Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Book Review: The Dramatic Decade

It is fashionable to describe 6 December 1992 as the end of the Nehruvian age. The demolition of a mosque in a small town in northern India signalled the death of secularism. A year earlier, a crafty prime minister had begun dismantling the second leg of Nehruvian ideology: the commanding role of the state in economic matters.

There is, however, another way to do this kind of radiocarbon dating. By 1970, Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideas had exhausted themselves. The decade from 1970-80 marked a transition and in 1980, when Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister, India began its journey to a liberal economic order and a somewhat darker political age. Like many political transitions, this one too was turbulent.

The story begins with India dismembering Pakistan in 1971. A pause was followed by four turbulent years in which democracy was extinguished for a while. An incompetent government succeeded hers and finally India voted her back in 1980.

The Dramatic Decade—The Indira Gandhi Years: Rupa Publications, 348 pages, Rs 399
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The Dramatic Decade—The Indira Gandhi Years: Rupa Publications, 348 pages, Rs 399

Most narratives of the Emergency follow a predictable script, at least the ones penned by persons close to Gandhi. In answering the why of Emergency, they invariably resort to economic explanations. The derailment of Indian democracy occurred against a background of economic distress. By September 1974, inflation had touched 33.33% (page 48). India, along with other countries, had to weather the oil price shock in 1973 when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) greatly increased prices. As if this was not enough, a series of crop failures completed the supply shock. Soon enough, economic distress fanned political disaffection. With the presence of adventurers such as Jayaprakash Narayan and George Fernandes, it was only a matter of time before things got out of hand.

This is what P.N. Dhar, former principal secretary to the prime minister, said in his memoirs of that period, Indira Gandhi, The ‘Emergency’, And Indian Democracy (2000). Mukherjee follows this script faithfully. The difference between the two stories is in the choice of villains. For the civil servant, it was an extra-constitutional figure in the form of Sanjay Gandhi; for Mukherjee, it was a political antagonist—Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the chief minister of West Bengal during the dramatic events.

The strategy is familiar: Drive a wedge between the event and the person responsible for what went wrong. This does not work. Mukherjee, for example, does not bother to question the socialist policies followed by Gandhi in her quest for power. Socialist rhetoric and policies were part of the package used to drive out the group of entrenched Congress leaders known as the Syndicate. But in the bargain, Gandhi unleashed forces that led to her downfall in 1977.

As she tightened her government’s economic grip, shortages of essential goods became a regular feature. Shortages and inflation were only proximate reasons for unrest in the country; the real reasons were the socialist policies and Gandhi’s mistakes as a leader. It is too much to expect Mukherjee, a product of that system, to detach himself from the ebb and flow of those events and analyse them dispassionately. His is a memoir of an apologist.

The treatment of the Congress party’s destructive gyrations after its defeat in the general election in 1977 follows the same predictable pattern. Mukherjee describes in detail the innumerable meetings of the Congress working committee (CWC) and other organs of the party. If the names of participants, resolutions passed and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring could substitute for history, then The Dramatic Decade could well be great history.

From the vantage point of the 21st century, a bare reading of the chapters describing the party’s tribulations (chapters 5-8) tells a different story. Then, as now, the party and its leaders were more interested in winning elections and jockeying for power. All political parties do that but in the Congress’ case, this had primacy over everything else.

The model was simple: Occupy key positions in the party and wait for the incumbent government to make mistakes. After a critical threshold is crossed, it is only a matter of time before the existing government is dislodged and you can take over. This merry-go-round then continues without any care about what the country thinks. The roots of irrelevance can be traced to such behaviour. But Mukherjee says none of this. His is a description of events, not an analytical look at them.

At each turn, he is at pains to describe how he was always with Gandhi and how she always prevailed over her detractors. That is fine. His bitterness at rivals from West Bengal—Ray and Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi—comes out clearly. That too is fine. What is missing is the perspective that is expected from a person who has served his country for so long. A journey that began in the mid-1960s in West Bengal, and is continuing, surely provides enough material to make a contemporary reader understand India, what it was then and what it is today. That does not come through.

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