IN my last column I wrote of how, for many Indians of my generation, the Emergency, which ended with a resounding electoral defeat for Indira Gandhi 25 years ago, was the seminal event of their political maturation. I told of my own journey from defending it to disowning it — though fortunately neither my defence nor my dissent paralleled the extremes of someone like the Congress’ pliant President, D.K. Borooah, who gave the world the inane slogan “Indira is India and India is Indira” and notoriously declared that “India can do without an Opposition; the Opposition is irrelevant to the history of India”. But as soon as his Fearless Leader was defenestrated by the electorate in 1977, the ineffable Borooah turned his coat and bleated his claims to be an Indira-hating democrat. One must not be too unkind to Borooah, who soon thereafter left this vale of tears; he was merely the most egregious of many unprincipled sycophants, a breed unavoidably spawned in an atmosphere of tyranny — many of whom have continued to flourish in our forgiving, even amnesiac, political culture since then.
But the one point about the Emergency I feel I must make as I celebrate the election 25 years ago which ended it (and I have made many points about the Emergency myself in my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, which I shall not repeat here) is a simple, and yet basic, one; it didn’t work. It crystallised a fundamental truth about Indira Gandhi herself; she was skilled at the acquisition and maintenance of power, but hopeless at the wielding of it for larger purposes. She had no real vision or programme beyond the expedient campaign slogans; “garibi hatao” was a mantra without a method. If she had actually used the Emergency to hatao garibi, much might have been forgiven. Instead her experiment with autocracy, as I wrote in my last column, had the opposite effect.
Indira Gandhi’s genuine convictions, as one observer put it, were “somewhere to the left of self-interest”. Her action was grounded in self-interest (following her unseating by an honest, if overly fastidious, High Court judge in Allahabad for electoral malpractices that were by most standards minor); her rhetoric, as usual, veered left. During the two inglorious years preceding the Emergency, the country had seemed on the verge of a catastrophe. Prices, unemployment and corruption rose; her standing in the nation fell. Mounting protests, led by the saintly Jayaprakash Narayan, brought down one Congress State Government (in Gujarat) and threatened others. As anarchy loomed, her judicial conviction, even on a technicality, seemed to leave Indira Gandhi no option but to resign in disgrace.
Instead, she struck back. Democracy, Mrs. Gandhi argued, had failed in India: it had disintegrated into an expensive luxury, with effects that were divisive to the nation and detrimental to its development. Events had reached a point where the choice was a clear one: democracy for the elite few or social justice for the downtrodden many. With such a choice before them, Mrs. Gandhi declared, her “socialist” Government had no doubt where to cast its lot. Declaring a state of Emergency, Indira Gandhi arrested opponents, censored the press and postponed elections. As a compliant Supreme Court overturned her conviction, she proclaimed a “20-point programme” for the uplift of the common man. (Twenty points: no one found them humorous enough to remark, as French President Clemenceau had done of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, that “even the good Lord had only ten.”)
Its provisions ranged from rural improvement schemes and the abolition of bonded labour to mass education and urban renewal. The new emphasis would be not on the individual’s rights against the state, but on the community’s duties toward it. Effective official action would be easier than before. One government official put it bluntly: “We are tired of being the workshop of failed democracy. The time has come to exchange some of our vaunted individual rights for some economic development.”
One can quarrel about the premises of this argument — as I have done in my last column — but the simple truth is that it did not work that way. Eighteen of the 20 points remained largely unimplemented; meanwhile, Indira’s thuggish younger son, Sanjay, emphasising the other two, ordered brutally insensitive campaigns of slum demolitions and forced sterilisations. Most of the atrocities committed at the time had little to do with social justice: the mandatory resettlement of Delhi slum-dwellers in a cruel exercise in heartless urban cosmetology; forced vasectomies by officials anxious to meet targets for fear of losing their jobs; the lack of accountability of the bureaucracy and the police to the public or the courts; the harsh treatment of labour (strikes were banned under the Emergency, but lockouts were not); the misuse of detention powers by vengeful and corrupt policemen; and the loss of judicial redress for arbitrary imprisonment. None of these did anything for India’s economic development.
Of course, in several ministries, there was a sudden shortage of chairs when the customary 40 per cent absenteeism rate suddenly fell to practically zero. But there was little evidence that the occupants of the chairs were any more productive after occupying them, not any proof that a performance orientation is easier to obtain under autocratic conditions than democratic ones (if anything, tyranny makes bureaucrats less accountable). Real change was minimal: the status stayed quo.
My indictment of Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency is threefold: one, that it was not really necessary but was proclaimed and institutionalised for purely partisan purposes; two, the abuses of authoritarianism far outweighed the failings of democracy; and three, the “gains of the Emergency” were not as considerable as claimed and were ebbing away as the initial shock of its imposition wore off. The backlash of the people began even as Borooah spouted his meretricious slogan.
In a country as diverse and plural as India, a wide range of demands are always going to arise that will have to be recognised, accommodated, and to some extent satisfied, if the polity (and the nation) is to survive. The election of 1977 proved once and for all that Emergency rule cannot provide the answer to such demands. Only democracy can manage our diversity, mediate legitimate competition amongst parties and interests, and move the country forward while ensuring that no group feels left behind. Our democracy was nearly lost for 22 months; the voters of 25 years ago won it back for all of us. On this all-but-forgotten silver jubilee of that election, let us strive to ensure that — whatever the blandishments of those who have forgotten their history — we never lose it again.