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In inoculation and irony, the Emergency’s lasting lessons

One lesson of that time turned out subsequently to be a blueprint for Opposition success. It learnt that the adage about Strength in Unity was not just a cliché.

Written by Seema Chishti |
Updated: June 26, 2015 4:26:16 am
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Columbia University professor Philip Oldenburg has written about how “political scientists did not expect India to survive as a democracy, because it had a desperately poor, mainly agricultural economy, a religiously justified caste system and oppression of women; and was not just ethnically diverse, but composed of what could easily be separate nations.”

He has reflected on how the pundits must have heaved a sigh of relief as a spell of authoritarianism descended upon the country, so now at least “facts on the ground matched their theory”.

It is a relief that the facts soon departed from theory and things changed. But what have been the various ways in which that phase left its imprint on India? There appear to be several takeaways.

The most familiar refrain is of the Emergency serving as an inoculation, ending up securing India from the virus of a full-blown dictatorship. But that too, is limited, as apart from the Rajiv Gandhi mandate, electors themselves ensured that they did not give too much power to any one party or leader — except now, in 2014.

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One lesson of that time turned out subsequently to be a blueprint for Opposition success. It learnt that the adage about Strength in Unity was not just a cliché. In 1989, as in 2004, unexpected Opposition combos rattled dominant political formations.

In a strict parliamentary sense, an absolute majority should kill the debate about the importance of the Opposition. But the fact is that even those who don’t have the numbers need to be accommodated. And no rule book, or plan to pack them in jails, can work for long. Majority or not, India is too diverse to be led by diktat.

The Emergency saw institutions expected to serve as pillars of a functioning and questioning liberal democracy quiver and shake. The judiciary left a lot to be desired, despite the fact that a court had dared to call out an irregularity in the election process of a popular Prime Minister. It was downhill after that — and even the press, with a few honourable exceptions, appeared happy to allow pre-censorship, or to applaud the idea of trains running on time.


The Indira Gandhi playbook, with its infamous, forcible family planning drive, seems to have pushed population control out of manifestos entirely, since. The methods and styles of even health practitioners talking population control could never include the N-word – nasbandi in this case.

The Emergency propelled several political leaders long in political wilderness straight into office, and introduced the idea of an ‘opposition’ leader in the ruling structure. The Leader of the Opposition (through The Salary and Allowances of Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Act, 1977) emerged from the first non-Congress government that followed the first election after the Emergency.

A few obvious lessons the Emergency imparted came to be shot through in later years with irony. Thus, several leaders who harvested a political fortune opposing the Emergency quickly warmed to the possibility of privileging personal political power over party organisation. As leaders incubated in the anti-Emergency struggle went on to establish family fiefs as parties, the lesson they appeared to have learnt from Sanjay-Indira seemed to be simply that it could be done — and that dynasties could be established in their own lifetimes.


For the RSS, the big learning lay in the importance of working by proxy. The utility of embracing leaders like Jai Prakash Narayan and, years later, Anna Hazare, was learnt in the Emergency years. As “dual-membership” — of RSS and government — was cited as a major catalyst for the Janata collapse by leaders like George Fernandes, the Hindu right felt it necessary to disengage, and emerge as a new political entity: the BJP, in 1980.

An enduring lesson India’s political classes imbibed silently was on the importance of keeping control over state media and the retention of the Emergency clause in the Constitution. So Prasar Bharati has remained a vital tool of control — far more of a ‘state’ broadcaster than a ‘public’ service institution. No party has freed radio airwaves either. The Emergency provision remains.

Then again, as those who lived the Emergency years continue to recall, even while the songs of resistance were sung and the people protested, sections of the elite were happy to live with authoritarian rule — something that allowed the Emergency to even survive for as long as it did.

The fact is that eventually, inspired by we don’t know exactly what — either incorrect IB reports, her conscience, or foolhardiness — it was Indira’s own decision to call an election that ended the Emergency, not a popular uprising. And that raises more questions than it answers.

Speaking in a Constituent Assembly debate on August 4, 1949, Naziruddin Ahmad from West Bengal, influenced perhaps by the defeat of fascism four years earlier, said: “It is a strange thing that though dictators have always been unpopular and destroyed in the long run, yet, it is a strange phenomenon of modern times that dictatorships do grow up. They arise honestly out of good working democracy; they arise out of the desire to deal with lawlessness honestly by constitutional short cuts.”

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First published on: 26-06-2015 at 04:01:00 am
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