In a thunderous 1974 address to striking railway workers, George Fernandes called upon them to “realize the strength which you possess. Seven days’ strike of the Indian Railways," he declared, and “every thermal station in the country would close down. A 10 days’ strike…and the industries…would come to a halt…. A 15 days’ strike…and the country will starve." He may or may not have been exaggerating, but crisis was brewing in India.
The economy was in a shambles, the opposition thirsting for a fight. Constitutional means, Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided, were but a cover for “evil designs", so “war" would need to be “fought in the streets". The Communists, E.M.S. Namboodiripad confirmed, “do not accept the position that every issue must be solved only through constitutional means". Students agitated, Jayaprakash Narayan lent moral legitimacy and leadership to the movement, and there was what the prime minister would describe as dangerous “indiscipline" in the air, graduating to sedition when the army and police were incited to disobey her orders.
These, among others, were the reasons deployed to justify Indira Gandhi’s disastrous decision to impose internal Emergency in India, inaugurating two years of government by decree that inflicted one terrible decision after another on a horrified people. As her confidant P.N. Dhar would later explain, before 25 June 1975, Mrs Gandhi complained she didn’t have enough power to implement her ideas. “But when she did acquire all the power she needed…she did not know what to do with it." While her obsequious cabinet crawled, policy and its execution was directed by her over-complicated son, Sanjay. The prime minister refused to countenance reports on the excesses of an already exacting state machinery, now sharpened by open oppression. A hundred thousand people languished in prison, but Mrs Gandhi insisted that there was no one “less authoritarian than I am"—this in an interview to an American correspondent, of course, since the Indian press was reduced to filling censored newspaper space with recipes for onion raita instead of political news.
It is one of the great ironies of history that the man who assembled India’s democratic institutions and painstakingly reinforced them throughout his career, should have fathered the woman who blackened all the values he held supreme. Mrs Gandhi was Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter but failed to evolve anything that could be described as towering vision. She understood power and exercised it in large volumes, but failed to grasp the principle that power is the means to an end, not a purpose in its own right. Two years before the Emergency, the Communist leader Hiren Mukherjee wondered if she preferred the presidential form of government. “Unlike her father, who rejoiced in Parliament," he remarked, “Mrs Gandhi has an allergy to it." She certainly didn’t think too highly of the will of the people, writing as early as 1963 that the “price we pay for democracy" is that “the mediocre person" and “the most vocal" are suddenly empowered, even when “they may lack knowledge and understanding". She was more pragmatic matriarch than outstanding democrat, convinced that without her, India’s childlike masses would only get into unnecessary trouble.
To be fair, as the scholar S. Irfan Habib recently pointed out on Twitter, Indira Gandhi wasn’t the sum of Emergency-era excesses alone. This was a woman who could stand up to American bullying tactics to end genocide and liberate a people in 1971, returning to 10 million refugees their homes. She was a committed environmentalist who could quote from the Atharva Veda on the need for ecological preservation even while pointing out that one could hardly lecture “those who live in villages and in slums about keeping the oceans…clean, when their own lives are contaminated at the source". And as a sharp forthcoming biography by Sagarika Ghose highlights, the battles she fought as a woman in a world of men, and her negotiation of her own insecurities, offer insights, even if the conclusions Mrs Gandhi drew were not always propitious, her actions often devoid of the superior understanding that came so readily to her father.
“I had always believed," Jayaprakash Narayan wrote from prison, “that Mrs Gandhi had no faith in democracy, that she was by inclination and conviction a dictator. This belief has tragically turned out to be true." In the end, it was such criticism, much of which emanated from abroad, that stung her. It has also been argued that following the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh, his fall from heroic greatness to violent destruction in such a short span, Mrs Gandhi grew worried about her own fate, seeing shadows everywhere. Either way she committed the “horrible mistake" her son warned against: In 1977, she called a national election and decided to face the justice of the ballot box. Understandably, she was routed. But it seemed to have restored a certain moral confidence in her. “I imposed the Emergency and (when the crisis had passed) I revoked it," she declared in a defiant interview, adding that if her intention were to remain prime minister for life, she could have disposed of elections altogether.
But most importantly, as her friend and biographer Pupul Jayakar noted, “She began to dream." She “awoke to her father’s voice resonant within her"—somewhere in the darkness that was the Emergency, there was still her conscience, or perhaps a feeling of guilt that she had betrayed all that Nehru cherished; that she had sacrificed the interests of a people in the interests of political survival. Survive she did, in the end anyway—by 1980, she was again a tremendous political force soaring above a massively frustrated, comical government. Indira Gandhi came back to rule as prime minister of India, winning also a certain forgiveness from the masses for her greatest, most misguided lapse.
Forty-two years have passed since the day she made that mistake. But the lessons of that episode retain their pertinence, now more than ever, as we witness a different kind of change in our society, not imposed overnight but creeping up slowly, forming a stranglehold even as we watch.
Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. He tweets at @UnamPillai