EVERY YEAR ON June 26 Indian newspapers publish articles remembering the day in 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency. Writers recall the midnight knock and press censorship. Lest we forget, readers are reminded of the suspension of constitutional rights and the restrictions imposed on the judiciary. The BJP leaders of the current government memorialize the day by issuing statements and writing blogs that note their victimization, piously express their faith in democratic principles, and celebrate the end of Indira’s allegedly Hitler-like abuse of the law.
The commemoration of the day, however, portrays the Emergency as a momentary distortion in India’s proud record of democracy. The experience appears as a nightmare that began shortly before midnight on June 25, 1975, and ended on March 21, 1977. The revelations of the Shah Commission and the books and articles written by journalists and those who were witnesses and victims have contributed to the powerful and enduring myth that the Emergency dropped from nowhere and vanished without a trace, leaving only its villains and heroes. The twenty-one months is sequestered as a thing in itself. We should never forget the episode that thankfully terminated without an afterlife.
This view inspires a smug confidence in the present, foreclosing any critical inquiry into its relationship with the past. It tells us that the past is really past, it is over, it is history. The present is free from its burdens. Indian democracy, we are told, heroically recovered from Indira’s brief misadventure with no lasting damage, and with no enduring, unaddressed problems in its functioning. The parallel between this account and the story told in the United States after the Watergate scandal is striking. There, too, the narrative recounted after Richard Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the revelations of his political skullduggery was that the system had worked. The free press had spoken truth to power, the Congress had played its role, and law and the constitution had triumphed. All was normal again. This account shut out any inquiry into the underlying malaise and chicanery in the political system, as well as the possibility that they persisted well after Nixon’s ghost had been exorcised.
Like the post-Watergate narrative, a limited view of the Emergency prevents an understanding of its place in India’s historical experience of democracy. Underlying it is an impoverished conception of democracy, one that regards it only in terms of certain forms and procedures. The constitution provided for elections, judicial independence, press freedom, and Fundamental Rights as the cornerstones of democracy. But these constitutional principles exist in society; the substantive functioning of democratic institutions and procedures depends crucially on the social and historical context.
In today’s India, as in many other places, power and money define the context. Those who enjoy social and economic privileges, and can summon powerful political influence, play by different rules. Vast quantities of unregulated capital let loose by the neoliberal economy slosh around to twist the machinery of laws and administration. An army of fixers and middlemen operate at every level to distort and corrupt the everyday experience of democracy, turning it into “a feast of vultures.” Indian politics always had intermediaries who mediated between society and the government. Traditionally, they were members of political parties. But Sanjay brought in a new group of influence peddlers— officials, friends, social climbers like Rukhsana Sultana, and individuals with links to corporations. Since then, the fixers have carved out an indispensable position as mediators between political parties and corporations. The scandals periodically unearthed by investigative journalists about the “hidden business of democracy” expose the rot in the system, the easy moral principles of the rich and the powerful. But underlying these twenty- first-century scandals is the long-standing issue of Indian society’s troubled relationship with democratic values.
Today, there is no formal declaration of Emergency, no press censorship, no lawful suspension of the law. But the surge of Hindu nationalism has captured Narendra Modi into the kind of position that Indira Gandhi occupied only with the Emergency
No one was more acutely aware of this issue than Ambedkar. He is regularly celebrated as a Dalit icon and a constitutionalist, but, with notable exceptions, few return to the full meaning of his judgment that democracy was only a top dressing on the Indian soil. For him, democracy was not just procedures but a value, a daily exercise of equality of human beings. Constitutional principles and institutions were to bring into practice what did not exist in the deeply hierarchical, caste-ridden Indian society; they were not ends in themselves. If democracy was to mean self-rule, then caste hierarchy and social inequality were alien to it. Secularism and pluralism, the opening to minorities, and the care for the Other were part of equality as a democratic value.
Convinced that Indian society lacked democratic values, Ambedkar placed his faith in the political sphere. There was something Tocquevillian in this belief in the reconstitution of society by politics. Accordingly, he wrote a constitution that equipped the state with extraordinary powers. He and his fellow lawmakers expected that the state would accomplish from above what the society could not from below. This was also a reflection of the lack of full popular consent for the nationalist elite’s power. For all his concerns about inequality, Ambedkar also worried about the danger posed by “the grammar of anarchy” of popular politics. Additionally, the postwar turmoil and the violence of Partition drove lawmakers to craft a powerful state that would secure national unity. They set aside the criticisms of emergency powers and the removal of due process and restrictions on rights to freedom. But the choice of social revolution from above placed a heavy reliance on the leaders’ moral commitment to democratic procedures. It envisioned that the elite would somehow overcome class and caste pressures from society. Here, the record is an abject failure.
