In Other Words

India’s Unresolved Democracy

Indira Gandhi, the "Emergency," and Indian Democracy By P.N. Dhar 424 pages, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000 Twenty-five years ago, Indian democracy was put into cold storage. On the night of June 25, 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a "National Emergency": Individual political freedoms enshrined in the constitution were suspended, India’s free press ...

Indira Gandhi, the "Emergency," and Indian Democracy
By P.N. Dhar 424 pages, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000

Twenty-five years ago, Indian democracy was put into cold storage. On the night of June 25, 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a "National Emergency": Individual political freedoms enshrined in the constitution were suspended, India’s free press was subject to stringent censorship, and leaders of the political opposition were arrested en masse. For almost two years, Gandhi, her son Sanjay, and his associates bullied and terrified their compatriots. It seemed that India had followed the life cycle of so many other newly independent states as its youthful democratic ambitions sagged into midlife despotism and nepotism. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, in 1977 Gandhi called elections and suffered a castigating defeat. Since then, Indian democracy has thawed out and revived to the point that the very men who sat out the Emergency in prison are now installed in government — the current prime minister, home affairs minister, and defense minister most notable among them.

India’s politics, like those of any deep and rich democracy, are full of ironies, and the coming to power of those who were imprisoned is only one of the many that surround the Emergency and its aftermath. (After all, some of those who imprisoned Gandhi’s opponents during the Emergency are also in the current government.) These historical twists have recently caught the attention of Indian political commentators as the nation’s newspapers, ever in search of another anniversary to commemorate, have blazoned numerous articles revisiting and reassessing the dark and puzzling episode of the Emergency. Has the authoritarian specter in Indian politics been exorcised permanently, or may it rise yet again?

Amidst all this reminiscence of the 21-month hiatus in Indian democracy, the most significant and substantial reexamination to emerge is a book written by the man who headed Gandhi’s secretariat and was one of her closest advisors during a crucial six-year period of her premiership. P.N. Dhar, an economist by training, joined the prime minister’s secretariat in late 1970. His career encompassed both the peaks and abysses of Gandhi’s reign: the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence, the annexation of Sikkim (or, as Dhar coyly puts it, Sikkim’s "merger" with India) in 1975, the Emergency itself, and the shocking electoral defeat of 1977 when the Congress Party lost a national election for the first time in three decades.

Dhar’s book — part personal memoir, part historical analysis, and part political commentary — is the work of an insider, but of one who has entirely imbibed the civil-service ethos of "discretion" (the deft skirting of issues and skating over of facts). Dhar writes elegantly and with real intelligence, and his book ranks high among recent Indian political memoirs (a rather undeveloped and unreliable genre). His long-awaited book has been the subject of considerable attention, mainly respectful, and it is already in its second hardback printing. By current Indian publishing yardsticks, it has become something of a bestseller. There are excellent chapters on his Kashmirian upbringing and pre-independence political activities, as well as illuminating discussions of the Bangladesh crisis and the Sikkim episode. But at the heart of Dhar’s account are his reflections on the Emergency, on its roots, and on its still-rippling consequences for Indian democracy.

The international press depicted the Emergency as a period of enforced sterilizations, arbitrary slum demolitions, and vocal sloganizing by a callous and heavily personalized government. It was indeed all these things; but it also illuminated the contours of a much deeper and more complex crisis of Indian politics — one that arguably still persists. Dhar rightly insists that those who seek a serious understanding of the Emergency cannot find comfort in tracing it back to the simple villainy of its central plotter, Indira Gandhi.

A relatively minor event precipitated the Emergency (a court judgment that overturned Gandhi’s election to parliament on account of a technical infringement of the electoral code). But Dhar sees it as the consequence of a "systemic" failure in the country’s politics — a gap between the formal institutions of Indian democracy and the broader political culture in which they had to function. Specifically, he points the finger at a resistance, among both Indian rulers and ruled, to the rule of law.

Several trends converged to create the conditions for such a crisis. Economic pressures mounted as the war, termination of U.S. military aid, poor monsoon rains, and rising oil prices led to rapid inflation in an economy historically unaccustomed to such sharp swings. Forced to respond to these pressures, Gandhi and her Congress Party could only summon up ideological incoherence. The economy needed wide-ranging, liberal reforms, but populist pressures had diffused a vague yet strident socialist rhetoric among the party and society at large. Meanwhile, dissent was rising: A strike threatened to paralyze India’s vast railway network, while popular agitation in the regions spilled outside of parliamentary channels and ran onto the streets. These protests brought together a dangerous mélange of characters, including Maoists and disaffected leftists, peasant leaders, and extreme right-wing Hindu jingoists.

Dhar’s own role in the Emergency emerges as that of a fastidious onlooker who surveys its more sordid moments (in particular, the rise of Sanjay Gandhi and his squad of perfumed thugs). Dhar never resigned from the government, even though he knew what it was doing. To explain this moral inertia, he pleads the common line that he felt he could do more within government than outside of it. Yet one can’t help sensing his impatience with the character of Indian democracy. This frustration, it seems, made him a willing party to democracy’s suspension.

Setting aside historical details and biographical niceties, the real issue underlying Dhar’s memoirs is what the Emergency has meant for Indian politics. Politically, it signaled the end of a certain leftist project, which was at best technocratic and paternalist in form, but prone to veering into authoritarianism. But the Emergency’s aftermath gave legitimacy to new forms of dissent. The greatest beneficiary of this new atmosphere has been the Hindu far right, which hitherto had been carefully kept out of national politics, but entered the government by the late 1990s.

Institutionally, the Emergency weakened India’s commitment to its constitutional foundations. Although a stickler for propriety, Dhar was also a supporter of constitutional reform. (He is, of course, keen to distinguish his own blueprints from the contraptions of Sanjay Gandhi’s do-it-yourself constitutional handymen.) Twenty-five years later, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the leading party in the present Indian coalition government (but which commands the support of less than a quarter of those who voted in 1999’s general election), has set up a motley committee to review and possibly revise the constitution.

As Dhar’s account suggests, the Emergency was the earliest symptom of what has become a long crisis of political institutions that continues to this day. The crisis will intensify as India passes through its "second democratic upsurge," a process drawing the lowest and poorest into politics. How the crisis resolves itself will in part depend on the complexion of India’s economy, which for the first time is gaining — at least patchily — a rosier hue. Still more crucial will be the ability of Indians to live by the rule of law. The Emergency was a troubling intimation of the effects of the breakdown of India’s political institutions. But no one should make the mistake of thinking that, with a simple turn in the wheels of political fortune, all is now well. The ghosts of the Emergency are still very much abroad.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola