Forty-four years ago, Indira Gandhi introduced an internal Emergency in India. In establishing her authoritarian regime, she used sledgehammer tactics, devoid of any finesse or pretensions of keeping up a democratic façade. She was guided by her spoilt and willful son, Sanjay, who in turn, was advised by men such as Bansi Lal, R K Dhawan and V C Shukla, who were at heart bullies and believed that everyone should do their bidding and there was no room for such high-minded principles as respecting dissent, the rule of law and the freedom of thought and expression. Bansi Lal as Chief Minister of Haryana had, in fact, set the blueprint for an unofficial emergency in his own state prior to June 26, 1975. He ruled with despotic ruthlessness. When the Emergency plans were being drawn up in the countdown to June 26, Bansi Lal had famously advised Mrs Gandhi to send all the troublesome Opposition leaders to his jails and he would know how to set them straight.
Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, considered the fountainhead of humanism, liberalism, tolerance and democratic traditions, ignored all the principles which her father held dear. In order to save her own position as prime minister, following a court case which declared her election void, she turned India into a fascist state. Opposition leaders were arrested and whisked away in the dead of night to jail without any recourse to appeal to the courts. The Press was muzzled, with blanket censorship imposed. Even the speeches of the few dissenters left in Parliament could not be reported by the media, only the summary of the proceedings authorised by the Speaker. The dreaded Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) law meant the summary arrest of tens of thousands for an indefinite period. Many of the MISA detainees filed habeas corpus petitions under Article 226 of the Constitution demanding that their fundamental right to life and liberty be upheld by the court. While most high courts accepted heir plea, the five-member Supreme Court bench, where it was sent in appeal, struck it down, with the exception of Justice H R Khanna. Judges, who had once been eloquent about civil liberties and human rights, sang a different tune when it came to the crunch.
As one who has witnessed Indira Gandhi’s government first hand and has written a book, The Emergency, based on those experiences, I am often posed the question: Can a state of Emergency ever happen again? On the face of it, it appears unlikely. After the Emergency, the 44th amendment of the Constitution was passed by Parliament, which decrees that Article 19 and 21 of the Constitution, concerning personal liberty and protection of life, cannot be tampered by Parliament. Information minister V C Shukla could control the dissemination of news in 1975 with ease. There were, after all, only a few thousand publications and a solitary state-controlled television channel, Doordarshan. Foreign publications were censored or prohibited. In the 21st century, with the huge flood of messages on the social media apart from a constantly proliferating media, a news blackout is simply not possible. And yet some sceptics still voice fears that the country may be heading towards an Emergency-like situation.
Authoritarianism does not necessarily come about like Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in one fell swoop. Dictatorships sometimes creep in slowly and insidiously without any official declaration. The health of a democracy is judged by several parameters. The most basic being whether free and fair elections are held and the people’s choice gets to rule. On this score, India ranks high, the carping about the EVMs smacks of sour grapes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has won a huge mandate and clearly has the people’s confidence.
But there are other hallmarks of a healthy democracy which should not be forgotten. A spirited Opposition, for example, keeps a ruling party on its toes. Brute majorities tend to operate unilaterally. The depleted numbers and the total demoralisation in the Opposition ranks in today’s Lok Sabha does not augur well for a system of checks and balances. The ruling party, instead of being content to rest upon its laurels, has unhealthy predatory instincts. Anti-defection laws make it near impossible for a legislator to jump from one party to another without being disqualified, but sometimes the interpretation of laws is in the hands of constitutional authorities who tend to become flexible in favour of the ruling dispensation. Government bodies can be misused to target political foes.
The makers of our Constitution envisaged India as a parliamentary democracy on the lines of Great Britain. Under Prime Minister Modi, increasingly, the government has acquired the traits of a presidential form of government, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. The recent poll was very much a presidential contest with the voters electing Modi as PM and unconcerned with individual MPs. Today Modi wields power unmatched by any previous PM, other than Indira Gandhi. If Indira Gandhi was called the only man in a cabinet of women, similarly, no one doubts that Modi, along with his deputy Amit Shah, takes all major decisions. Ministerial appointments are often window-dressing, selections made for considerations of political strategy and loyalty, not concern for suitability for the post. As in Indira Gandhi’s time, the PMO is the nerve centre of the government, nothing can be done without its endorsement. Modi’s office is burgeoning with highly motivated and driven officials and technocrats, who are entrusted with working out the blueprints for ministries and supervising the implementation.
On the question of media freedom, those who grumble about lack of access to the PM and denial of information, are often the same ones who expect special privileges and the presence of government representatives at their functions. It is a PM’s prerogative to decide who he speaks to and who he does not, but arm-twisting the media is another matter. And when the sources of government information are not available, transparency becomes a casualty. For a vibrant democracy, transparency is an important requisite. India today may not yet be heading for an Emergency, as some doomsday sayers predict, but it is always good to remember that eternal vigilance is the price for freedom.
(This article first appeared in the July 26, 2019, print edition under the title Revisiting the Emergency. The writer is consulting editor, The Indian Express)