference to its electoral fortunes.
The narrative around the Emergency might paint the RSS-BJP as seminal players but the voters who actually lived though the Emergency had a far lower opinion of their role.
The BJP would soon see a massive spike in vote share, but that was for a reason quite different from the lofty ideals of protecting democracy, fighting for our liberties and so on. In the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s vote share jumped to 20.11% – a near tripling of its 1984 number – driven of course by the violent mass movement it led to demolish a mosque and build a temple in its place.
This is, of course, not to in any way whitewash what was indeed a bad phase in Indian history and an outright suspension of democracy for Indira Gandhi’s personal ends. However, the current black and white narrative seems to paint un unrealistic picture. More accurately, rather than a suspension of democracy, the 1977 vote was driven by more prosaic factors, the chief being the panic set in by the mass sterilisation programme: which could just as well have been carried out without an Emergency. The other big factor was the desertion of Jagjivan Ram, who left with a large chunk of Dalit votes. Ram, whom Coomi Kapoor called the “single-most powerful Congress leader after Indira Gandhi”, supported the Emergency all through and left only in the end, to further his political ambitions.
South India, which was unaffected by both the mass sterilisation programme and Jagjivan Ram, thus didn’t seem to mind the Emergency at all.
If these two factors had been controlled, for all you know, the actual suspension of democracy might have made no difference at all with voters. And let’s remember that