Desai Unseats Gandhi as Prime Minister of India

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was found guilty of election fraud in 1975, she instituted a state of emergency in India that led to an enormous upsurge of opposition to her leadership and the eventual election of Morarji Desai as prime minister, the first time since 1947 that the Congress Party did not govern the country.

Summary of Event

Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, was a member of the “Nehru dynasty” that had been at the center of Indian politics since 1926, when her grandfather Motilal Nehru became a prominent figure in Indian politics. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, served as the first prime minister of India from 1947 until his death on May 24, 1964. Because her father was a widower, during her father’s time in office Indira had served in the role of India’s “first lady.” On his death, Lal Bahadur Shastri became prime minister, but he died of a heart attack on January 11, 1966. The Indian National Congress, or Congress Party, then turned to Indira Gandhi, electing her party leader and prime minister in the belief that she would be a weak leader, easily manipulated by party officials. They were badly mistaken. Prime ministers;India
[kw]Desai Unseats Gandhi as Prime Minister of India (Mar. 24, 1977)
[kw]Gandhi as Prime Minister of India, Desai Unseats (Mar. 24, 1977)
[kw]Prime Minister of India, Desai Unseats Gandhi as (Mar. 24, 1977)
[kw]India, Desai Unseats Gandhi as Prime Minister of (Mar. 24, 1977)
Prime ministers;India
[g]South Asia;Mar. 24, 1977: Desai Unseats Gandhi as Prime Minister of India[02790]
[g]India;Mar. 24, 1977: Desai Unseats Gandhi as Prime Minister of India[02790]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 24, 1977: Desai Unseats Gandhi as Prime Minister of India[02790]
Desai, Morarji
Gandhi, Indira
Gandhi, Sanjay
Narayan, Jayaprakash
Nehru, Jawaharlal
Nehru, Motilal
Gandhi, Rajiv

On March 1, 1971, Indira Gandhi led the Congress Party to a huge victory in the country’s fifth general election, winning 350 of the 515 seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. Her election slogan of Garibi hatao (Eliminate poverty) resonated deeply with the impoverished masses and inspired many in the middle classes. Under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, the Indian government helped to create Bangladesh, signed a twenty-year treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, introduced a number of political and economic reforms, and detonated India’s first underground nuclear explosion, on May 18, 1974. Gandhi became an immensely powerful figure who fully embraced the mantle of popularity left to her by her charismatic father.

There was one dark cloud on the horizon, however: Charges had been leveled against Gandhi as a result of the 1971 elections. In all, she was charged with fifty-two offenses, and on June 12, 1975, she was found guilty in Allahabad High Court of two counts of electoral campaign malpractice. As a result of her conviction, she was barred from holding or running for elective office for six years. She was urged to step down by members of her own party as well as by the main opposition party, the coalition Janata Morcha (People’s Front), led by the ambitious Morarji Desai and the saintly figure Jayaprakash Narayan, which organized a mass sit-down protest meeting outside the official residence of the Indian president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, in New Delhi to demand that the president dismiss Gandhi. The Janata Party followed this up on June 25 with a huge rally during which speakers called for a national campaign against Gandhi.

The following morning at 4:00 a.m., the Central Reserve Police began arresting Gandhi’s political opponents, and at 7:00 a.m. the president announced a state of emergency, suspending all civil rights. India;state of emergency (1975-1977) Tens of thousands of Gandhi’s opponents were arrested and imprisoned all over India, twenty-six opposition parties were banned, both the foreign press and the domestic press were censored, and Gandhi amended the constitution to give herself dictatorial powers. During this period, her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, became a powerful and increasingly unpopular figure behind the scenes, intervening in cabinet and government matters at all levels. He embarked on a slum clearance campaign in Delhi and a forced sterilization campaign in northern India to try to limit the country’s population explosion—both campaigns were enormously unpopular.

The imposition of a state of emergency aroused a tremendous amount of discontent among the Indian people and was widely and vociferously condemned in the West. Indira Gandhi was bombarded with unflattering comparisons to her father, both in India and abroad; a number of her colleagues and advisers criticized her to her face.

Finally, on January 18, 1977, Gandhi suddenly announced that she was releasing her political opponents from custody and calling for general elections to be held on March 24. It is unclear whether this unexpected call for a return to democratic politics came about because Gandhi and her advisers believed that it was time to get the backing of the voters for her measures, because the task of running the country seemingly single-handedly was becoming increasingly burdensome, or because criticisms that she was not living up to her illustrious father’s standards struck home.

With the release of Gandhi’s opponents there was an explosion of energy and joy as they quickly reorganized their coalition and vigorously campaigned on the issue of whether India should have democracy or dictatorship. A flood of criticism of both Indira and Sanjay Gandhi appeared in the vigorous Indian press, which was released from the shackles of censorship and allowed to vent pent-up anger over the abuses that had taken place during the Emergency and the arrogance of Sanjay Gandhi.

When the election was held, more than 200 million people voted, and only 34 percent voted for the Congress Party; the Janata Party captured 43 percent of the votes and a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. For the first time in India’s history, the Indian National Congress was no longer the ruling party, and Indira Gandhi lost her parliamentary seat in the family stronghold in Uttar Pradesh. It seemed as if a political tsunami had swept her family out of power never to return. Tribunals were appointed to investigate abuses committed during the Emergency, and Indira and Sanjay Gandhi were arrested, although they were soon released for lack of evidence.


With her loss in the election of 1977, Indira Gandhi was not at the center of India’s political life for the first time since 1947. For three years, the country moved to the right politically with the Janata Party, which quickly broke apart in factional infighting and proved just as nepotistic and unsavory as Indira Gandhi’s government. This allowed Indians to forget the abuses of the Emergency and to reelect Gandhi to the parliament in January, 1980, on the campaign slogan “Elect a government that works.” With a stunning two-thirds majority, she regained the prime ministership.

Indira Gandhi remained in power until she was assassinated on October 31, 1984, and the Nehru dynasty continued as her elder son, Rajiv Gandhi, served as prime minister from 1984 to 1989 (Sanjay was killed in 1980 when he crashed in the small airplane he was flying). Her grandson, Rahul (b. 1970), was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2004 and may one day become the fourth member of the Nehru dynasty to serve as prime minister; should he falter, his sister, Priyanka (b. 1972), is also involved in politics. The 1977 election thus represented only a temporary halt to the rule of the Congress Party and the Nehru dynasty in India. Prime ministers;India

Further Reading

  • Dhar, P. N. Indira Gandhi, the “Emergency,” and Indian Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Provides a detailed examination of Indira Gandhi’s role and political dealings during a confrontational time. Includes illustrations and index.
  • Frank, Katherine. Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Detailed and readable biography discusses the Indian Emergency in chapter 16 and relates the saga of Sanjay Gandhi and his failed business ventures, his slum clearance program, and the sterilization campaign in chapter 17, noting how all three contributed to his mother’s election defeat. Includes photographs, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • Malhotra, Inder. Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991. Comprehensive and readable examination of Gandhi’s unique life by an internationally renowned journalist who knew her well. Recounts the time of India’s Emergency and the election of 1977 in intimate detail based on personal knowledge. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Excellent work by a renowned historian of India, considered the standard guidebook to the subcontinent’s history from the earliest times to the end of the twentieth century. Chapters 24 and 25 provide a highly readable and vivid account of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership and the election of 1977, as well as Gandhi’s assassination and the administration and death of her son Rajiv.

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