We cannot be Emergency-proof so long as the Constitution provides for the declaration of Emergency at the discretion of the elected government. Let us not forget or gloss over the fact that the Emergency was declared within the framework of the Constitution in 1975, and validated as such by the Supreme Court. It was also ended within the framework of the Constitution.
It is a different matter that the decision to impose the Emergency was a political decision. Its removal, too, was a political decision. And political decisions can be right or wrong. But Part XVIII of the Constitution is titled “Emergency Provisions” and no government would wish to divest itself of the need for special powers should an emergency — external or internal — arise. That explains why the Janata government of Morarji Desai did nothing to expunge Part XVIII from the Constitution. Nor has any successor government, Congress or non-Congress.
If the Emergency was a political mistake, it also extracted its political price. Indira Gandhi was not rewarded for removing the Emergency; she was punished for having imposed it in the first place. But the punishment was not permanent. The people decided to reverse their verdict within months of delivering it. The lesson to be drawn is, thus, not a constitutional one. It is a political decision as to whether circumstances are sufficiently grave to warrant an emergency — in which case, the support of the people might be assumed. Or, whether the proclamation of emergency is perceived as unwarranted — in which case, revenge will be exacted, as for any other wrongheaded political decision.
Can we consider removing Part XVIII from our Constitution, or at least amending it to provide for only an external emergency? Yes. But only if we can be certain that an internal emergency will never arise. Is that a reasonable expectation? That is the moot question.
There is much that is reassuring about the state of our democracy. It has both width and depth, especially at the third tier of government in the panchayats and municipalities, which it lacked in 1975. Indeed, one of the most potent arguments that Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister, advanced for his most significant legislative move — the amendments relating to grassroots local government institutions, now embodied in Parts IX and IXA of the Constitution — was that while, till then, we might have been the “world’s largest democracy”, we were also the world’s “least representative democracy”. This was well-illustrated by the fact that, with an electorate 20 times larger than the UK’s, India’s Lok Sabha had nearly 100 seats less than the House of Commons. This had led to such a gaping chasm between the elected representatives and the constituency that had elected them as to open the way to “power brokers”, becoming virtually the only intermediaries between the people at large and their political leadership. The resulting sense of helplessness and alienation was identified by Rajiv Gandhi as the most glaring lacuna in our democracy. Although he did not say so explicitly, the absence of an empowered electorate at the village/ mohalla level had clearly made it easier for the top political leadership in the national capital to get away, in 1975 with declaring Emergency on thin and unconvincing grounds.
The 73rd and 74th Amendments have radically altered the terms of popular empowerment. We have some 2,50,000 units of elected self-government in the country, to which we have elected around 32 lakh members, over 14 lakh of whom are women, and covering every social category — SC, ST, OBC — in proportion to their share of the population, with chairpersonships being held by every unit of society, including one-third women in every category, general or reserved. True, a great deal still remains to be done to secure genuine economic and administrative empowerment for local bodies. But in terms of social and political empowerment, the grassroots are no longer reactive and acquiescent but demanding and at the forefront. This has revolutionised political dialogue in the country, making it far more participative and inclusive than in 1975 and, therefore, far more difficult now to resort to unilateralism.
The second big change, more readily recognised, is that large single-party majorities have been relegated to the past, thus making it all the more difficult to fulfil the conditions required to declare and then sustain an emergency without due and patent cause.
Yet, it would be dangerously complacent to conclude that our economic and social conditions are such as to preclude largescale discontent that could lead to a genuine internal emergency. Our pattern of development has so raised expectations (“aspirations”, to use the fashionable phrase) and widened disparities that it would be dangerously misleading to believe that we can shut dissidence out by shoving an extra chapati in every mouth. The successive victories of the AAP, the latest with a staggering majority, is one sign of seething discontent, paradoxical considering that the National Capital Region has by far the highest state GDP and per capita income in the country. That, I am afraid, is the syndrome of the future. Incremental prosperity does not lead to satisfaction but to an exponential leap in unfulfilled hopes and unfulfillable ambitions. Moreover, rural discontent is diffused; urban discontent is concentrated. Solidarity among the urban deprived (or those who see themselves as deprived) spreads far quicker and becomes more vocal than among the rural deprived. With half our population slated to become urban by 2030, the Isher Judge Ahluwalia report has estimated the minimum finances required (at today’s prices) to provide minimum urban services at Rs 45 lakh crore! No state or Union finance minister is going to make such a provision; so an explosion of the kind that shook Paris in 1832 or Europe in 1848 is being built up.
We might yet be saved by the democratic valve — but only if the avarice of the rich is curbed, which, given the nexus between money and politics, is difficult to expect without far greater enlightenment in the political class. That enlightenment has been woefully lacking in tackling tribal discontent. Will the political class now wake up? For, if they do not, the danger of an internal emergency will become all the more real within the coming generation.
The writer is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha