Remembering Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, the Man at Centre of Congress’ Split in '60s

Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, India’s youngest President, assumed office on 21 July 1977.

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Remembering Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, the Man at Centre of Congress’ Split in '60s

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Neelam Sanjiva Reddy’s long political career with the Indian National Congress party started off as an activist for the Indian independence movement. Later, he was elected as the sixth President of India in 1977 during the non-Congress Janta Party regime in a poll that was held just a few months after the emergency was lifted in July 1977.

His Presidential contest resulted in the split of the Indian National Congress proving to hold great significance in the history of the party.

On his death anniversary on 1 June, 2022, The Quint is reposting an excerpt from India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by noted historian Ramachandra Guha that explores the point of widening differences that became apparent with Reddy’s candidacy from presidency. Originally published on 19 May 2016.


Throughout 1968 and 1969, writes one biographer, Mrs Gandhi was a ‘frustrated leader. She was not strong enough to defy the [Congress] organization and not rash enough to quit.’ Her chance came in the summer of 1969, when Dr Zakir Hussain died half-way through his term as president of the republic.

The Syndicate wished to replace him with one of their own: N Sanjiva Reddy, a former Lok Sabha Speaker and chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. Mrs Gandhi, however, preferred the vice-president, VV Giri, a labour leader with whom her own relations were very good.
Sanjiva Reddy (centre). (Photo Courtesy: YouTube Screengrab/ AP)

In the first week of 1969 the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) met in Bangalore.

Before she left for this meeting, the prime minister was apparently told by PN Haksar that ‘the best way to vanquish the Syndicate would be to convert the struggle for personal power into an ideological one’.

In Bangalore, Mrs Gandhi openly showed her hand on the side of the Young Turks by proposing the immediate nationalization of the major banks.

She also opposed Sanjiva Reddy’s candidature for president, but was overruled by a majority in the Working Committee.

On returning to Delhi Mrs Gandhi divested Morarji Desai of the Finance portfolio. He was a known opponent of bank nationalization, once telling Parliament that it would ‘severely strain the administrative resources of the government while leaving the basic issues untouched’.

The state takeover of banks, believed Desai, would reduce the resources available for economic development, and increase bureaucracy and red tape. After relieving Desai of the Finance Ministry, Mrs Gandhi issued an ordinance announcing that the state had taken over fourteen privately owned banks.

Explaining the action over All-India Radio, she said that India was ‘an ancient country but a young democracy, which has to remain ever vigilant to prevent the domination of the few over the social, economic or political systems’.

This mandated that ‘major banks should be not only socially controlled but publicly owned’, so that they could give credit not just to big business but to ‘millions of farmers, artisans, and other self-employed persons’.

Indira Gandhi along with other members of the Congress at Raj Ghat. (Photo Courtesy: YouTube Screengrab/ AP)

In a statement to the press, the prime minister claimed that there was ‘a great feeling in the country’ regarding the nationalization: 95 per cent of the people supported it, with only big newspapers representing commercial interests opposing it. However, a small weekly, independently owned, suggested that this might be an individual quest masquerading as an ideological battle.

Mrs Gandhi had ‘chosen to adopt a radical stance suddenly as a tactic in the personal strife for dominance within the Congress party’, said Thought; she now wished to ‘project herself as a national figure who needs the Congress less than it needs her’.

The nationalisation of banks was challenged in the Supreme Court; the challenge was upheld, but the judgement was immediately nullified by a fresh ordinance brought in by government, signed this time by the president. In the first six months of state control there was a massive expansion in the banking sector – with as many as 1,100 new branches opened, a large proportion of them in remote rural areas that had never before been serviced by formal credit.

(Excerpted with permission from India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha, published by Pan Macmillan India.)

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