In the Supreme Court of India
Civil Appeal No: 887 and 909 of 1975
1975 (Supplement) Supreme Court Cases 1
Smt. Indira Nehru Gandhi
Shri Raj Narain
November 7th, 1975
Chief Justice A.N. Ray, Justice H.R. Khanna, Justice K.K Mathew. Justice Y.V. Chadrachud, Justice M.H. Beg
The case of Raj Narain versus the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi continues to be one of the landmarks and most high-profile judgments in Indian history. The whole case revolved around the election of Indira Gandhi from her constituency of Rae Bareilly. While Indira Gandhi won by a huge margin of votes, the opposition alleged electoral malpractices. In the series of appeals and cross-appeals that followed, a lot of constitutional intricacies were discussed at lengths, and it was the first time a constitutional amendment was struck down by applying the doctrine of basic structure triumphed in the Kesavanada Bharati case.
- During the 1971 general elections Indira Gandhi of the Congress Party went up against Raj Narain, the leader of the Janta Party, for the seat of Rae Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. Congress came out victorious by a huge margin of votes.
- Raj Narain was confident about his victory and decided to take Indira Gandhi’s election to the Allahabad High Court alleging electoral malpractices based on seven grounds.
- The trial judge upheld the allegations on two grounds and declared the elections as vitiated by corrupt practices. The grounds were that (i) Gandhi had taken the assistance of a gazette officer of Uttar Pradesh for furthering her election prospects, and (ii) she also obtained the assistance of Mr. Yashpal Kapoor, a gazette officer of the Government of India, for the same purpose. The High Court subsequently awarded costs to the election petitioner.
- The High Court delivered its verdict on the 12th of June 1975, and Indira Gandhi decided to file a cross-appeal in the Supreme Court.
- Meanwhile during the pendency of the cross-appeal, the Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 1975 (the 39th Constitutional Amendment) was passed by the Parliament, which retrospectively amended the existing laws and imposed parliamentary control over appeals lying before the Court.
- Constitutionality of another legislation, the People (Amendment) Act of 1974 was also brought to question in the case.
The Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 1975
This amendment was brought about by the 39th Constitutional Amendment Act. The Amendment introduced two new articles into the Constitution: Article 71 and Article 329(A) and inserted into the Ninth Schedule the acts: Representation of Peoples Act of 1951, Representation of people (Amendment) Act of 1974, and the Election Laws (Amendment) Act of 1975. The new Article 71 empowered the Parliament to regulate the elections of President and Vice-President. Article 329A had six clauses, the disputed ones being clauses 4, 5, and 6. Clause (4) freed the disputed election of Prime Minister Gandhi and the Speaker to the Parliament from the ambit of the judiciary and declared the elections as valid. Clause (5) further provided that any appeal or cross appeal lying before the Court pertaining to these elections shall be deemed to be void, and such elections declared genuine; and clause (6) of Article 329A sealed the case of Mrs. Gandhi even retrospectively by stating that Article 329A shall have precedence over the rest of the Constitution.
Primary issued discussed:
- Questions were raised on the constitutionality of the 39th Amendment Act of 1975.
- Whether the 39th Amendment was passed by the Parliament constitutionally.
- Regarding the constitutionality of Representation of People (Amendment) Act, 1974 and Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 1975
From the Respondent side:
- Mr. Santi Bhusan, the counsel appearing on behalf of the respondents, Mr. Raj Narain, challenged the constitutionality of the 39th Amendment Act based on the Doctrine of Basic Structure as enunciated in the case of Kesavananda Bharti vs. State of Kerala.
- He contended that the 39th amendment seemed to curtail the jurisdiction of the Court and was therefore against the Basic structure of the Constitution. Article 368 of the Constitution cannot be exercised by the Parliament to legislate in a manner that affects the basic structure of the Constitution.
- The counsel further pointed out that the amendment infringes upon the concept of separation of powers, and every dispute where adjudication of legal rights is required must be left to the judiciary.
