The Emergency, which lasted 19 months, was a pivotal moment in Indian history. An elected government discarded norms and subverted the Constitution to remain in power by jailing opponents, torturing many of those arrested, suppressing the press, intimidating the judiciary, and delegitimizing itself without realizing it because it believed its own propaganda. Then voters reminded the government who was really in charge.

The wound was self-inflicted. Travelling through India at that time, V.S. Naipaul would write: “The turbulence in India this time hasn’t come from foreign invasion or conquest; it has been generated from within….The crisis of India is not only political or economic. The larger crisis is of a wounded old civilisation that has at last become aware of its inadequacies and is without the intellectual means to move ahead."

Whether India is living through such a period now, as some critics argue, is a rhetorical point. History doesn’t repeat itself by recreating each moment from the past. It takes newer forms.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is smart enough to know the audience it has to reach—those too young to remember, those not even born at that time. Note, we are at a moment where those who fought the Emergency are touching 60 or are much older. If we go by the figures of the 2011 census, nearly four out of five Indians weren’t born in 1975, when the Emergency was declared. Those who remember that past will get fewer as time passes, which is why it is important to remember what happened. Access to that history, without embellishment and distortion, is critical.

Now note the BJP’s game: to seize the honours for having fought the Emergency by pitting the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP (then known as the Jana Sangh) against the Congress. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, who was jailed during the Emergency, has compared Indira Gandhi with Hitler.

That narrative presents the BJP as the true champion of civil liberties. Such a narrative simplifies a highly complex coalition that emerged against Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s, and coalesced during the time when political stalwarts from different parties were together in jail. They were from Jana Sangh, but also from Congress (O), Swatantra Party, a few from Congress (R) (as Indira Gandhi’s Congress was then called), some socialists or communists, others (including, most notably, Jayaprakash Narayan) without party affiliation, and some dissident journalists.

What BJP leaders don’t dwell upon is what Subramanian Swamy has alleged—that the RSS leader of that time, Madhukar Deoras, and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, wrote apology letters to Indira Gandhi, with Deoras seeking a meeting with her, offering to promote her 20-point economic programme, and pleading that the ban on RSS be revoked. She didn’t reply. The BJP won’t mention that because it wants a neat little halo around itself while criticizing the Congress, some of whose leaders are foolish enough to walk into the trap by attempting to defend the Emergency.

The irony multiplies, because the BJP has become what the Congress was in the first three decades after independence, when it had the power and resources to rule unquestioned. That made the Congress arrogant, and when the party faced the triple whammy of political crises in June 1975—defeat in the Gujarat assembly elections, a high court verdict unseating Indira Gandhi from Parliament, and an opposition united under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan—it declared the Emergency.

Since the BJP in its present form wasn’t around during the freedom struggle, and lacks heroic freedom fighters among its political ancestors, the Emergency becomes a 19-month fairy tale for the party to clothe itself in the garb of freedom. The Maharashtra government decided to offer monthly pension to those who were jailed during the Emergency. Several activists and artists, including Vinay Hardikar, Suresh Khairnar, Pannalal Surana, Surekha Dalvi, Daniel Mazgaonkar, and Amarendra Dhaneshwar declined the pension, saying they were only doing their duty as citizens.

To be sure, many BJP activists suffered during the Emergency. So did many others. To that extent, for their contribution to protecting India’s freedoms, they were all heroes at that time. But commitment to freedom is not a fair-weather sport—it needs to be constant, at all times, under all circumstances.

Boosted by its electoral successes, the BJP’s swagger today is similar to that of Indira Gandhi’s Congress. It is replaying the Congress copybook of yore. Witness the governor favouring the BJP in Karnataka; the manipulations to engineer legislative majority in a state where it has not won the mandate, as in Goa; forming and jettisoning an alliance of convenience, as in Jammu and Kashmir; weakening judicial autonomy; plastering highways with billboards carrying banal nationalistic slogans; terming opponents —students, journalists, activists—anti-national.

What’s new? A few dominant and vociferous networks long on opinion and short on facts; the alarming drop in civility in public discourse, particularly on the internet; and the virulent spread of videos documenting lynching, not surreptitiously recorded by investigative reporters, but proudly filmed by those participating in the lynching. Which party’s supporters openly defend these practices? That’s new.

This is a project to remake India.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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