American novelist David Foster Wallace began his commencement speech at the Kenyon College of liberal arts in Gambier, Ohio, with an instructive story. Two young fish were swimming along and bumped into an older fish swimming the other way. “Morning, boys! How’s the water?”, asks the older fish. The two young fish continue to swim on, and eventually, one of them asks, “What the hell is water?”
Reality, for many, becomes so obvious sometimes that they fail to appreciate its value. People in many democracies behave like those young fish today. They don’t realise that with all its defects, democracy is the best available form of government.
Democracy, a Herodotus-era institution of the “rule of the people”, took wing only in the last seven decades. There were 137 autocracies and just 12 democracies in 1945. Bolstered by the victory of the democratic Allied forces, more and more countries turned democratic. By 2001, this number grew to 88 and equalled autocracies. Today, the world has more than a hundred democratic countries while 80 are autocracies.
But democracies are in decline. In the last two decades, more and more countries have become less and less democratic. The Economist recently reported that only 22 countries can be called true democracies, while another 53 countries can, at best, be described as flawed democracies. More than half of the countries in the world are either semi-autocracies or downright dictatorships.
Liberal democracies are facing multiple challenges. This pandemic has become an excuse for some leaders to usurp more powers and become more authoritarian. The rise of the far left and left-liberal anarchist forces, wanting to destroy mankind’s valuable possession of democracy, is also discernible in many countries. Post-modernist scholars are trying to dub democracies pejoratively as populist. They argue that democracies are posing a “danger” to “our freedom”. They seek to pit people against democracy.
It is nobody’s case that democracies are perfect. There is no single definition of democracy that is universally acceptable. There are “illiberal democracies” as Fareed Zakaria pointed out and “liberal un-democracies” as Yascha Mounk wrote. But the alternative to democracy, historically, has only been authoritarian dictatorships. When societies fail to appreciate the value of democratic principles, either dictators are created or anarchy reigns. It also happened, albeit just for less than two years, in India.
Forty-five years ago, on this day, June 25, 1975, India’s democracy was shackled by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Citing “internal disturbance” and “imminent danger to the security of India” as the reasons, she invoked Article 352 of the Constitution and declared a state of internal emergency. The country was pushed into a dictatorship that lasted for 21 months. Fundamental rights were suspended. Over 1.4 lakh people were detained, including opposition party leaders. The media was gagged, and even the higher judiciary became a pliant handmaiden of Indira Gandhi. The entire country was converted into a prison of fear. Indira Gandhi’s loyalist attorney general, Niren De, had ominously told the Supreme Court that the Emergency gave powers to the government even to take away the life of a citizen — and yet not be answerable to anybody. Citizens’ lives and limbs were under threat.
As months passed by, the Stockholm Syndrome set it. Many eminent journalists and writers were singing paeans to the government. “When asked to bend, they crawled,” L K Advani, who spent the entire duration of the Emergency in jail along with colleagues such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, commented wryly: Hitlerian fascism was reincarnated in Indira’s Emergency.
Hitler, after getting elected to the Reichstag — the Lower House of the Weimar Republic — in 1933, had made his National Socialist Party redundant. Senior party leaders were made inconsequential in Hitler’s Third Reich. Sycophants and courtiers replaced them. Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda chief, became the most powerful leader due to his proximity to the Fuhrer. A systematic campaign against Jews was unleashed, culminating in their genocide towards the end of the Reich.
Something similar had happened in India during those years. Vidya Charan Shukla, minister for information and broadcasting, became the new Goebbels. Sanjay Gandhi emerged as the super prime minister with a coterie of officials running the show. A systematic Islamophobic campaign was unleashed by this coterie. Sanjay and his coterie became infamous for their forced sterilisation programmes. Corruption and sycophancy had reached unforeseen heights. Dev Kant Barooah, president of the Congress during those years, had acquired sycophantic notoriety by coining the slogan “Indira is India and India is Indira”, something on the lines of the mandatory “Heil Hitler” salute.
If India’s millennials take to the streets today with anarchist slogans, that is because they are like those young fish in the water, who have never seen the dark side of a dictatorship. Thanks to the valiant fight against the draconian Emergency by the forces that are in power today, the country has enjoyed liberal democracy for four-and-a-half decades. We did not have autocrats partly because of the Gulliverisation of our politics for many years, where smaller parties would pull the strings of power. When a stable majority returned after three decades, the country was in the hands of those who were victims of the Emergency regime’s excesses and fought for democracy.
The “freedom” that the anarchists and their left-liberal cohorts enjoy in the country’s media and public life today is because we have leaders in the government who fought for that very freedom and are committed to liberal democratic values, not just as a matter of compulsion but as an article of faith.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 25 under the title “When democracy was shackled”. The writer is national general secretary, BJP, and director, India Foundation.