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V.V. Giri — how election of first ‘independent president’ changed Congress & India’s politics

When it comes to presidential elections changing the course of politics and economy, the impact of the 1969 contest continues to remain unparalleled.

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New Delhi: The presidential election last month proved an interesting contest given how NDA nominee Droupadi Murmu’s candidature split the opposition camp.

Murmu created history by becoming the first tribal President of India. In light of how the ruling BJP has been showcasing her for its political outreach to tribals across the country, she may also leave a deep impact on Indian politics.

But, when it comes to presidential elections changing the course of politics and economy, the impact of the 1969 contest continues to remain unparalleled for a lot of reasons. The winner of that election was an independent candidate, V.V. Giri, whose 128th birth anniversary fell on Wednesday, 10 August.

Centralisation of powers at the Prime Minister’s Office and the “high-command culture” in political parties owe their origins to that election held 53 years ago.

It was Giri’s election that empowered the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to take India on the path of her socialist agenda that diminished the private sector through nationalisation of banks, insurance, and coal, the implementation of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, and the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, among others.

So, how did a presidential election lead to all this? It was the same election that led to the final battle of supremacy between Indira Gandhi and the so-called syndicate that consisted of party leaders like K. Kamaraj, S. Nijalingappa, S.K. Patil and Atulya Ghosh, among others.

It resulted in Indira getting control of what became the real Congress — Congress (Requisition). The split left the syndicate with a much smaller outfit — Congress (Organisation).

Political analyst and writer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay calls the 1969 presidential election a “historic event” as Indira Gandhi took complete control of the Congress party and reached the pinnacle of power.

“The late 1960s was the time when several momentous events took place in India. You had the first real threat to the Congress as a monolithic power in the 1967 general election. It came back to power at the Centre with a reduced majority but lost power in several states,” he said.

“This was also a time when Indira Gandhi was facing an internal challenge within the Congress as Lal Bahadur Shastri had died. She was expected to be the ‘gungi gudiya’, but she wanted to be politically assertive, which led to a lot of opposition from within the Congress. She used the occasion of the presidential election to force the split in the Congress.”

When President Zakir Husain died of a heart attack on 3 May 1969, the presidential elections had to be held in August.

The undivided Congress, led by Nijalingappa, fielded the then Speaker of Lok Sabha, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, a member of the syndicate, as the ruling party’s presidential candidate, while other parties such as Swatantra Party and Jana Sangh chose Nehru-era finance minister Chintaman Dwarakanath Deshmukh.

Meanwhile, the then vice-president and former trade unionist V.V. Giri announced that he was going to fight the election as an independent candidate.

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Indira suspicious of syndicate’s move

Although Indira Gandhi had signed the nomination papers of Reddy, she is said to have been not really happy with the choice.

She was said to be sceptical that the syndicate was moving to install one of their own in the President’s office as part of a larger plan to dislodge her.

When Nijalingappa asked her, in her capacity as the Congress Parliamentary Party leader, to issue a whip (to inform the party’s MPs and MLAs about a vote), she refused, citing the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Elections Act, 1952.

She asked Congress members to “vote according to their conscience”, and did not openly campaign for Reddy.

Giri’s age (75 at the time) was one of the reasons why many Congress leaders were not in favour of him being chosen as the party’s official candidate. After winning the election, Giri had said, “Those who say I am too old, let them have the benefit of my fist.”

Giri received a total of 4,20,077 votes, Reddy got 4,05,427 votes, while Deshmukh got 1,12,769.

In the battle of Indira vs the syndicate, Giri’s win led to the cementing of her position as the undisputed leader of the Congress party.

Historian Srinath Raghavan said of the 1969 election, “It was not just a gripping and close-run contest but also a watershed moment in Indian politics.”

Taking the ‘Left’ turn

The Congress split into two in 1969, and Indira Gandhi came back with a thumping majority in 1971. Giri’s selection did not just shape the politics of the Congress party, but also the political economy of the country for decades to come.

Indira Gandhi became powerful and went full throttle with her socialist political and economic outlook.

Mukhopadhyay says that Indira enjoyed the golden period of her political career after the 1969 presidential election, and her economic policies also started tilting towards the Left.

“Giri’s win was followed by a split in the Congress and Indira Gandhi becoming strong. It also led to nationalisation of banks. That is the time when she took a Left-ward tilt on the economic front. The ‘Garibi Hatao’ movement also came after,” he added.

“It was this period when she was at the pinnacle of power… she was not able to get that kind of power and control [again] that she got after the 1969 presidential elections. Her troubles started with the Simla Agreement after July 1972. This was a golden period and she converted the Congress into an individual-centric party,” Mukhopadhyay said. “She was able to weed out the old veteran leaders and establish complete electoral hegemony in the country after the 1971 elections.”

Political analyst Rasheed Kidwai says the 1969 presidential election turned Indira Gandhi into an astute political leader and she was able to implement her socialist economic policies.

“By choosing to support V.V. Giri, she took a very calculated risk. Nobody had anticipated this would turn the tables in Indira Gandhi’s favour. Also, because she had a huge economic agenda and the Congress until that time had tilted towards the economic Right,” he added.

“Many Congress leaders like Morarji Desai were of the opinion that people should make money, and they should be allowed to make money. Economic power was in the hands of a very few, and they wanted to remove Indira Gandhi, as they were upset with her economic policies. Gandhi was able to break all of this and get a complete hold over the Congress.”

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V.V. Giri’s important decisions 

Giri was known as the ‘prime minister’s president’ who would sign on dotted lines, be it the ordinance for abolishing privy purses or other contentious legislations like the nationalisation of banks and the Simla Agreement.

During an addresses at the Chamber of Commerce in erstwhile Madras, Giri had called the nationalisation of banks a “step-forward in generating awareness among those who have been denied opportunity to take initiatives or venture into new fields of economic activities”.

“Bank nationalisaton can go a long way in helping farmers and small-scale industrialists to improve the sectors under their control so that the standard of living of people could be improved,” he said.

The move drew criticism not just from the opposition, but also from economists.

Also Read: V.V. Giri, the President who signed 2 documents that still shape India’s politics, economy

‘Not a party president’

But how did V.V. Giri’s election as President shape the future of the country? The trend of ‘rubber stamp’ presidents became common, Mukhopadhyay says.

“Giri was more of Indira’s personal candidate. Prior to that, every president had a personality of their own. The differences between Rajendra Prasad and Nehru, S. Radhakrishnan and Nehru and Shastri were in public domain. Thereafter, things haven’t changed much as presidents have been the personal choices of the prime ministers, be it Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed or Ram Nath Kovind.”

One of Giri’s former aides, as quoted by India Today, once said, “Whenever Mrs Gandhi came to see him, he would make sure that his voice could be heard from outside the closed study room… His one pet phrase reserved for Mrs Gandhi was: ‘I’m an independent president, not a party president’.”

Yet, Giri gave unequivocal support to all of Gandhi’s decisions. He signed the order of dismissal of the Charan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh in 1970, and imposed President’s Rule, a move which was denounced as “unconstitutional” and “dictatorial”.

(Edited by Siddarth Muralidharan)

Also Read: Why Dhankhar and Murmu are perfect fit in Modi’s Mission 2024

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