The legacy of the Emergency

Print edition : July 08, 2000

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Emergency, a look at its impact on the Indian democracy.

A DISTANCE of a quarter-century is generally adequate to achieve the proper blend of insight and objectivity in relation to epochal political events. But many of the lines that divided one camp from the other have blurred since the proclamation of the in ternal Emergency in 1975 by a Prime Minister who had been heady with her own sense of power. Now in authority, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would like to claim for itself the sole mantle of resistance to the Emergency regime. But it is deterred in so me measure from advancing this claim by the presence in its ranks today of some of the main perpetrators of political and administrative excesses then.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.-

To save the Vajpayee government any possible embarrassment, the BJP took upon itself the onus of marking the Emergency anniversary exclusively in party forums. A weeklong cycle of observances was launched, complete with emotional speeches and symbolic vi sits by prominent leaders to the prisons where they had been incarcerated during the Emergency. Solemn pledges were affirmed that a repeat of the dark chapter in India's political evolution would never again be allowed, whatever the circumstances.

For those who were unwilling to allow political partisanship to overcome objectivity, these pledges seemed rather hollow. Two amendments to the Constitution have inscribed into it the absolute inviolability of the rights to life and liberty - these canno t be abridged in future under any pretext or circumstance. But the statute is also replete with Acts providing special powers to the armed agencies of the state to act with impunity in conditions that remain rather loosely defined and subject to conflict ing interpretations. Despite this profusion of draconian legislation, though the BJP is foremost in demanding a further strengthening of the powers of arbitrary arrest and detention, which have been known in recent times to extend even to the power of ex tra-judicial execution. Clearly, as far as the BJP is concerned, the commemoration of the declaration of the Emergency is suffused with a high degree of ambiguity.

The Congress(I) for its part kept up a sullen indifference. The party still accords considerable honour and responsibility to some of the principal villains of the Emergency. And being in thrall to the dynasty that was perhaps firmly established during t hat authoritarian interlude, it has little by way of an authentic spirit of introspection alive. Towards the end of the BJP's weeklong observances, the Congress(I) managed to summon an angry denunciation. The entire programme, said party spokesman Pranab Mukherjee, who has won mention in all retrospectives of the Emergency for his particularly unsavoury role, only displayed the BJP's unreconstructed urge to divert attention from its administrative failures by targeting the legacy of the Gandhi family.

H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who served as Information Advisor to Indira Gandhi for much of her prime ministerial tenures, has perhaps written as candid an expiation as any insider of the regime could attempt. Sharada Prasad disavows the "post-retirement radical ism" that is in vogue, motivating administrators in the autumn of their lives to repudiate all that they did when they were vested with executive powers. He admits to a sense of disquiet after the Union Cabinet had with himself and P.N. Dhar, Principal S ecretary to the Prime Minister in attendance, endorsed the declaration of the Emergency. He also reveals that P.N. Dhar had in confidence told him immediately afterwards that they had been "party to an evil act".

But Sharada Prasad's final assessment is clear enough: Indira Gandhi had to make the choice between cracking down and "throwing in the towel". The authoritarian interlude was, he admits, painful. But he held to the view then, as he does now, that "...if Indira Gandhi had thrown in the towel at that point of time, it would have greatly weakened the Indian state. ... (The) Emergency did damage our democratic roots badly but the state had been saved from a very grave challenge. And it had all been done wit hin the framework of the Constitution".

It is rather an unsubtle artifice to claim that the suspension of the Constitution was achieved within the framework of the Constitution itself. Nor is it clearly articulated how an individual's political fortunes came to be associated so closely with th e authority, integrity and legitimacy of the state. It does not quite stand to reason that the institutions of the state had to be disabled and the basic law governing their functioning subverted to preserve the authority of the state. Clearly, the sub-t ext of Sharada Prasad's argument is that Indira Gandhi as an individual embodied the authority and legitimacy of the state. She was in this sense irreplaceable. Even a token concession to the authority of the law, in the form of a temporary abdication of the prime ministerial post, would have caused irreparable damage to the state. The purport of Sharada Prasad's locutions can only be that in the choice between two degrees of evil - between the damage caused to the institutions of the state by the Emerg ency and that which would have ensued from Indira Gandhi's ouster - the former was the lesser. This remains a counter-factual proposition that only testifies to the rather weak sense of democratic scruple within the inner councils of the Indira Gandhi re gime.

