When the CEC read the tea leaves correctly

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi adressing public meeting. File photo

Did the Election Commission correctly "read the (political) tea leaves" post-1967 Lok Sabha elections that the Congress was headed for a split and Indira Gandhi will call for elections before her term ends?

The answer is yes if one goes by the account of the then Chief Election Commissioner S P Sen-Varma on the General Elections in 1971. He set in motion the process for revision of electoral rolls, a week before the "Syndicate" led by K Kamaraj, S Nijalingappa and others, expelled Gandhi from the party, leading to the split.

Gandhi was expelled on 12 November 1969 while Sen-Varma called a meeting of electoral officers on November 5 and directed them to take up the revision of electoral rolls on the 15 November 1969 and to finish the entire process of revision by the 15 January 1970.

"Shortly after the indications became clear that a great split in the Indian National Congress was certain, the Commission felt that such split in the Congress might force the Prime Minister to advise the President to dissolve the House of the People at any opportune moment. The Election Commission did not, therefore, remain idle even before the dissolution of the Lok Sabha," he recalled.

While it usually took a longer time from six to 18 months to revise the electoral rolls, Sen-Varma's officials completed their task in two months to ensure that the Commission was in a position to "take up the challenge of holding an election at a short notice". The President dissolved the House only in December 1970 on Gandhi's recommendation, 15 months before its term ended.

"The Election Commission had read the writings on the wall and tried to keep itself in a state of perpetual readiness for holding a country-wide general election under any contingency," the then CEC said. The Commission had then felt that a split in Congress might force Gandhi to advise the President to dissolve Lok Sabha "at any opportune moment".

Sen-Varma recalled that the political atmosphere in the country "underwent a remarkable change" post-1967 as Congress lost its overwhelming majority in Lok Sabha and failed to form governments in several states.

"The politicians by and large forgot the greater and broader interests of the country. Every attempt started being made to push into the background those few among the politicians who thought in terms of national interests......Indeed this period was the darkest period in the political history of India after Independence. It was clear that India was in the middle of the deepest and darkest woods and was groping for a way out," he wrote.

"Bickerings of a very mean type started among the political parties and rumblings of discontent and dissatisfaction started becoming audible within a number of parties, and especially, the Indian National Congress. Factionalism and groupism raised their heads," he wrote in the 'Report on the Fifth General Elections in India 1971-72'. 

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When the CEC read the tea leaves correctly

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