June 12, 2021 marks the 46th anniversary of one of the momentous instances in Indian legal and political history. It was on this day in 1975 that the Allahabad High Court passed a judgment holding that then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was guilty of electoral malpractices, and disqualified her from holding public office for 6 years. It led to the imposition of Emergency in the country for two years.
The judgment was delivered by Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha. Gandhi appealed to the Supreme Court against the verdict.
It all started with the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, where the Congress (R), which was the newly formed faction of the Congress party floated by Indira Gandhi after her expulsion from the party in 1969, won a landslide victory securing 352 out of the 518 seats in the lower house.
Indira Gandhi won from the Rae Bareli constituency in Uttar Pradesh on March 10, defeating her nearest rival Raj Narain, the Samyukta Socialist Party candidate, by 1,10,000 votes.
Undeterred, Narain challenged Gandhi’s election before the Allahabad High Court by filing an election petition.
An election petition is a plea filed directly before a High Court challenging the election of a particular candidate. Such a petition has to be filed within 45 days from the date of declaration of the election results.
The Representation of People (RP) Act of 1951 lists out the grounds on which the election of a candidate can be called into question. Section 123 of the RP Act lists certain corrupt practices which, if proved successful, can be grounds to declare the election of a candidate void.
While hearing an election petition, the High Court being the court of first instance, exercises powers similar to a trial court. Thus, there is cross-examination of witnesses and detailed examination of evidence which is normally employed in trial courts and not High Courts.
Interestingly, Gandhi’s election was invalidated only on two crucial findings. Out of the long list of allegations raised against Gandhi by Narain, most were turned down by the High Court.
Used government machinery to set up stage, loudspeakers
One of the most crucial findings against Gandhi was that her election agent Yashpal Kapur, the District Magistrate of Rae Bareli, the Superintendent of Police of Rae Bareli and the Home Secretary of Uttar Pradesh government arranged for rostrums, loudspeakers and barricades to be set up and for members of the police force to be posted in connection with her election tour on February 1 and February 25, 1971.
This, the High Court held, amounts a corrupt practice under Section 123(7) of the Representation of the People Act.
Use of gazetted officer as an election agent
The second finding against Gandhi was regarding the employment of Yashpal Kapur as her election agent.
Kapur was a gazetted officer in the Government of India, holding the post of Officer on Special Duty in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. He subsequently submitted his resignation and was appointed the election agent of the appellant.
The dispute was hinged on when Kapur’s resignation became effective. Kapur had submitted his resignation from the post of officer on special duty at PM secretariat on January 13, 1971 and his resignation was accepted with effect from January 14, 1971. A notification was issued by the Prime Minister's Secretariat in that connection on January 25, 1971.
Kapur was subsequently appointed election agent of Gandhi on February 4, 1971, the date on which his signed form regarding such appointment was submitted to the returning officer.
The High Court, however, held that Gandhi had held herself out as a candidate for the election from December 29, 1970.
It was also held that Yashpal Kapur's resignation from his service though submitted on January 13, 1971, did not become effective until January 25, 1971, when it was notified.
Since Kapur (under Gandhi’s instructions) delivered election speeches on January 7, 1971 at Munshi Ganj and another speech at Kalan on January 19, 1971, it was concluded that Gandhi obtained and procured the assistance of Kapur for the furtherance of her election prospects when Kapur was serving as a gazetted officer with the government.
This was in violation of Section 123(7) of the RP Act, the High Court concluded.
Use of Armed Forces for campaigning
Raj Narain had argued that the Armed Forces of India had, at the instance of Gandhi, arranged Air Force planes and helicopters for Gandhi, flown by members of the Armed Forces, to enable her to address election meetings on February 1 and February 25, 1971. This argument was turned down by the High Court.
Distribution of quilts, blankets, liquor
It was alleged that quilts, blankets, dhotis and liquor were distributed by Gandhi’s agents and workers to induce voters to cast votes in her favour. This allegation was also not upheld by the High Court.
Narain did not pursue this argument before the Supreme Court when it was hearing the appeal, conceding that he cannot successfully challenge the findings of the High Court in this regard due to lack of evidence.
Election symbol – Cow politics
Politics surrounding the cow seem to be at its peak currently, particularly in the Hindi-speaking states, where the cow is considered a sacred animal.
However, the cow’s close connection with Indian politics is nothing new. It was one of the major points of controversy even in the election petition filed by Raj Narain.
Between 1952 and 1969, the Congress party used the symbol of two bullocks carrying a yoke. Indira Gandhi was expelled from the Congress party in 1969 for indiscipline leading to a split in the party. Gandhi then launched her own faction of Congress - the Indian National Congress (Requisitionists) also known as Congress (R).
The old Congress party continued to use the symbol of bullocks while Indira’s party was allotted a new symbol by the Election Commission in 1971 – a calf suckling a cow.
Narain argued before the High Court that this was a religious symbol and an appeal to vote for the same amounted to an appeal vote based on religion.
Under Section 123(3) of the RP Act, an appeal to vote made on the basis of religion is a corrupt practice which could attract disqualification.
The High Court, however, decided in favour of Gandhi on this issue, holding that a cow and a calf are not religious symbols.
Free transportation of voters to polling stations
Another argument raised by Narain was that voters were transported to polling stations free of charge in vehicles hired and procured by Gandhi’s election agent, Yashpal Kapur. This would have amounted to a corrupt practice under Section 123(5) of the RP Act.
The High Court turned down this argument and Narain did not press this issue in appeal before the Supreme Court.
One of the most important arguments raised by Narain was the election expenditure incurred by Gandhi.
He contended that Gandhi and her election agent Yashpal Kapur incurred or authorised expenditure in excess of the amount prescribed by Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act, read with Rule 90 of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961.
As per these provisions, the prescribed limit for expenditure was Rs. 35,000. If the amount spent exceeded the prescribed limit, it amounted to a corrupt practice under Section 123(6) of the RP Act.
Gandhi claimed that the election expenses incurred by her amounted to Rs. 12,892.
Narain, however, alleged that Gandhi had spent Rs. 1,28,700 on account of hiring charges of vehicles; Rs. 43,230 for vehicle fuel and Rs. 9,900 on account of payments to the drivers of the vehicles. He also claimed that Gandhi spent Rs. 1,32,000 for construction of rostrums for public meetings.
The High Court found that the election expenses furnished by Gandhi were Rs. 12,892. The High Court added another sum of Rs. 18,183. This was on account of cost of erection of rostrums amounting to Rs. 16,000, cost incurred in installation of loudspeakers amounting to Rs. 1,951, and cost for providing car transport to Gandhi amounting to Rs. 233. The total election expenses found by the High Court came to Rs. 31,976, which was below the prescribed limit of Rs. 35,000.
On June 24, a vacation bench of the Supreme Court allowed a partial stay of the judgment after Gandhi had appealed against the High Court verdict.
The Supreme Court’s interim order passed by vacation judge, Justice VR Krishna Iyer, said that she could continue as Member of Parliament (MP) in the Lok Sabha and could attend the House, but could not participate in its proceedings or vote as MP. She also could not draw any remuneration as an MP.
Importantly, the apex court allowed her to continue as Prime Minister and allowed her to speak and participate in the proceedings of the House and to draw salary in her capacity as Prime Minister.
The order by the apex court, while not completely against Gandhi, did not satisfy her. She wanted a blanket stay on the Allahabad High Court judgment. Since the Supreme Court did not grant her that, National Emergency was proclaimed the very next day, June 25.