Why did Indira Gandhi call off the Emergency?

Fali S Nariman
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing the nation from the Doordarshan studio during Emergency. (Express archive photo August, 1975)

Coomi Kapoor's column 'Inside Track' (IE, February 3) - for me, particularly - was fascinating as it referred to Kuldip Nayar's latest book and recorded: "Among the many interesting anecdotes Nayar recounts is that Sanjay Gandhi informed him after the Emergency that he had assumed his mother would not call elections for three to four decades."

This is the unsolved problem of our times: Why did Indira Gandhi call off the Emergency and decide to hold elections in January 1977?

For many years after the Internal Emergency was revoked in March 1977 - when elections were held, and the Congress Party, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, was swept out of office - I harboured the recollection of someone (probably the then high commissioner for Australia, Bruce Grant, with whom I used to go for evening walks at Nehru Park) telling me that he had it first-hand from Mrs Gandhi that it was US President Jimmy Carter, who on his visit to India, persuaded her to "go legitimate", and call elections in March 1977.

I mentioned this to all and sundry. I repeated this story at a luncheon meeting with the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States (at one of the functions of the Indo-US Legal Forum in Washington in 1995). Justice Ruth Ginsberg, presiding at our table, was extremely interested in this tidbit of information and asked me whether I could lay my hands on any authenticated document to support this recollection of mine. I then went back to India but drew a blank. Even the then Leader of the Opposition, L K Advani (who had been detained in jail during the Emergency), told me that he had no recollection of the president of the United States prompting Indira Gandhi to hold elections in March 1977.

In times of need I used to rely on an old friend of mine (and of India's) who was a storehouse of information about those troubled times. I inquired from Granville Austin ("Red" Austin) in Washington, (alas he is no more) and he very kindly looked into the papers in the Library of Congress, but found nothing. So I penned a letter of apology to Justice Ruth Ginsberg (dated July 17, 1995) saying: "Sorry, I misled you. My only excuse was one given by your distinguished countryman Mark Twain. He had written: 'The older one gets the more vivid the recollection of things that have not happened.'"

The judge (unlike many judges) had the courtesy to reply by letter dated July 25, 1995, which read: "Appreciation for your good letter of July 17, and for calling my attention to the wisdom of Mark Twain - a statement that captures my own experience at least as much as it does yours. With highest regards, Ruth Bader Ginsburg."

I always thought until I read Kapoor's column that mine was a case of recalling things that had never happened, but now it would be well worth some research in India (not in the Library of US Congress) - perhaps in the godowns of The Indian Express itself - as to who or what changed Mrs Gandhi's mind when she decided in January 1977 to call elections.

Sanjay Gandhi apparently did not know - the man closest to her at the time. Perhaps some readers of this newspaper - old, but not very old like me - could perhaps help to solve this till-now intractable problem.

The writer is constitutional jurist and senior advocate to the Supreme Court

- This article first appeared in the February 8, 2019 print edition titled ‘A Tantalising Mystery’