A populist move, a party chasm

Zakir Husain's death in 1969 exposed the battle between Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai for leadership within the party.

Within a week of the fiery fiasco at Faridabad (See 'Prelude to a split', IE, December 9) occurred a tragedy that gave a tremendous boost to the bitter infighting within the Congress. On May 3, 1969, President Zakir Husain, who had maintained dignified detachment from the Congress power struggle, died suddenly, plunging the country into grief. It is arguable that had he lived to complete his five-year tenure as head of state, the Congress might have muddled through technically in one piece, as it had done from March 1967 until then. But it is pointless to speculate about the ifs and buts of history. What matters is what actually happened, not what might have been.

The Syndicate-Morarji Desai combine looked upon the president's passing as a providential opportunity to settle scores with Indira Gandhi. It planned to use its majority in the Congress parliamentary board to nominate one of themselves as the Congress's presidential candidate who, after winning the election, would get rid of the unwanted prime minister. Though fully aware of this, Gandhi maintained complete silence and indeed left for Japan on an official visit. In Tokyo, she received word that her adversaries had settled on Sanjiva Reddy, a founder member of the Syndicate who was then Speaker of the Lok Sabha, as the next incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Gandhi was totally opposed to him but remained silent, because she knew that her only hope to avoid disaster was to come to a behind-the-scenes compromise with her opponents. She realised that the usual practice of elevating the vice president — V. V. Giri at that time — was not feasible. Even the chances of finding another mutually acceptable candidate were thin because neither the Syndicate nor Desai wanted to let go of the golden opportunity.

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