The Emergency revisited

Print edition : May 13, 2000

Indira Gandhi, the 'Emergency', and Indian Democracy by P.N. Dhar; Oxford University Press; Rs.545 (Hardbound).

THE proclamation of Internal Emergency by Indira Gandhi on June 26, 1975 was arguably the most fateful event during the first half century of India's democracy. The 25th anniversary of the proclamation will be upon us in a few weeks. The occasion will ca use much retrospection, among both the supporters and opponents of Indira Gandhi, and both sides are bound to draw heavily upon the most informed and authoritative account of that event to be published yet, Indira Gandhi, the 'Emergency', and Indian D emocracy by P.N. Dhar. The author, who was closely associated with Indira Gandhi as she took this and many other momentous steps, including the liberation of Bangladesh and the drama of the Simla Conference, where the horse bolted while the syce and coachmen were still trying to decipher its intentions.

The present comment on the book is confined to four questions related to the Emergency. Had "Indian democracy" already broken down, as Dhar contends it had, before Indira Gandhi suspended it? Second, did she proclaim it to save India or the polity or her self or Sanjay Gandhi? Third, what light does that event throw on the soundness of Indian politics, politicians, legal system and laws? Fourth, how does Dhar himself come through as a citizen, scholar and historian?

India has repeatedly and resoundingly passed the four most relevant tests of the democratic system. These are: do people have the right to vote; do they feel free to vote as they wish; are their wishes intelligent; do they determine the fate of the gover nment? India was among the first countries in the world to have universal adult franchise, and still has the largest electorate, the highest number of actual voters in a parliamentary poll, an impressive percentage of voter participation, and parties of all conceivable political hues. And governments are as often brought down by voters as they are re-elected.

Indira Gandhi had no reason whatever to doubt these credentials of India's democracy. Between 1967 and 1973, when most Indians saw her as a youthful, modern, forward-looking and tireless campaigner against poverty and entrenched privileges, she fought ma ny a battle against a cluster of ageing Congress leaders who were commonly called the "old guard", a description which confirmed their age but did not explain what they were guarding. First she defeated them within the party and then in the elections.

But when democracy and elections were restored after about 18 months of the Emergency, they brought Indira Gandhi crashing down. She had been a powerful Prime Minister for nearly 10 years even without the Emergency and her power had become unquestionable with the Emergency, and yet the voter handed her party the biggest defeat it had ever suffered until then. The voter did so partly to punish her for proclaiming the Emergency and partly in protest against many kinds of excesses committed by "authority" under the cover of the highly authoritarian Emergency.

In other words, in terms of these tests, democracy was quite alive and kicking both before and after the proclamation of the Emergency, and it could not be said to have suffered a systemic breakdown just in between.

Dhar judges "Indian democracy" by some other tests also in explaining how "The Emergency... came about". He examines the socio-political and economic backwardness of India and quotes B.R. Ambedkar's view expressed in the Constituent Assem- bly: "Democrac y in India is only a top dressing on Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic." Dhar does not go as far as Ambedkar and pronounce India unsuited to democracy. But he builds up a formidable case for his view that in the months preceding the proclama tion of Emergency, India had become democratically ungovernable.

The case looks formidable for the reason that in a powerful and well-documented narration concentrated within only a few pages, Dhar lists a number of agitations against the government, which were going on in the early 1970s. The biggest among them had a lready brought down one State government, in Gujarat, and was trying to bring down another, in Bihar. The tallest among the leaders of the agitation, Jayaprakash Narayan, had vowed to bring down Indira Gandhi's government also and, according to quotes fr om his speeches selected by Dhar, was insidiously seeking the help of the Army and the police. His comrade in arms and the firebrand trade union leader, George Fernandes, was exhorting transport workers to bring the country to a halt.

