Morarji Desai was sworn in as India’s fifth Prime Minister on 24 March 1976. Two days later, a nineteen-member Cabinet was sworn in. I was one of the three persons from the erstwhile Jana Sangh who joined the new government. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was made the External Affairs Minister while Brijlal Verma was given the Industries portfolio. The Prime Minister asked me which portfolio I wanted. Without a moment’s hesitation I said, ‘Information & Broadcasting’. When he asked me why, I explained to Morarjibhai that, having worked as a journalist in the 1960s, I had developed a deep interest in media-related matters. I had frequently written about the partisan use of the government-run media by Indira Gandhi and her party.
In the Rajya Sabha, I had raised the demand for granting autonomy to AIR and Doordarshan. ‘But above all,’ I said, ‘the Emergency period was used by the Congress government mainly to undermine press freedom. There is an urgent need now to dismantle the legal and administrative infrastructure of censorship that was erected during the Emergency regime. So, even in terms of the challenges that the new government faces, I&B seems to me to be an important portfolio.’ Morarjibhai said, ‘I agree with you. I need you in this crucial ministry.’
My first task as I&B minister was to present in Parliament a White Paper on the misuse of the mass media during the Emergency. Having given a resounding verdict against the Emergency rule, the people of India had a right to know all the atrocities committed under the garb of press censorship, how it was justified, and how it was resisted. Therefore, I quickly appointed a special committee, headed by a former Secretary in my ministry, to prepare it. The committee completed its job in record time and I could table the White Paper in Parliament in August 1977.
As I&B Minister, my principal mandate was to ensure that all the restrictions and controls on press freedom imposed during the Emergency were removed. For this, I took three important initiatives. Firstly, all the directives issued for press censorship were immediately withdrawn. There was, for instance, some ludicrous injunction against publishing the names and number of people in prison. All such prohibitions were lifted. At the same time, several laws also had to be amended. Within a fortnight of the formation of the new government, I tabled two bills in the Lok Sabha. One sought to repeal the Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matter Act. The other was aimed at restoring the Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Act, popularly known as the Feroze Gandhi Act. The two bills were passed with great enthusiasm.
I also initiated a serious debate, both within and outside Parliament, on the need for institutional autonomy to AIR and Doordarshan. A working group under the chairmanship of B.G. Verghese was set up for this purpose. The concept of Prasar Bharati, an autonomous corporation to run the two media organisations, was a recommendation of this committee. I introduced the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Bill in Parliament in 1977. It could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha, since the Congress, which had a majority in the House, was not in favour of it.
The Fall of The Janata Government; Return of Indira Gandhi
The Janata Party, when it was formed in January 1977 at the insistence of Jayaprakash Narayan, was the embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of all the democracy-loving people in India. JP was perceived by many in the country as the ‘Second Mahatma’ leading India’s ‘Second Freedom Struggle’. The coming together of four major Opposition parties gave people the confidence that they could use the parliamentary elections to defeat the Emergency regime. The victory of the Janata Party proved to the entire world that dictatorship can indeed be brought to an end through democratic and peaceful means.
Sadly, the Janata government’s glory was shortlived. Internecine squabbles within the party soon brought about its early demise, before it could complete even half its term. Morarji Desai resigned as Prime Minister on 15 July 1979. Charan Singh, his Deputy, was sworn in as Prime Minister with the support of Indira Gandhi, the very person against whom the people had delivered a decisive verdict in March 1977. Indira Gandhi, however, was no friend of Charan Singh. She used him to wreck the Janata Party and then quickly wrecked his government by withdrawing support to it in less than six months. Thus, one betrayal followed another in quick succession.
The country then witnessed another unfortunate development. After Charan Singh’s resignation, the Janata Party decided to lay claim to forming the next government under the leadership of Jagjivan Ram. However, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the then President of India, overlooked Jagjivan Ram’s legitimate right of being invited to form the government and dissolved the Lok Sabha on 22 August 1979. Mid-term elections were thus forced upon the country in January 1980. The electorate, disillusioned by the power struggle and the split in the Janata Party, voted Indira Gandhi back to power.
