Case Summary : Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain

Author : Gargi Soman

1.     Introduction:

This was a landmark judgement which changed the fabric of how elections were conducted in India. It led to the imposition of emergency in India, and the judgement was pronounced in an emergency-stricken India. It was a case that challenged the basic structure of India and also raised questions of parliamentary supremacy over Judiciary. It not only altered the law of the land but also left its mark on Indian politics

2.     Facts of the Case:

This was a case that emerged from the 1971 elections to the office of Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi was declared to have won by a huge margin, sweeping a majority of 352 sets out of the 518 seats[1]. The seat that she had contested was that of Rae Bareilly and was contesting against Raj Narain.

Raj Narain was confident that he would win the election, however when the results were declared, to his disappointment, he found out that he did not win the elections. As a resort, he filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court stating that the elections were bring tampered with, and that Ms. Indira Gandhi had used malpractices to ensure her win[2].

She was accused of violating the code of People’s Representation Act, 1951 and also of exceeding the maximum limit of campaigning expenses as she had also included armed forces and police to assist her election campaigns while also using government vehicles.

Justice Jaganmohanlal Sinha of Allahabad High Court found her guilty of malpractices and of misusing government machinery under S. 123 (7)[3] of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951. Citing this reason, the Allahabad H.C delivered a judgement banning her from contesting elections for 6 years now.In an appeal to the S.C , the S.C granted an executional stay as it was during the period of its vacation till 11th August, 1975.

However, Fakhrudeen Ali, the then President of India, declared a state of emergency all over India by citing internal disturbances. On 10th August 1975, he also passed the 39th constitutional amendment,1975 which was responsible for inserting Art. 329-A[4] which prohibited the S.C from hearing election matters regarding elections to the office of President, Vice-President, Prime Minister and the Speaker of Lok Sabha.

3.     Issue of the Case:

Subsequently, the constitutionality of the 39th constitutional amendment was challenged. A few more that subsequently arose were:

1. Is Art 329-A (4) constitutionally valid?

2. The validity of Representation of People (Amendment) Act, 1974 and Election Laws (Amendment) act, 1975

4.     Legal Provisions used in Case

It was observed that Art. 329- A defeated the whole purpose of the constitutional provisions as it was inconsistent to a large extent with its basic structure. Free and fair elections are the soul of a good democracy and the only way solve election disputes was through judicial review.

It was also contended that under Art. 368, the Parliament can only formulate general principles, however, whether it is valid or not is the prerogative of the judiciary under Art. 329 and Art. 136. Also, it was very recently held in the Kesvananda Bharti case in 1973 that the basic structure of the constitution cannot be altered. Hence, applying the same rule, it is beyond the scope of the parliament to insert Art. 329-A which effectively degrades the basic structure of the constitution.

The insertion of Art. 329-A was also fundamentally unconstitutional as when the 39th constitutional amendment was passed by the parliament, most of the opposition MPs were put under preventive detention. Hence, these MPs were not able to exercise their vote and were excluded from the the process.

This provision also discarded the rule of separation of powers to a great extent while also depriving judiciary of its right to hold judicial reviews. However, the court opined that it would not be right was the judiciary to intervene as it was a matter between both the houses.

5.     Judgement

On 7th November, 1975[5], Art. 329-A was struck down and the 39th constitutional amendment, upheld the judgement that was passed in Kesvananda Bharti[6] in 1973.

Chandrachud J. held that the article was violative of Art. 14 of the constitution as it debars the judiciary from looking into election matters of specific offices like that of the President, Vice President, Prime Minister and Lok Sabha whereas all the MPs are supposed to be on an equal footing and no one can be given a privilege greater than that of the other.

Mathew J also held that this provision was a step towards unhealthy democracy as it systematically diluted the whole process of free and fair elections which is a very basic yet significant part of any democracy to function. Justice Khanna also held the same opinion.

Ray C.J also held that it was inconsistent with the rule of law and destroyed the basic structure of the constitution. It was also derogatory of the principle of natural justice as it denied a right to fair hearing to those who challenged the election.

6.     Conclusion

The judgement in this case was indeed a celebrated one, as it proved that the judiciary is to serve the people and protect their rights and not to serve the parliament alone. The rule of law was upheld and the constitution was protected from malicious attacks. It ensured that the citizens are not deprived of free and fair elections and also made it clear that it is solely up to the judiciary to decide whether an election is valid or not.

The court proved that parliament cannot execute the functions under the domain of the judiciary and instead it strengthened the factors that that made separation of powers a necessity for the smooth functioning of our country. The judiciary was very brave in delivering a judgment which threatened the ruling party and moreover, in such circumstances when the entire country was under a state of emergency.

Thus, the judiciary was right when it declared Art. 329-A and the 39th constitutional amendment as unconstitutional and struck it down.

[1] Hemant Varshney, ‘Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain – Case Summary’, 2018.

[2] ‘Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain Case Analysis’, Legal Services India.

[3] Representation of People’s Act, 1951, S. 127(3).

[4] Constitution of India, Art. 324-A.

[5] Namit Saxena, ‘45 years since the emergency: How the electoral practices case against Indira Gandhi progressed in the courts’, 9th June 2020.

[6] Kesavananda Bharati & Ors. v. State of Kerala & Anr, (1973) 4 SCC 225.