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History Matters | February 1967: The Elections That Ended Congress' Monopoly

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, and Odisha showed signs of its future terminal decline in due course of time.

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If someone had suggested in March 1967 that the beginning of the end of the Congress party as the dominant political force of India had started, they would have been dismissed as a crackpot. In hindsight, it is clear that the general elections held in February 1967 not only heralded the end of its almost complete monopoly over power but also unleashed forces that would eventually lead to the electoral routs of 2014 and 2019.

When Indira Gandhi managed to retain power as prime minister with a sharply reduced majority, political analysts were shocked. Today, when there are opinion polls like the one conducted by C Voter indicating that her grandson Rahul Gandhi is poised to “lead” the Congress to a third consecutive electoral rout in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, political analysts just shrug and move on.

So what happened in February 1967?

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The scheduled Lok Sabha and assembly elections to 16 states (there were 16 states back then) were conducted between 12 and 27 February. When the results came in, there was disbelief and shock. Out of the 523 seats on offer, the Congress tally dropped by 78 to a simple majority of 283 seats. Three of the most powerful leaders of the party who were considered the “Syndicate”, S K Patil, K Kamraj and Atulya Ghosh lost their seats.

More worrying for the Grand Old Party was its performance in the assembly elections that were held simultaneously. Its stranglehold over Tamil Nadu was destroyed by the DMK. Since 1967, the Congress has never been able to form a government in Tamil Nadu. It was defeated by the Left Front in West Bengal; only to revive for a while in the run-up to the 1975 Emergency. Since 1977, the Congress has never been able to form a government in West Bengal. It failed to win even one of the 294 seats on offer in the 2021 elections.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, and Odisha showed signs of the future terminal decline of the party in due course of time. In total, the Congress lost about nine of the 16 states, though it remained the single largest party in many. The immediate fallout after the shock of the 1967 verdict was the intensification of centrifugal forces that would lead to a split in the party and the reshaping of the party as the fiefdom of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

There can be no doubt that the 1967 elections marked the end of the Congress monopoly over power. Who then became rival claimants for power to the Congress? In some states like Kerala, West Bengal and then Tripura, the Left became a principal claimant. However, barring Kerala, the Left has become a marginal player in the 21st century.

The second claimant was a clutch of “socialist” parties, particularly in the Hindi heartland states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In reality, the 1967 success of these “socialist” parties heralded the emergence of backward castes as a decisive force and presaged what is now known as Mandal politics.

The third claimant that emerged in 1967 was the “right”. These forces were represented by parties like the Jan Sangh and the Swatantra Party led by C Rajagopalachari. Both believed in markets while the difference was that Jan Sangh gave priority to Hindutva while Swatantra focused on individual liberty.

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Since much has been written about all this in detail over the decades, the authors will not delve into details of the post-1967 Mandal-Kamandal battle that started in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s. In some previous columns in this 52-column series, the authors have already written about that. What the authors would prefer is to provide an answer to a large set of political analysts who have remained baffled since 2014 by the unexpectedly strong performance of the BJP not only in Lok Sabha elections but also in many states.

Since space is limited, a few data sets would be enough to make the analysts less baffled. The Swatantra Party virtually disappeared after the 1971 Lok Sabha elections. Most of its voters eventually shifted to the Jan Sangh which became the BJP in 1980. In 1967, the combined vote share of the two in the Lok Sabha elections was 18%, compared to 40% for the Congress. But the really important data points came from the states.

Take Haryana. It has been accepted wisdom for long that the BJP was a fringe player in Haryana before it shocked everyone by winning the 2014 assembly elections. The fact is that in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections, the Jan Sangh won a 20% vote share in Haryana. The vote base was there. It just took decades for the party machinery to galvanise it. Or take Gujarat. The Jan Sangh was not very strong there. But the vote share of the Swatantra Party in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections in Gujarat was a then staggering 40%. That gives you a hint as to how the BJP has become so dominant in Gujarat.

What about Bihar? The “socialist” parties were the principal rivals of the Congress. Yet, the combined vote share of the Swatantra Party and the Jan Sangh was about 15%. In Uttar Pradesh, it was about 28%. The Swatantra Party managed a 31% vote share in Odisha. In the 2019 elections, the BJP vote share was more than 38%. In Rajasthan, the combined vote share of the two was more than 37%. We then came to the final data point from Uttar Pradesh. The combined vote share of the two was 27% with the Jan Sangh on its own managing more than 22%.

In that sense, the 1967 elections were a forerunner of the eventual rise of the BJP as the dominant political force in India. But there is a difference between 1967 and 2024. Till 1967, Congress was a monopoly. In 2024, the BJP may be dominant, but an array of strong regional parties are combating and often besting the BJP. That is good for democracy.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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