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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII No 27, June 26, 2010

The Roots of the Emergency

Sunday 27 June 2010, by Nikhil Chakravartty


As years pass by, one after the other, the past recedes more and more into distant memory. There are certain events in the life of a nation as of individuals, to which distance does not lend enchantment to the view. Rather the ugly visage falls into the pattern of historical evolution and lives on as such. One such event in our lifetime, and in our very land was the Emergency which was promulgated on June 25-26, twenty years ago.

Twenty years is but a short space in the vast canvas that is the history of this land, and objectivity may be difficult to attain in dealing with it, because the turmoil it set still evokes ripples of excitement and the dark, the sinister character of that great misadventure is often lost in recolllecting those nineteen months of bizarre politics in this highly political country. To understand the enormity of that episode one has to take into account the events that preceded it as also the fall-out that came in its wake, and only then can one comprehend in full measure what enormous damage the Emergency inflicted on the democratic fibre of this country.

The Emergency was essentially a product of Indira Gandhi’s approach to the question of power and her method of wielding it. Objective factors no doubt formed the bedrock of whatever happened; at the same time a very important factor behind the decision to snuffing out of democratic functioning was her very own greed for power, and with her, the worthy son she was then promoting.

To trace the roots of the Emergency one has to go back to the crisis that the Congress faced after the debacle of the 1967 General Elections, in which the party was dislodged from office in a number of States. She realised that apart from other factors, the direction of her policy stand at that time was regarded in general as having been dictated by the World Bank authorities and was therefore a misfit in Indian conditions. She promptly changed her stance and her team and very neatly turned the tables on her critics within the Congress leadership whom she branded as conservative and holding back her urge to push radical reforms. Bank nationalisation, for instance, did not come at the crest of a massive movement but as a means by which to edge out Morarji Desai. There was an outburst of popular enthusiasm at the radical postures Indira Gandhi took, and with this, she managed to isolate the old guards of the Congress branding them as conservative, she alone to be regarded as radical progressive. Riding this radical chariot, she could mobilise the support of a good section of liberal Left-of-Centre opinion in the country and thereby split the Congress itself, holding out hopes that the Congress she would be rebuilding would be a paragon of democracy and radicalism. The climax was her coining the slogan Garibi Hatao with which she could win the 1971 election and soon after her intervention in the Pakistani civil war that led to the birth of Bangladesh, which in turn brought her further electoral victories in 1972. The poll success made her dizzy with success, little realising that the spell of election promises does not last long; rather she had roused people’s expectations without the least efforts at implementing the promises.

This provoked a new round of strident action, led mainly by the youth and backed by the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan. Gujarat was engulfed by the Nav Nirman movement which reached its peak in 1974-75 which led to the calling of the mid-term poll in which the Congress was badly trounced. Followed the equally powerful mass upsurge in Bihar directly under the leadership of JP. And from Gujarat and Bihar, the stormy winds of mass discontent reached Delhi just at the very hour when Indira had suffered a setback as her own election to the Lok Sabha was nullified by the Allahabad High Court. By that time she had already groomed her second son who was given a free hand to run the party and interfere without authority into the affairs of the state.

Meanwhile, tampering with the normal institution of governance was also undertaken. The concept of ‘committed’ bureaucracy was widely broadcast to mean that the officers running the administration have to be totally subservient to the dictates of those in power even in matters which undermine the system. Side by side the judiciary was also sought to be made subservient by means of browbeating—for instance, the supercession of senior judges in the matter of appointment of the Chief Justice in 1973 which was widely resented.