How did perfectly reasonable and enlightened individuals come to view the authority of an individual and the integrity of the state as convergent, even synonymous, entities? In many ways, this question constitutes the key to understanding the Emergency r egime. The J.C. Shah Commission of Inquiry observed years later that fear and terror were factors motivating individuals to act in this manner. But more fundamentally, though, a climate was engendered in which "acts of impropriety and immorality were not regarded as improper or immoral by the authorities. (Rather, they) came to be accepted as a new concept of propriety and a new morality".

In a relatively generous interpretation, the basic assumptions underlying this new concept of political morality could be described in a few propositions. The state held the key to the progress of millions out of the grinding poverty and underdevelopment and Indira Gandhi had been legitimately elected to head the executive branch of the state. But in her effort to fulfil a historic mission, Indira Gandhi was continually besieged by the dark forces of social reaction and authoritarianism. These had becom e more menacing after she won two successive electoral endorsements for her policies from the people in 1971 and 1972. Lacking clear ideological and programmatic focus, these forces had assembled under the aegis of Jayaprakash Narayan's ambiguous and unc omfortably messianic slogan of "Total Revolution", united only in their common resolve to oust Indira Gandhi from power. This amalgamation of all the forces of authoritarianism in civil society called for an appropriate response from the state. In the ci rcumstances, for the state to make too fine a point of civil liberties and the rule of law would have been suicidal. Drastic situations call for drastic remedies.

These arguments have been put forward with varying degrees of persuasiveness in the past and continue to be so to this day. What they fail to account for is Indira Gandhi's own responsibility for the situation of near-breakdown and chaos that she faced i n 1975. Indeed, they fail to grapple appropriately with the reasons for the precipitate descent from the euphoria of 1971 to the despair of 1975.

THE answers are partly to be found in Indira Gandhi's own mix of policies, which promised the rapid economic betterment of the poor without concurrently conceding them a share in political power. "Garibi Hatao" - the magical slogan that transformed the a pathetic and indifferent political mood towards the Congress - was, in Indira Gandhi's perception, a means of putting more purchasing power into the pockets of the needy, while not seriously impairing the income and wealth of the classes that funded the Congress and provided its top leadership.

The consequences of this were apparent from the Congress' epochal triumph in the 1971 elections. Expenditures on the Garibi Hatao programmes had begun rising from 1970-71 onwards, though the significant magnitudes of increase began in 1971-72. Largely as a consequence of this and the hostilities on the eastern frontier in 1971, the budget deficit of the Union Government grew from the perfectly manageable figure of 0.12 per cent in 1969-70 to an alarming level of 1.83 per cent of gross domestic product i n 1972-73. Clearly, Garibi Hatao was not being financed through a genuine effort at redistribution through taxation, since any rate increases that were decreed, were just as easily evaded. Rather, the poverty eradication effort came to be premised upon a massive creation of fictitious money through the budget deficit.

Even the expectation that infusions of money through the budget deficit would over the medium term generate a build-up of productive assets in the economy proved unfounded. The actual growth of output and productive capacity in the economy was totally in capable of supporting the increases in purchasing power entailed by the Garibi Hatao outlays. When the monsoon failure of 1972 led to a sharp drop in the availability of foodgrain, pent-up inflationary pressures came surging to the surface and an acute p sychosis of scarcity took hold. Between June and September 1972, incensed crowds laid siege to the streets in places as far-flung as the States in the Hindi belt, Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

Shankar Dayal Sharma, then president of the ruling Congress party, alleged that the agitations were part of a design hatched by the "four-party alliance" opposed to Indira Gandhi. And the initial, combative impulse of the Congress government was to stay the course. The wholesale trade in wheat was nationalised in April 1973 in order to cut out the baneful influence of the hoarders and blackmarket operators. At the same time, the government signalled its intention to do likewise with rice at an unspecifi ed future date. In the Budget for 1973-74, the outlays on poverty eradication programmes were further raised, though by a more modest magnitude than in preceding years. This was clearly a signal from Indira Gandhi to her constituency among the poor that their interests were not about to be abandoned at the first sign of political and economic turbulence.