The enticements and compulsions of power proved too overwhelming for the moral commitment to democracy as a value. Under the pulls and pushes of society, machinations and maneuvers became the order of the day even during the rule of the first generation of postcolonial leaders. After Nehru’s death, the political elite became consumed with scheming to maintain power in response to the rapid unraveling of state-society relations. Even JP vacillated between the desire for a real democratic transformation of Total Revolution and a purely political movement to dislodge Indira and the Congress. When politics became only a chess game of power, Indira proved to be a grand master, repeatedly checkmating her opponents. The queen cleared the board.
The Emergency was her masterstroke in this tactical game, a last-ditch attempt to get through the crisis confronting her personal power. Extraordinary laws already existed on the books, but it was she who paradoxically used the lawful suspension of existing laws to create a state of exception to deal with the impasse. The “misdeeds” and “malpractices” of the notorious slum clearance and sterilization campaigns were not new; they were elements of the state’s modernization project from above. But in escalating and intensifying them with wanton force, Indira, with Sanjay and his coterie, sought to accomplish what they could not achieve “normally.” She tried to resolve the crisis of governance by making manifest what was latent in the constitutional structure. It is in this respect that she revealed herself as a sovereign in Carl Schmitt’s sense.
The Janata government repealed several of the egregious laws enacted during the Emergency. But its second thoughts on preventive detention and the Charan Singh government’s proclamation of a presidential ordinance on the subject indicates that the Emergency had succeeded in normalizing it. Upon returning to power, Indira regularized the ordinance by enacting the National Security Act in 1980, providing for preventive detention. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, first applied to Assam in 1958, extended to Punjab in 1983, and to Kashmir in 1990, empowers the army to treat “disturbed” areas as warlike situations. The colonial era sedition law enshrined in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code continues to be on the books and to be used for political purposes.
The fear of political violence explains the Indian state's appreciation for extraordinary laws. This is why the short-lived Charan Singh government brought back preventive detention in spite of the Janata Party's rhetoric about fully undoing the Emergency
The enduring attraction of preventive detention speaks of the continuing problem of the disjuncture between institutions of democratic governance and assertions of democratic rights on the street. Indira could manage the short-term challenges with her tactical moves in the power game that democracy had become during her time and to which she contributed handsomely. She won massive electoral majorities and rose from political death in 1977 to return to power in 1980 by playing Charan Singh for a fool. But bigger challenges and larger historical forces required something more than clever tactical maneuvers. This was evident in Punjab. Indira paid for her shortsighted manipulation of Punjab politics with her life. She lived to experience the tragedy of Sanjay’s death in 1980. But her own assassination spared her the trauma of Rajiv’s fiery end on May 21, 1991, in a suicide-bombing attack by a female cadre of the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. Like his mother, he too was felled by the violent churning in society.
It was the fear of such political violence that explains the Indian state’s appreciation for extraordinary laws. This is why the short-lived Charan Singh government brought back preventive detention in spite of the Janata Party’s rhetoric about fully undoing the Emergency. This is not, however, the only indication that the Emergency enjoys an afterlife. The social and political crises that it unsuccessfully sought to resolve with shadow laws and authority gave rise to fresh challenges. Backward-caste politics, Hindutva, and market liberalization emerged out of the Emergency’s ashes to meet the tests posed by popular mobilization. These have come to predominate the Indian political landscape since the early 1990s, and each one of these holds implications for the meaning of democracy.
The caste-based discourse addresses democracy’s concern with equality. In this respect, the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations on reservations for backward castes has produced a sea change in Indian society and politics. But caste politics has also reduced equality to the limited goal of grabbing a share of power rather than instituting it as a value. This is particularly true of regional caste-based political parties, which often function as fiefdoms of leaders who came of age during the Emergency.