So, when Indira Gandhi faced the dual crisis—threat to her regime because of the growing unrest in the public, and to her personal position because of the adverse judgement by the Allahabad High Court—she gave up the democratic path and resorted to personal aggrandisement. One is reminded of the outburst of the sycophant Congress President of the day: “Indira is India, India is Indira”. As for the government, there is good reason to believe that among the contingencies discussed at that time, the question of temporarily scrapping the Constitution and arbitrarily installing her as a virtual dictator was also considered; however, legal experts in her camp hit upon the idea of declaring Emergency within the precincts of the Constitution on the plea that there was a threat to the established order by those campaigning against her regime. By clamping the Emergency, all the Opposition leaders were hauled up and those who could not be immediately caught were soon hunted down. The press was gagged and civil liberties were withheld. There was no consultation with the party leaders and no move the explain the reason behind the imposition of the Emergency. In fact, there was no election within the party under Indira.

Right from the moment the Emergency was clamped down, the party organisation was assigned no role, and Indira did not care that the party at all levels was confused and rattled and slowly forced into irrelevance, while Indira’s son Sanjay took over with his gangster methods. That was the point when Indira finally buried the possibility of running either the government or the party along democratic lines. In fact, the party was put out of action and was virtually reduced to a cheer group for Indira and Sanjay. As for the government, it was concentrated in the hands of a few who were in the coterie of Indira and Sanjay. It was by all counts a dictatorship. Large numbers of Congressmen, including some of those holding important positions today, resented in private this emasculation of the party and government and the acquisition of power by a coterie round the Prime Minister, in which her son had the whip hand. This time the Emergency was sought to be dressed up by the “progressive” 20-Point Programme which was meant to blur the real face of the Emergency authoritarianism.

While the democratic structure was sought to be crushed, the democratic spirit of the people could not be stifled with all the gags imposed and news stifled through censorship. The hiatus between the ruling establishment at the top and the common people was widened with the result that even today it could not be bridged. It was in such a hot-house environment that Indira Gandhi groomed her son to succeed her. It needs to be noted that even with the emasculated Parliament she was not prepared to face the electorate. So, Parliament’s life was extended from five to seven years. However, after the sixth year, she banked on the calculation that all opposition against her regime had been smothered and she felt it safe to go in for election, little expecting that the imprisoned leaders with all their differences would join hands to face the electorate together. Side by side, two major defectors, Jagjivan Ram and Bahuguna, came out of the Congress and joined other Opposition leaders for a common campaign against her regime. This was how the Janata Party was born.

During the brief Janata Party interlude, there was a spate of exposure of the Emergency and plenty of literature on the subject came out. But the Janata Party leaders had no idea of her determination and her mendacity. Every bungling, every shortcoming of the Janata Party government was exploited by her camp, so much so that her people played an active role in breaking up the Janata Party and put up Charan Singh for a few months to be the Prime Minister.

When Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980, the only lesson she seemed to have learnt from her Emergency debacle was to take advantage of the Opposition division rather then rebuilding the party which was left in a state of neglect. When Sanjay died in an air crash, she did not call upon any senior leader of the party to be groomed as her successor, but blatantly brought into politics an unwilling Rajiv Gandhi to succeed her. The party was reduced to a machinery for electioneering—nothing more; while the government was run virtually as a one-man show by the Prime Minister. That tradition was continued by Rajiv Gandhi despite the promise at a moment of forgetfulness that he would rid the party of power-brokers. Incidentally, Indira Gandhi cancelled the reports of all the probe committees set up by the Janata Party government, except one—that was the Mandal Report.

The Emergency was thus a landmark in the annals of independent India insofar as it sought to destroy the democratic fibre of the leading party, turning it into a signboard organisation to render service to the leader and her progeny chosen by her to succeed her. On the political side, the Emergency destroyed the democratic fibre of the leading political formation, namely, the Congress which since the Emergency has never cared to adhere to any form of transparency in its functioning. A real landmark this, the Emergency whose impact will long be felt both in the attitude and functioning of the ruling establishment vis-a-vis the vast multitude that constitutes the overwhelming majority in our democracy.

[Mainstream (July 1, 1995); an abridged version of this article appeared earlier in The Pioneer]

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