The global oil price shock of October 1973 imparted the death blow to this populist phase in Indira Gandhi's politics. Confronted with an uncontrollable acceleration in the rate of inflation, the Congress government cut the outlay on poverty eradiction p rogrammes to a third of its earlier level in 1974-75. The nationalisation of the wheat trade was similarly reversed. And the rhetoric of progress and achievement was supplanted by the grim language of crisis management.

A crisis of political legitimacy had meanwhile presented itself to the regime by the crowds rallying under Jayaprakash Narayan's banner. The forces impelling Indira Gandhi towards her fateful proclamation on June 26, 1975 were in a manner of speaking mul ti-dimensional. The crisis of the economy made her political situation tenuous and vulnerable to the kind of street challenge that was being orchestrated by J.P. The core political constituencies that she had assembled in 1971 and 1972 were disillusioned and unwilling to forget quietly the extravagant promises that she had won their allegiance with.

That Indira Gandhi should have chosen, in the face of these multiplying contradictions, to suspend democratic political processes, curtail the freedom of the press, and abolish the right to strike would seem in this context to have been a logical and his torical inevitability of that moment. There was no other way for the liberal state, which was committed to the maintenance of a hierarchy of privilege, to square the macroeconomic circle. Having promised an egalitarian model of development which would li ft the poorest of the poor up by the bootstraps, Indira Gandhi was soon to reverse herself. The new model of development which the Emergency regime adopted cast the poor not as agents of their improvement, but as the passive recipients of the diktat of t he regime. Development remained the overarching purpose, the rationale of the regime. However, the means of achieving it was not by recruiting the energies of the poor into the programme but by saving the poor from their slothful and careless ways.

The Emergency was principally about the suspension of the Constitution and all the basic freedoms that it ensures the citizens. This created the framework for recruiting into the baneful enterprise the institutions and individuals who were under the Cons titutional order, expected to function as its protectors. In practical terms, the two central features of the Emergency regime - slum demolitions and forced sterilisations - were underpinned by the spirit that the poor had to be saved from themselves, th at they cannot be trusted with the freedom that they are given by the Constitution and need to be guided or coerced into desirable patterns of behaviour by the elite.

In the realm of the economy, the singular feature of the adjustment programme launched under the Emergency was a massive squeeze on income levels in the agriculture sector. After years of rampant inflation, a sharp contractionary programme was called for , which invariably, ended up targeting certain sections more severely than others. In 1975-76, the average level of agricultural prices fell by the order of 12 per cent in relation to the previous year. Within agriculture, it is quite conceivable that th e specific nature of the wage bargaining process enabled the peasant proprietor to pass on the larger part of the burden of adjustment to the wage earner. Squeezing the rural poor - the closest approximation today to what was called "the reserve army of labour" - represents the path of least resistance in political terms.

Other components of the economic contraction included a freeze on dearness compensation and a suspension of dividend payments on shares. In combine, these measures proved immensely successful in purely economic terms. The budget deficit was brought down to a moderate 0.18 per cent of the GDP by 1976-77, and the trade balance moved strongly into the black the same year. Aided by large receipts from Indian migrant workers in the oil-exporting states of the Gulf, the current account went into surplus and m aintained that status until 1977-78.

But in political terms the Emergency regime was to end in electoral disaster for Indira Gandhi, which was only mitigated by the continuing allegiance of the four southern States to the Congress in the 1977 general election. The Janata Party interlude tha t followed proved in just under three years that a patchwork coalition of forces, even when endowed with a substantial electoral plurality, cannot really hold together. This period was marked by an effort to revive the populist commitments of Indira Gand hi's Garibi Hatao dispensation and an incoherent and rather unfocussed set of measures to undo the more baneful political inheritances of the Emergency. Neither got very far - the former floundering on the very same inflationary barriers that had brought Garibi Hatao up short and the latter not managing to surmount the fractiousness of the Janata Party and the competing priorities of its leadership.