- The counsel stated that by providing that Prime Minister Gandhi shall remain in power despite the Allahabad High Court verdict finding Mrs. Gandhi guilty of corrupt electoral practices, defeats the complete idea of a democracy.
- Mr. Bhusan further contended that election matters such as declaring the winner of elections clearly fall out of the purview of the amending powers given under Article 368.
Another set of objections was raised by the respondents based on the composition of the parliamentary House that passed the Act.
- Several members from both the Houses of the Parliament were detained through an executive order after the 26th of July 1975.
- They were not made aware of any grounds for their detention, but owing to the same, the Houses that passed the 39th Amendment act were missing several legislators. In a constitutional setup, every legislator has an equal right to vote. Therefore, passing the Act in the absence of several legislators cannot be regarded as a session of the Parliament.
About the Representation of People (Amendment) Act, 1974 and Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 1975, the contentions raised by Mr. Bhusan were:
- The power of amending the Constitution cannot be exercised in a manner that damages or destroys the basic structure of the Constitution. The concepts of free and fair elections enshrined in our legislations cannot be damaged by any legislative measure.
- Any legislation that comes into force with a retrospective effect too brings with it an aspect of unfairness and brings about a denial of equality among rival electoral candidates.
From the Appellant side:
- Shri A.K Sen appearing for Smt. Gandhi defended the 39th Amendment stating that it followed the fixed pattern of all acts by which basis of judgments, orders of all competent courts and tribunals are changed.
- He contended that the rendering of a judgment ineffective by changing its basis through a legislative enactment is not an encroachment on judicial power but is well within the powers of the legislature.
- He said that the legislation has only changed the law insofar elections are concerned. The determination of election disputes was not an exercise of judicial power. The constituent power vested with the parliament allows it to assume the duty of such determination in particular cases, as this.
- He stated that the concept of separation of powers in India is not as stringent or rigid as it is in some other nations as the United States or Australia. The matters concerning elections and election petitions give rise to no issues of separation of powers.
- He contended that the change in validation of a single election cannot alter the nature of a democracy, and hence the questions raised by the respondents regarding the essence of democracy were vague and impractical.
- Jurist Shri Jagannath Kaushal too supported the case of Mrs. Gandhi and contended that the judgment of the Allahabad High Court became a nullity cause the Court ceased retrospectively to have jurisdiction over the dispute, and a nullified judgment could not be challenged in a collateral proceeding.
The much-coveted judgment was delivered on the 7th of November 1975. The majority decision adjudged the impugned clause 4 of Article 329 as unconstitutional based on the doctrine of basic structure. The verdict was delivered by the Constitutional bench with a 3-2 majority, with Justice Chandrachud, Justice Mathew, and Chief Justice Ray being in favor of declaring the clause as unconstitutional. In the judgment, it was opined that the 39th amendment “would destroy a set provision of the Constitution, namely, the resolution of election disputes by the exercise of judicial power by ascertaining the adjudicative facts and applying the relevant law for determining the real representative of the People.” Justice Chadrachud found that “The 39th amendment is violative of the principle of separation of power as it intently transferred a purely judicial function into the hands of the legislature”. Chief Justice Ray found another basic feature violated by the said amendment, that is, the rule of law, whereas Justice Khanna found that the violation of norms of free and fair elections.
This case continues to be one of the most mentioned and cited cases to this day. It was the first case in which the judiciary decided against the popular public opinion and declared the election of Mrs. Gandhi unconstitutional. To add to the significance of this judgment, it must be born in mind that the nation at this time was under an Emergency in a state of severe socio-political turmoil. The judiciary emerged the protector of the interests of the citizens. More about this case and its implications might be known from the book ‘The Case That Shook India: The Verdict That Led to The Emergency’ written by Mr. Prashant Bhusan, the son of the respondents’ counsel Santi Bhusan.