But the case falters, and as much in the face of Dhar's own testimony as anything else. Despite the speeches, few actions of the agitators, except perhaps some minor ones, are shown to have been violent by design - and even fewer in implementation - and illegal in terms of the labour, civil, or criminal laws, or aimed more at overthrowing the state than bringing down the government, or outside the reach of the normal restraining, preventing, and punitive powers of the state, which did not need the Emerg ency for their enforcement. Even the speeches by Jayaprakash Narayan in which the Army and the police found mention, to which Dhar takes offence, were made only after the Allahabad High Court had set aside Indira Gandhi's election, making her title to he r office questionable; Jayaprakash Narayan was demanding that she step down even if she intended to appeal against the High Court ruling.

Presumably because Dhar, a respected academic, is averse to authoritarian courses, he has put an unerring finger at what must have been the cause of much unease among the more bureaucratic practitioners of "law and order" and the courtiers who had come t o surround Indira Gandhi during those days when the politics of a vigorous democracy began to press upon the established order.

He says: "The field of operation of such politics widened further for two main reasons. One, the successive elections and five-year plans politicised the hitherto quiescent communities of backward castes, Dalits, and Adivasis. Two, the breakdown of singl e-party dominance converted sectional and parochial interests, which were earlier encompassed within the Congress Party, into separate and independent political entities" (page 231).

He rightly blames them for their "unbridled and unprincipled quest for power". But thanks to his own principles and values and proximity to the scene, he also identifies the main reason why Indira Gandhi could no longer tame them democratically by party or electoral politics as she could tame the "old guard" in 1969. He says: "The unchallenged leadership of Indira Gandhi gave her an exaggerated sense of power. She now began to feel that she could make the Congress party an instrument of her own will. Ha ving suffered at the hands of powerful bosses in the states earlier, she wanted party leaders in the States to be people entirely of her own choice... nominated Chief Ministers who owed their ascension to the wishes of her high command rather than to the ir own strength in the State legislative party. This had a demoralising effect on the party" (page 232). And on herself, as Dhar should have added, because the real cause of the emergency was not any breakdown of democracy, systemic or not, but breakdown of any faith the Congress might have still had in itself, and still worse, any faith Indira Gandhi might have still had either in herself or in the people. This is proved by what followed the Allahabad High Court's judgment.

Legal experts believe the judgment was bad because it was based on a law that was "bad in law", as a lawyer would say.

The law was bad, and allowed by the judicial system to remain bad, because in dealing with any electoral malpractice, minor or technical (the offence by Indira Gandhi was both minor and technical), it provided for no gradation of punishment in keeping wi th the grade of the offence. It provided only for the capital punishment - of the offender being unseated and debarred from contesting elections for six years. The judgment was bad because it did not give her any of the reliefs that the Supreme Court did offer her, let alone pronounce her innocent, which also the higher court did ultimately.

The Judge did give her the immediately required relief: it stayed operation of the judgment for a fortnight so that instead of immediately vacating her parliamentary seat, she may appeal to the Supreme Court. The latter widened the relief: since a person may sit in Parliament and even be a Minister for up to six months without being a member, she must step down as member pending final disposal of the appeal but could continue as Prime Minister till then. But she rejected this "conditional stay", proclai med the Emergency to manufacture a permanent stay, and did not revoke it even when, perhaps because of the infirmities in it mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court set aside the judgment itself.

This sequence is well enough etched in India's political memory. But what Dhar has added is a close-quarters view of, not distant speculations about, the reasons and compulsions which shaped Indira Gandhi's mind. She did not accept the "conditional stay" because in her view it "diminished her authority" to deal with what she saw as dangerous turmoil all around her. Indira Gandhi showed "more faith in the repression of political opponents and dissidents in her party than in her own ability to engage them constructively or to fight them politically". If she handed over power temporarily to someone, even a trusted caretaker Prime Minister, "would he let her come back" or would he expose sufficient sins of her son in order to block her? Who would protect him "if his mother were not around"? This was the prime motivation of the clique around her, whose prisoner Indira Gandhi became.

Dhar's account of the "iron lady" leaves readers free to see what chinks they may in her armour. In this writer's view, the corrosion of her faith in herself, her party, the people and democracy, led her to the Emergency. The consequences of this continu e to plague us even to this day.

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