What needs to be appreciated in the context of current warnings about an "undeclared Emergency" and the continuing sway of authoritarian tendencies in Indian politics, is the course that was taken by Indira Gandhi after she returned to power in 1980. Far from seeking to centralise powers within the state and overwhelm the forces of authoritarianism in civil society, Indira Gandhi's effort since then was to harmonise the sources of her own power with the traditional centres of authority in society.

In political and economic terms, the opening up of the Indian economy began with the record loan that was contracted with the International Monetary Fund in 1981. This created the possibility that inflation could be tackled through imports financed by co ntracting large loans from external sources. It also relieved the state of any responsibility it may have had to attempt a genuine measure of redistribution of assets and income.

The shift in political strategy was most evident in the nature of the new relationship that Indira Gandhi forged, beginning in 1980, with the forces of majority communalism. If the record of violence against the minorities were to be considered, Indira G andhi's record in office since her return in 1980 is a shameful catalogue. Confronted with violent affrays in Moradabad (1980), Meerut (1982), Nelli (1983) and Bhiwandi (1984), the Congress remained quiescent. Gone was the fiery rhetoric with which it ha d sought to confront the problem in an earlier phase in authority. Gone again was the effort to identify the perpetrators and the victims of violence. Instead, there was an elaborate effort to portray these acts of violence as efforts to destabilise the state.

As the litany of violence grew, veteran Congressman Shahnawaz Khan wrote to Indira Gandhi, reminding her of her election pledges. He told her that Muslims would resume their programme of civil disobedience, along with other like-minded secular forces, in case she was unable to address credibly their problems. Indira Gandhi's reply was telling: "We must remember," she said, "that no minority can survive if their neighbours of the majority are irritated." The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece, Organiser, quoted this approvingly, adding that "nobody need quarrel with Mrs. Gandhi if she says or does something right."

In the June 1983 elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, Indira Gandhi tried out her strategy of competitive communalism for the first time. In the valley, she projected herself as the champion of rapprochement with Pakistan, while in Jammu she port rayed herself as the saviour of Hindus. Although the strategy failed to yield dividends in Kashmir Valley, she had the satisfaction of swamping the BJP in Jammu.

Commenting on the election results, Organiser complained: "The Jammu and Kashmir elections have left a bad taste in every mouth." The Congress (I) may "gloat over replacing the BJP in Jammu". But this was merely an opportunistic ploy since "the Co ngress(I) went Hindu just to dislodge the BJP".

In October 1983, Indira Gandhi inaugurated the Bharat Mata Mandir built by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) at Hardwar. Faced with public criticism, her trusted lietenant C.M. Stephen sprung to her defence with the claim that "the wavelength of Hindu cult ure and Congress culture is the same". In November, she participated in an Arya Samaj function in Ajmer. She devoted most of her speech to deflecting criticism of her government's record in the beef tallow import controversy. But she also found time to s ound a monitory warning about "Hindu" culture and traditions being under attack.

This was the new political persona of the Congress, which saw it stoking the flames of religious extremism in Punjab and showing a measure of indulgence towards the VHP as it began its movement over the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya. It was a strategy that was to come a cropper in 1989, when the core constituencies of the Congress deserted it for various elements of the Third Force and the new sections that it was courting proved more comfortable putting their faith in the overtly communal programme of the BJP.

The decline of the Congress has since then proved irreversible. There have been holding operations of varying degrees of success, notably in 1991, but the undeniable fact is that the unstable amalgam of populism and authoritarianism that was crafted afte r the Emergency has worked to the benefit not of the Congress, but the BJP. The BJP is in this sense the direct legatee of the authoritarian tendency that was inaugurated in the Emergency. It has chosen repeatedly to fling the epithet "fascism" against I ndira Gandhi and her successors. But a large part of the rationale for the Emergency, it must be remembered, stemmed from the Congress' claim that it was protecting the nation from the fascism embodied by the RSS and its allied forces. This is part of th e reason why the BJP's effort to snatch the mantle of resistance to the Emergency solely for itself has failed to carry any credibility. Rather the BJP in power today seems to represent the final fruition of the twisted political sensibility that gave ri se to the Emergency in the first place.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×