Prelude to a split

Inder Malhotra

High-decibel infighting between the Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai factions coloured party proceedings.

So tenuous, indeed phoney, was the 1967 Congress compromise under which Morarji Desai became deputy prime minister in Indira Gandhi's cabinet, that it was in tatters in next to no time. In the inner councils of the government, he made it obvious that he had a better understanding of the country's problems than the prime minister. His cohorts started attacking her more and more sharply at every forum. Though incensed, she kept her cool.

The Desai faction had good reason to feel emboldened. For, the "Syndicate" of Congress party bosses headed by Congress president K. Kamaraj that had kept him at bay not once but twice, had become his ally against Indira Gandhi, and was making no bones about the need to dislodge her from the office of prime minister. For her part, she was clear in her mind that she had to destroy the Syndicate-Desai combination before it destroyed her. But both sides were painfully aware that neither was in a position to take precipitate action for three major reasons.

First, the Congress majority in the Lok Sabha was so narrow that replacing recrimination by direct action could mean an abrupt end to Congress rule and fresh elections. Second, it was foolhardy to carry the party's internal struggle to its logical conclusion without first overcoming external challenges from the relatively large number of states where comprehensive, if also cacophonic, coalitions of all non-Congress parties were in power. The third significant factor was that as an umbrella party representing divergent interests and including a plethora of factions, from red-hot radical to extreme right the Congress also had a long tradition of according to party unity a degree of sanctity that no group or individual could afford to be held responsible for dividing it. This was no bar, however, to endless high-decibel infighting.

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