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It’s about the Dear Leader

The Emergency’s enduring legacy is the cult of the supreme politician: bigger than party, government, nation.

Written by Ramachandra Guha | Updated: June 24, 2015 1:05 pm
Indira Gandhi, Indira Gandhi emergency, M.K. Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Emergency, Congress, Allahabad High Court, Sanjay Gandhi, Janata government, Morarji Desai, Shanti Bhushan, Emergency era, Indian express, express column Can India undergo another Emergency? The chances are slim, in part because the prime minister and law minister of the Janata government undid the Emergency-era amendments to the Constitution, and in part because it is far harder now to suppress the media — especially social media. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

M.K. Gandhi, 1937: “It is not good for us to worship an individual. Only an ideal or a principle can be worshipped.”

In November 1969, when Indira Gandhi split the Congress, one of her rivals warned of the consequences. This was S. Nijalingappa, the last president of the undivided party. The history of the 20th century, remarked Nijalingappa, “is replete with instances of the tragedy that overtakes democracy when a leader who has risen to power on the crest of a popular wave or with the support of a democratic organisation becomes a victim of political narcissism and is egged on by a coterie of unscrupulous sycophants who use corruption and terror to silence opposition and attempt to make public opinion an echo of authority.”

At the time they were written, these words may have sounded hyperbolic. But within a few years, they had become prescient. For in the early 1970s, Indira Gandhi increasingly subordinated the Congress to her personal interests. Then, after the adverse judgment in the Allahabad High Court, she sought — egged on by Siddhartha Shankar Ray — to subordinate the government to herself, too. Meanwhile, other sycophants (most famously, Devakanta Baruah), asked us to see the prime minister as the embodiment of the nation. Finally, the most unscrupulous of all her associates, her son Sanjay Gandhi, used terror and coercion to silence the political opposition and the public at large.

It is now 40 years since the promulgation of the Emergency. Can India undergo another Emergency? The chances are slim, in part because — as prime minister and law minister of the Janata government, respectively — Morarji Desai and Shanti Bhushan undid the Emergency-era amendments to the Constitution centralising powers in the prime minister, and in part because it is far harder now to suppress the media — especially social media. That said, there is one aspect of political behaviour that the Emergency introduced which is still with us, corrupting our democratic fabric.

This is the cult of personality. Indira Gandhi was the first politician in independent India to make her party an extension of herself. This even her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was unable to do. Nehru was not a modest man and had a fairly elevated sense of his place in history. Yet, he could not always impose his will on his own colleagues. Sardar Patel, C. Rajagopalachari, G.B. Pant and Maulana Azad in the early years of Nehru’s prime ministership; K. Kamaraj, Y.B. Chavan and Morarji Desai in the later years — these were all considerable figures, whom Nehru could not take for granted. Notably, throughout his tenure, Nehru had no say in the choosing of Congress chief ministers.

All this changed after November 1969. Now, cabinet ministers exhibited an ever-increasing deference to the prime minister. All Congress chief ministers were personally chosen by her, and dismissed if they got too independent-minded for her liking. The conversion of the Congress into a one-person show was consolidated by the party’s spectacular victory in the 1971 elections. Later in the year came the victory in the war against Pakistan, which was widely interpreted as a personal triumph for Indira Gandhi.

First, the party; then, the government; finally, the nation. Indira was the Congress, she was also the sarkar, she was India itself.

The 1977 elections were in part a verdict on this cult of personality. Indira and the Congress lost, but, unnoticed, her methods were being imitated in the states. M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh claimed to embody, in their own self, the AIADMK and the TDP, the Tamil Nadu and the Andhra Pradesh government, and Tamil and Telugu pride, respectively. Meanwhile, in Maharashtra, Bal Thackeray presented himself as the spiritual descendant of Shivaji, and as the embodiment of present-day Maharashtra. True, unlike MGR and NTR, he did not become chief minister, but, as he himself said, he held the “remote”, in response to which the CM did as Balasaheb wished.

In later years, this one-person (or, at best, one-family) dominance of political parties has become ubiquitous across India. It is true of Mayawati and the BSP, Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party, the Badals and the Akali Dal, Lalu Prasad and the RJD, Mamata Banerjee and the TMC, J. Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK, M. Karunanidhi and the DMK, Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP. And, of course, it has remained true of the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis.

The trend, however, was resisted by the BJP, a party based on a strong ideology and multiple leaders. But then, its Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, steadily concentrated power in himself. He first decimated dissent within the state BJP, next within his cabinet. Finally, like NTR and Balasaheb once did, he presented himself as the symbol of his state. Gujarat’s past, present and future, its hopes and its aspirations, its pride (and its prejudices) were all subsumed in the political career of one person.

Now this has been transferred to the national level. The 2014 general elections were projected as a referendum on Narendra Modi. After he won, he has sought to subordinate the party, the cabinet and the government to himself. His admirers go further, seeing him as the very embodiment of the nation.

Consider a recent article by a BJP member of Parliament. This claims that “Narendra Modi’s rise has coincided with the rise of India.” It continues: “When was the last time Indians saw a leader with such an awesome charisma, and a thundering presence? Here was a man with literally a capital M.” And further: “His presence in world capitals has created a cyclonic shift in the way foreigners perceive us. Madison Square magic and Shanghai yoga are no ordinary feats. They have created an impact across the globe — something that was missing in the last 200 years of colonialism, subjugation and poverty.” (Read here iexp.in/WtA167454)

In the exuberance of his sycophancy, the writer seems to have forgotten Mahatma Gandhi, who, without Twitter or television, without access to state power or public funds, without ever visiting Shanghai or New York, created “an impact across the globe” that Narendra Modi cannot accomplish in a dozen lifetimes. Sadly, the article is entirely representative. A nationwide cult of personality is steadily being built around the prime minister, willed along by the BJP’s many D.K. Baruahs and S.S. Rays. In this respect, if in no other, the Emergency is with us yet.

The writer, based in Bangalore, has taught at Yale, Stanford, the London School of Economics and the Indian Institute of Science. His most recent book is ‘Gandhi Before India’.

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Ramachandra Guha
  1. J
    Jun 24, 2015 at 9:16 pm
    Congresss is the worst party , anythng and everythng ia better than they come to power. Modi is better, he is building the nation. But he should not cross the line like he did in delhi against kejriwal who is a better person than him. He should fight other dishonest people bt when he attack kejriwal he will lose.
    1. C
      Jun 24, 2015 at 10:50 am
      Was lucky to spend my entire childhood in hian insutes starting with Sabarmati Ashram before independence, and now having travelled round the Globe,agree with Guha that Mahatma hi is universally respected Indian. But can never forgive him for supporting division of this great country. Westerner were frightened of two great religions uniting and becoming a super force, so Britishers on purpose sowed enemity between Hindus and Muslims,even after 67 years India and stan are fighting,Britishers scheming is still working. There are lot of similarities in functioning styles of Indira and Narendra, and Guha your fears are ate well placed to an extent,but the basic difference between the two is Narndra is a true believer in his religion and devotee of mother shakti. If he becomes like Indira it will be end of this great country, be rest ured Ramchandra, Narendra has no sons to mess up the country, and not even school dropout g children.
      1. D
        Jun 24, 2015 at 9:18 pm
        India needed a 'Thorn to remove a Thorn'.Removal of the hi-Nehru family was the first priority.Now we have to be vigilant and pray no emergency happensdia needs a strong leader.
        1. V
          Jun 24, 2015 at 8:48 am
          What Guha says about hi & Modi is correct. Even in 7 lives Modi cant/wont do what MK hi did. Unlike hi who allowed for my country to be parioned because he was blinded by him love Nehru, Modi wont do anything as treacherous. Unlike MK hi who wanted India to Pay Rs. 65 crores to stan while Hindu Women & Girls were paraded naked in the streets of Karachi before burned alive. Sure Modi will reach such extreme degradation. He wont stoop that low ever.
          1. V
            Jul 1, 2015 at 7:40 am
            Millions died in 1947, most which was because MK hi's blind love to Nehru and his hatred to Jinna. Even budhoos will admit that millions did NOT did in Gujarat. So, you are true, he will never be Pak lover
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