It is a myth that you are more efficient under an emperor: Coomi Kapoor

Coomi Kapoor, contributing editor, The Indian Express, and author of The Emergency: A Personal History, on the turbulent 21 months, the courage of the press at the time and the similarities between Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi.

Written by Seema Chishti | Updated: June 13, 2015 12:00:36 am
coomi kapoor, coomi kapoor book, coomi kapoor book review, emergency, india emergency period, indira gandhi, sanjay gandhi, congress, indira gandhi emergency, india news, book review, The Emergency: A Personal History, indian express books, indian express Mrs Gandhi declares Emergency from AIR studios on June 26, 1975. (Source: Express Archives)

Title: The Emergency: A Personal History
Author: Coomi Kapoor
Publisher: Penguin/Viking
Pages: 389 
Price: Rs 599

Why a book on the Emergency now?

My publisher felt that after 40 years, the younger generation knows very little of what had happened. Also, I had faced Emergency rule on several fronts. My husband was arrested under MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) for getting into an argument with Ambika Soni, who was putting a boy in jail for shouting, “Long live democracy”; my brother-in-law, Subramanian Swamy, did a Scarlet Pimpernel act, appearing in Parliament and then disappearing. I was with The Indian Express then. Ramnath Goenka, the owner, had a gun to his head. Information minister VC Shukla threatened that his son would be jailed under MISA and his business empire liquidated. The gallant old man had a heart attack, but he got out of his sickbed, came to Delhi and threw out all the newly-appointed government directors on his board on some technicality. Bank loans were withdrawn, claims for payments were imposed, the press was sealed. Goenka kept applying to the courts for relief. He managed to buy time and eventually came out victorious. Few businessmen would have dared to take the kind of risks he did and stick their necks out for their convictions.

How was the press affected immediately after the imposition of the Emergency?

On the first two days, Sanjay Gandhi had the power supply to newspaper offices cut off, so we could not bring out the editions. When power was restored, censorship was in place and nothing could be reported without clearance. The Indian Express and The Statesman were the exceptions who dared to sneak in items occasionally, particularly on the edit page. Kuldeep Nayar wrote on authoritarian rule in Pakistan, but everyone knew that he was actually alluding to circumstances in India. When the Supreme Court judgment on Habeas Corpus came out, Ajit Bhattacharjea wrote strongly against it. On 28 June 1975, the first day after the declaration of Emergency, The Indian Express came out with a blank space in place of the editorial. This was telling enough for readers. After that, the censors passed a rule banning blank spaces. The Express’s finest hour was when elections were called in March 1977. Censorship was not lifted, but it reported extensively on atrocities, without caring for consequences. We were all very proud to be a part of The Indian Express.

coomi kapoor, coomi kapoor book, coomi kapoor book review, emergency, india emergency period, indira gandhi, sanjay gandhi, congress, indira gandhi emergency, india news, book review, The Emergency: A Personal History, indian express books, indian express Kapoor at her Delhi residence: “Indian politicians generally fail to learn from the past”. (Source: Praveen Khanna)

Did the Emergency serve as inoculation for India? No one has dared to repeat it.

Indian politicians generally fail to learn from the past. It’s true that no Emergency-like situation has replayed so far, even though all governments — UPA and NDA — have authoritarian tendencies. Given a chance, they would try to suppress dissent. But after Rajiv Gandhi, no one got a two-thirds majority in parliament. Narendra Modi has a majority in the Lok Sabha, not in the Rajya Sabha. Media has proliferated, so it is impossible to control it today, particularly on the internet.

The influential turn into cheerleaders when ‘strong’ governments emerge …

Very true. Judges who championed civil liberties ruled for the government in the Habeas Corpus judgement. In my book Nihal Singh, the brave editor of The Statesman, recalls how Sham Lal, editor of The Times of India, was the meekest of men during the Emergency, but the day after Indira Gandhi lost the election, he wrote a double column editorial to take out his bile.

Has the Congress learned any lessons from the Emergency?

Rajiv Gandhi was very different from his mother. A point that I have tried to make in the book is just how much power Sanjay Gandhi exercised over his mother. In the latter half of the Emergency, his coterie, the “palace guards”, cleared all appointments and important files. Nobody understood why Indira was so pliant to her son’s wishes.

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Has the opposition learned anything?

They learned nothing from the Emergency or their success in the 1977 elections. They squandered the goodwill, fighting for leadership, thinking that Mrs Gandhi had been bested for all time. The last chapter of the book describes where the main characters of the Emergency eventually ended up. Some joined the Congress, other die-hard Sanjay supporters like Shukla and Bansi Lal joined the opposition at some point. Several formed dynastic parties themselves.

A section of Indians, especially the well-off, show an eagerness to elect an emperor, not a government. Why?

When the Emergency was first declared, it used to anger me that so many of my friends thought that it was a good thing. As long as it did not affect them personally, they did not disapprove of it. What really turned the public against Mrs Gandhi was not so much the arrests and the clampdown on civil liberties as the sterilisation drives, demolitions and raids. It is a myth that you are more efficient under an emperor.

If Mrs Gandhi hadn’t unexpectedly lifted the Emergency, would it have lasted?

It would have gone on for a long time, as Sanjay Gandhi wanted to form a new constituent assembly and set up a presidential system different from the Westminster model. Nobody in the party opposed him. It is still a mystery why Mrs Gandhi decided to lift the Emergency. I think she thought she that she had successfully divided the opposition and could legitimise her rule.

It is 40 years since the Emergency and again, the government has full majority.

Power undoubtedly breeds hubris and a certain amount of authoritarianism. Many of the heroes of the anti-Emergency movement went on to do the same thing later. They took the dynastic route and were obsessed with retaining power.

Do you find any similarities between Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi?

Both are strong leaders with authoritarian tendencies. Many admire that. Mrs Gandhi is considered to be one of the most popular prime ministers ever. Hopefully, the comparison does not run too deep.

 

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