Rarely in history does a government get the kind of opportunity, and enjoy the amount of goodwill, which the Janata government did.
My book The People Betrayed (Vision Books, 1980) describes in considerable detail the ecstasy and agony associated with the rise and fall of the Janata government. Since it was written immediately after the destabilisation of Morarjibhai’s government, and before the 1980 parliamentary elections, the book analysed the events almost as they happened. When I look back at the same events in hindsight, I find that the main conclusions I had drawn then are relevant even today.
THE SUICIDAL ‘DUAL MEMBERSHIP’ CONTROVERSY
While the Janata Party’s defeat in the 1980 parliamentary elections was predictable, the drubbing it received was severe. It showed that the angry electorate wanted to punish the party for its betrayal of the mandate of 1977. The party secured only 31 seats, compared to the 298 that it had won in 1977. On the other hand, the Congress (I) led by Indira Gandhi made a spectacular comeback by more than doubling its strength from 153 MPs in 1977 to 351 MPs in 1980, which was almost a two-thirds majority in a house of 542 members.
With the benefit of hindsight, some may ask if an alliance, instead of a merger of all the constituent parties could have worked. I doubt it. The mood during the Emergency was such that almost everyone felt that only a common organisational platform of all democratic forces could defeat the Congress party. Jayaprakashji also wanted a more cohesive single-party structure.
The decision about the merger was, in itself, not incorrect. But two factors proved to be the undoing of the Janata Party. The first was the self-centred and undisciplined conduct of certain excessively ambitious leaders, who put their self interest above the interest of consolidating the gains of a hard-won battle against authoritarianism. The second was the fear on the part of some leaders that people from the erstwhile Jana Sangh constituent would soon dominate the Janata Party. Which is why, when the issue of starting a membership drive and holding organisational elections came up, they raised the bogey of ‘dual membership’.
Essentially, a brainchild of Madhu Limaye, the ‘dual membership’ issue was aimed at disempowering those members of the Janata party who had earlier been a part of the Jana Sangh, and continued to be associated with the RSS. Even before the Janata Party was a year old, Limaye, one of the party’s General Secretaries began insisting that no member of the Janata Party could simulataneously be a member of the RSS.
Atalji, Nanaji Deshmukh and I naturally took strong exception to the demand that we dissociate ourselves from the RSS. After all, we had made the Jana Sangh’s relationship with the RSS very clear to Jayaprakash Narayan and all the other leaders of the ‘Save Democracy’ movement, prior to the formation of the Janata Party. Therefore, we countered Limaye and others by asking them: ‘How can you raise the question of “dual membership” after the formation of the Janata Party? How can we, who have spent almost our entire lives as swayamsevaks of the RSS, suddenly sever all relations with the Sangh, and that too for an organisation to which we have belonged only for a few months?’
One day, Chandrashekhar came to my office in Parliament saying that he wanted to discuss something ‘important’ with Atalji and me. He told us that H.N. Bahuguna, then a camp follower of Charan Singh, and some others were willing to stay back in the Janata Party if the Jana Sangh was no longer in Morarjibhai’s government. Bahuguna had also indicated this directly to us. After Chandrashekhar left, we discussed the matter amongst ourselves. After consulting Brijlal Verma, the third Jana Sangh member in the Cabinet, we reached a unanimous decision. The three of us went to the Prime Minister’s room in Parliament and conveyed to him our readiness to quit the government in the interest of ensuring its survival and stability.
Morarjibhai did not even weigh the offer. He rejected it outright saying, ‘Why should you resign? What wrong have you committed? Even if your offer is going to help my government, it would be immoral on my part to accept your resignations. I would rather quit myself, instead of making you quit.’ On 15 July, when Morarjibhai lost his parliamentary majority due to defections, he tendered his resignation. He preferred to sacrifice his office instead of accepting an unprincipled compromise.