Home / Opinion / The legacy of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election earlier this week marks the beginning of his imperial presidency. His authoritarian instincts will now have constitutional backing. A referendum last year narrowly endorsed changes that are set to come into force after the election. They range from giving him the power to intervene in the legal system to the power to impose a state of emergency. Erdogan is in good company. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is conspicuously indifferent to Western criticism as his country enjoys the prestige of hosting the World Cup. And with his recent electoral victory, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has the look of a man who is considering just how far he can go in cementing power.

It is an apt moment to look back at India’s own brush with authoritarianism. This week marks the anniversary of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is using the occasion to put the boot in. That is fair enough. The Congress has never faced up to what it did under Gandhi’s leadership between June 1975 and March 1977. On the contrary, it has often doubled down. Witness its calling perhaps the worst offender during the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi, a “visionary leader and an advocate of the poor", on social media last week. Such wilful blindness deserves to be called out. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the Emergency is an artefact of the past. The structural changes it wrought in the democratic structure are still apparent.

The nature of the mass movement for independence meant that the politics of the messiah was always a danger in the Indian republic. B.R. Ambedkar duly warned against it. Jawaharlal Nehru kept that threat at bay for a while. For all his aristocratic will to have his way—with disastrous consequences at times—his staunchly democratic instincts kept him from descending into autocracy. His daughter had no such compunctions. Her then media adviser H.Y. Sharada Prasad’s assessment in later years that if Gandhi had submitted to the judiciary—for all that the Supreme Court was likely to set aside the Allahabad high court ruling holding her guilty of electoral malpractices—“it would have greatly weakened the Indian state", is revealing.

Her deification following the 1971 war laid the ground for such L’etat, c’est moi chutzpah during the Emergency. Jayaprakash Narayan’s leadership of the opposition to the Emergency was built on the same messianic foundation. It is a brand of politics that has taken root in the decades since, from Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee to Anna Hazare. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for that matter, is a skilled exponent of it.

The natural corollary to this was the politics of dynasty. As Ramachandra Guha has pointed out, this was a deepening of the instinct to centralize power and have loyalists in key positions that she had shown in earlier years. Sanjay Gandhi’s rise, unchecked by his lack of democratic instinct and incompetence, was the expression of this instinct. The fact that he consequently became the path to power—his friend Bansi Lal replaced Union defence minister Swaran Singh, who was unenthusiastic about the Emergency, and his Delhi coterie resembled a royal court—further entrenched the dynastic paradigm. It was, arguably, the genesis of dynastic politics in India.

The judiciary as it exists today also owes much to the Emergency. From the Supreme Court’s capitulation in the habeas corpus case in 1976—where it ruled in the government’s favour 4-1, putting its seal on the regime’s vast powers of preventive detention and denying citizens any recourse—to the punitive transfers of high court judges and the 42nd Amendment’s abolition of judicial review, the judiciary’s humbling was extensive. It is perhaps best summed up by Justice Mirzah Hamedullah Beg’s farcical remark in the habeas corpus case that “the care and concern bestowed by the state authorities upon the welfare of detenus…is almost maternal." The backlash came soon after the end of the Emergency. Granville Austin has noted that the Supreme Court, smarting and eager to reassert its independence, created the concept of the public interest litigation in this period—and adopted a proactive stance in matters of governance and administration that has persisted to this day. This has altered the equation between the executive, legislature and judiciary in ways that are not always appropriate.

For that matter, the BJP and a number of other parties are beholden to Indira Gandhi’s descent into authoritarianism as well. Towards the end of 1973, economic distress in Bihar had led to mass protests by the Left. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad joined with other student groups to form the Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti and join in the protests. They turned to Narayan for leadership—and as his “total revolution" took shape and the Gandhi regime grew more oppressive, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh came on board, acquiring the mainstream legitimacy it had previously struggled for. That, and the Janata Party’s coming to power after the Emergency, laid the ground for the creation of the BJP.

Likewise, the decentralization of political power in subsequent decades had its roots partly in that period. It is no coincidence that many of today’s BJP and regional leaders had made their bones in opposition to the Emergency.

That two-year interregnum in Indian democracy is over four decades in the past. That does not make it any less relevant—both as a cautionary tale, and for an understanding of the Indian state today.

How did Indira Gandhi’s Emergency change India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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