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Indraprastha

Virendra Kapoor is a political commentator based in Delhi
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The Emergency, its victims and TV news anchors today

INDIRA GANDHI’S Emergency has been in the news lately. A good 42 years after she clamped down on the opposition and other critics, a new book and a fresh film have brought the focus back on that dark interlude in the life of the democratic republic. At a book launch in the capital, despite author Sagarika Ghose’s panegyric attempt to paint her as India’s ‘most powerful prime minister’—‘the only man in a Cabinet of women’ as someone had mischievously dubbed her in those gender-insensitive times—the distinguished panellists Arun Shourie and P Chidambaram faced a volley of questions about the 19-month-long eclipse of the basic rights of Indians. It was hard to wipe off that stain from her otherwise mixed record as prime minister, the highpoint of which was the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. It was Chidambaram’s case that by calling a general election in 1977, she had undone the original wrong of the Emergency. Others disagreed with that generous view. Shourie offered a more nuanced appraisal, noting how she was lulled into believing she would win, since the resistance to the Emergency had died down by end-1976. Ghose was free to interpret as strength what many believed was essentially an act of cowardice by a morally wounded Indira Gandhi after her disqualification as an MP by the Allahabad High Court.

The Emergency also seems to be the backdrop of director Madhur Bhandarkar’s latest film offering, Indu Sarkar, which is due for release later in July. Before readying the script, Bhandarkar met a number of people who had protested the overturning of the Constitution. With his scriptwriter in tow, he heard first hand from the author of a bestselling book on the Emergency who had personally experienced the agony of the period. It was natural for him to seek out Subramaniam Swamy of the BJP as well. The maverick member of the Rajya Sabha became a sensation by doing the Scarlet Pimpernel act, vanishing from the House, and, a few days later, emerging abroad with all his verbal guns blazing against the ‘one-and-a-half-person dictatorship’. Bhandarkar has planned a special screening of the film once it gets past the erratic censors for the who’s who of the ruling party at the Government-run auditorium on Mahadev Road, a stone’s throw away from Parliament.

WHILE STILL ON the Emergency, it seems that some people who were detained under the MISA and DIR—for the benefit of the post-Emergency generation, the former stands for Maintenance of Internal Security Act and the latter for Defence of India Rules—are keen to monetise their stint in Indira Gandhi’s prisons. Meenakshi Lekhi, BJP member of the Lok Sabha from New Delhi, has written to Home Minister Rajnath Singh, seeking pension for the detenues from the capital. Some of them are angry that petitions to the Prime Minister have elicited no response, the PMO merely forwarding them to the Home Minister. Rajnath Singh, however, seems in no hurry to take a decision one way or another. What is particularly galling for these ‘victims’ of the Emergency is that in some states, such a pension is already being given. The argument is that if those who had filled the jails against the British could be rewarded with pension, why deny it to those who waged a ‘second freedom struggle’? A financial tag on a good deed done for the wider national good might appear repugnant, as it certainly does to yours truly, but a bad precedent once set can be hard to resist. As one of the petitioners asks, ‘If the Modi Sarkar does not give us our due, who will? ’

DESPITE RELATIVELY LOW viewership, English language television news channels have helped make celebrities of a number of primetime anchors. Take this one, who had earned quite a reputation for his pugnacious, to-the-point grilling of guests on his show. Now finding himself without a programme, he has taken to offering gratuitous advice to ministers of the realm and others perceived to be close to the regime on the dress sense of the Prime Minister. Whether an open-buttoned mauve jacket would have gone better with his pant-shirt ensemble or a sheer bandhgala would have been appropriate for the stately occasion, the always dandyishly dressed anchor has tips to offer.

Then there is a promoter-anchor of a fast diminishing television channel who keeps bombarding a senior minister with SMSes, making an extraordinary request for the Government’s lawyer to be replaced. Masking self-interest, he says such a change would result in the early disposal of an ongoing case against the channel.

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