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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Many little Emergencies

We now have a crackdown we don’t see. It’s less ominous, but equally insidious.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Updated: July 20, 2015 11:31:18 pm
express, express column, emergency, Indira Gandhi Emergency, sycophancy, authoritarian, Pranab Mukherjee, Indian democracy,  Indian Express (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The Emergency was a conjuncture of different complexes. Individual elements of these complexes are always with us. Can they combine to create a potent and irreversible subversion of democracy? Most familiar is the Emergency as a personality complex: an individual, like Indira Gandhi, convinced of their own power, egged on by the sycophancy of supporters, using all authoritarian means to silence dissent.

But for all her grievous faults, Gandhi was, as P.N. Dhar put it, “a half-hearted authoritarian”. In the final analysis, she did seek genuine popular approval, called elections and created the opening that limited the damage. There are genuine dictators. Then there are what we might call authoritarian democrats: leaders with a cult of personality, destroyers of institutions, who flirt with violence but who still, in some corner of their self-image, seek democratic validation. Leaders with a streak of authoritarianism dot our landscape. Will the authoritarianism be powerful enough to overcome the need for democratic legitimation? Probably not, beyond a point.

Second, what will be the instrument of coercion the leader will call on? Dictators typically call on the army, but it is still hard to see the Indian army as an entity that would want to run the state. The other instrument of enduring coercion can be a party, particularly one that has ideologically motivated cadres — giving organisational backbone to plans of intimidation. In localised settings we experience this quite often. In this sense, a well-organised party needs to be feared more.

The Emergency was also an economic complex. It came on the heels of an unprecedented economic crisis and stagnation. Inflation was running at above 20 per cent. It was premised on an economic model that required more state control of the economy. Just read Pranab Mukherjee’s memoirs to see how ingrained the idea was that the solution to every problem, from fiscal deficits to food inflation, was more government crackdown. It was authoritarianism inscribed into economic thinking. So a full-blown emergency will depend on whether there is such a deep economic crisis, and if the leadership decides that crackdowns can be a substitute for the laws of economics. But the costs of this control will be immeasurably higher in a globalised economy.

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The Emergency was also a mobilisation complex, which is seen as a contest between order and anarchy. The crisis was so severe that various groups were willing to give up on purely constitutional methods. The repertoire of political protest, from hartals to bandhs deployed by students, workers and political parties, made the spectre of disorder more real. It was easy to convince yourself of impending anarchy. And so India’s elites, including many sections of the left, donned the mantle of the forces of progressive order against impending anarchy.

But the authoritarian side of the Emergency has won in subtle forms. Democracies have since been smarter about suppressing protest. The structures of democracy have weakened students, peasants and labour. The nature of politics has divided and fragmented them to the point where they are not seen as a threat to order. Student politics is more deeply regulated. Labour’s condition still remains dire in many respects, but unions are at their weakest. Can you imagine any railway union leader now being able to do what George Fernandes threatened: bringing the entire country to a standstill with a railway strike? And farmers are more on the defensive. It is not an accident that these three forms of mobilisation were the biggest source of political entry in the 1970s; they are now less potent.

Democracies have also legally regulated protest more deeply. Most democracies regulate union activity far more stringently. In moments of crisis, like our anti-corruption agitation or Occupy Wall Street in America in the face of the financial crisis, civil society can mobilise. But it has been harder to convert these into social movements. But most importantly, the state legally pre-crushes them, as it were, through much more stringent regulation of the repertoires of protest: from essential services maintenance acts to stricter zoning on how protest is done to making collective gatherings literally impossible. So the state’s enhanced capacity for order preempts a sense of anarchy. We now have a crackdown we don’t see.


The Emergency was a legal complex. There was the unprecedented spectre of a sitting prime minister being unseated by a court judgment. Even now, such a situation arises when chief ministers are convicted, though we often manage to do an end run around the legal process to ensure that popular political leaders somehow make it back to the political system. The judiciary, for all its bravado, has managed to avoid unseating many elected heads of government. So we don’t reach that crisis point. But if we did reach that kind of a conflict between an elected leader and the judiciary, where the elected leader thought she had popular acclaim, all bets would be off.

The Emergency was also a geostrategic moment, where the plausibility of taking a deep anti-American stand was greater, made all the more vivid by the spectre of the CIA pulling off an Allende; where another superpower would continue to back the Indian government if the price was right. Some major countries would not care but arguably, the costs of geostrategic isolation would be higher now.

The Emergency was a control complex that feared liberty in all its forms. Threats like terrorism have been used to legitimise surveillance, preventive detention and detention without trial, the dream of a would-be authoritarian. The state can crush dissenters through law, rather than suspending it. It can get away with impunity. So the state can exercise control when it wants, without declaring an Emergency.


Elements of the Emergency are now inscribed into the common sense of the state. But there are countervailing pressures of a globalised world and the economy that constrain the state. Paradoxically, unless there is a catastrophic crisis, we may not see an Emergency, because we have devolved it into lots of little Emergencies: less ominous, but equally insidious. But also harder to combat.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express

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First published on: 26-06-2015 at 12:43:30 am
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