When senior BJP leader L.K. Advani says that a return of the Emergency cannot be ruled out, we need to pause, pay heed. From a leader who was at the forefront of the fight against the Indira Gandhi regime that suspended democracy and fundamental liberties during the dark period from 1975 to 1977, and who spent 19 months in jail because of it, this note of caution — in an interview given to The Indian Express — is sobering. It is a warning to the political establishment that despite the celebration and self-congratulation over India’s democratic credentials, the work of democracy is not yet done, and the hard labour of politics is needed to strengthen it.
It is a warning to the government — one that has come to power with an overwhelming mandate — that democracy is not about the majority having its way. It is, instead, about the institutionalisation of restraints, and checks and balances. It is about the space afforded to the dissenting and minority view. At a time when “strong” government is being celebrated for the right and very often the wrong reasons, when the ruling party speaks of an opposition-free, “Congress-mukt” Bharat and about banishing beef-eaters and those who don’t do the suryanamaskar to Pakistan, when the media is increasingly targeted for doing its job and the opposition is in search of coherence, Advani’s reminder of the need to deepen the commitment to fundamental civil liberties is especially valuable.
Incredibly, without a trace of self-awareness or embarrassment, the Congress has tried to turn Advani’s comments to its own advantage. The BJP veteran, the party says, is hitting out at the Narendra Modi government without taking its name. Whether or not Advani means to target Modi, his former protege who became a rival and beat him to the BJP’s top job, will remain a matter of interpretation. But one thing is completely clear: On the Emergency, the Congress needs to be ashamed of itself. As Advani has also pointed out in the interview, the Emergency remains a crime that has not been owned up to, 40 years later. Those who were guilty of the Emergency, the party that perpetrated it, have yet to acknowledge their grave wrongdoing. “It was a time when 1,10,000 people were put in jail… I have not seen those who were responsible for the Emergency show any trace of honest realisation that it was wrong, that it should never come back,” said Advani. The BJP patriarch has served the admonition. But will Rahul Gandhi have the courage, and the wisdom, to say sorry?
The Advani interview is part of an Indian Express Ideas series that resumes next week and asks: Is India Emergency-proof? This paper believes it’s a conversation India needs to have.