Hindutva is fundamentally antidemocratic. It seeks to resolve the crisis of governance by building a Hindu nation with a ressentiment-driven majoritarian politics that reduces the minorities to second-class citizens. Also antithetical to democracy is the neoliberal market-based ideology that treats the market as the underlying principle of all domains. In contrast to the classical liberalism of Adam Smith, which was concerned with trade and production, neoliberalism economizes everything. Instead of the guarantee of equality through the rule of law and participation in popular sovereignty, it offers the market logic of winners and losers.
Jayaprakash Narayan vacillated between the desire for real democratic transformation of total revolution and a purely political movement to dislodge Indira and the Congress
Neoliberalism is a global phenomenon, implemented with different methods in different places. In India, the neoliberal logic, emerging as state policy in 1991, is encapsulated today in the catchphrase “development.” Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 with development as his winning slogan. Against a Congress government marred by corruption scandals and stigmatized for its supposed “appeasement” of the minorities, the BJP trumpeted the so-called achievements of the “Gujarat model” of development under Modi as the state’s chief minister. For this neoliberal project, equality as the essence of self-rule was not important; only corporatization and the application of market logic in all domains mattered.
The “Gujarat model,” however, was politically underwritten by majoritarian unity, a mobilization of the Hindus as the bedrock of the polity. Accordingly, Modi has pursued neoliberalism while deploying Hindutva to manage the state-society relations convulsed by democratic mobilization. Since 2014, India has witnessed the Hindutva ideologues target dissent as “antinational.” In a different but also eerie replay of 1975, JNU students face the charge of subversion. Critics are dismissed as “rootless cosmopolitan” elites out of step with the supposed mass culture of Hindutva. This is to delegitimize criticism and win over those in the population not yet in their corner. It is the classic strategy of totalitarian propaganda to win over the insufficiently indoctrinated. Muslims have been lynched by cow-protection goon squads encouraged by restrictions on the sale of meat and the trade of cattle. The mob does not require any evidence for actual cow slaughter; it “knows” from totalitarian propaganda that a hidden conspiracy by Muslims is afoot to violate their reverence for cows. Supported by ground troops, which Indira’s Emergency rule never enjoyed, and a largely compliant and corporatized electronic media, which did not exist in 1975-77, the regime enjoys unprecedented power. It is equipped with the powers of the administrative state, including the law against sedition under the British-era Section 124A, preventive detention, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for use in the so- called “disturbed” areas.
What does this mean for democracy? The challenge posed by a growing surge of popular mobilization laced with ressentiment and the move toward authoritarian cultures and governments is not limited to India. Occurring around the world, these developments suggest a profound shift in the global experience of modernity and democracy. In India, this challenge arises against the previous background of a state of exception imposed by a powerful sovereign who deployed extraordinary constitutional powers and the resources of the administrative state to manage the population.
Today, there is no formal declaration of Emergency, no press censorship, no lawful suspension of the law. But the surge of Hindu nationalism has catapulted Narendra Modi into the kind of position that Indira occupied only with the Emergency. When she could not get the constitutional democracy to bend to her will, Indira chose to suppress it with the arms of the state. Today, the courts, the press, and political parties do not face repression. But they appear unable or unwilling to function as the gatekeepers of democracy in the face of state power spiked with Hindu populist ressentiment. Like Indira, Modi is his party’s undisputed leader. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which traditionally boasted a galaxy of seasoned politicians, now bows to its supreme leader. He looms as large in Indian politics as Indira once did. His photographs, slogans, and programs appear everywhere as hers once did. He does not hold press conferences and subject himself to questioning; he prefers to speak directly to the people with his weekly radio address and, like Donald Trump, frequent tweets. Without irony, Modi and the BJP leaders assail Indira’s accumulation of executive powers under the Emergency while they strive for a one-party state and display intolerance for minorities and disdain for dissent as “antinational.”
With a powerful leader like Narendra Modi at the helm of Indian democracy, the last words belong to B. R. Ambedkar. Speaking at the concluding session of the Constituent Assembly on November 24, 1949, the Dalit lawmaker invoked John Stuart Mill to warn the citizens against placing their liberties at the feet of a great leader. Indians, he said, were particularly susceptible to bhakti, or devotion. This was fine in religion, but in politics it is “a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship.”
(This is an excerpt from Gyan Prakash's new book Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point | Hamish Hamilton | 439 pages |Rs 699)