(March 21, 2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the lifting of the Emergency in India)
We normally get to hear the President of India speak on three formal occasions: on the eve of Republic Day and Independence Day and at the joint session of both Houses of Parliament marking the start of the Budget session. Of course, the President of India also makes speeches on various other platforms over his/her tenure. But what marks all these speeches is their standardised nature – they are either listing the priorities and achievements of the government of the day or are exhortations to select audiences on specific subjects. Which is why the publication of the first of his three volume memoirs by President Pranab Mukherjee was interesting: it was the first by a President while still in office. More intriguingly, it dealt with his first fifteen years in Lutyens Delhi during the Indira Gandhi era.
Of particular interest to my generation, which received its political education from the Emergency years, is his analysis and understanding of the Emergency – the events that led to it, the rationale for the Emergency and the happenings during that period and the political resurrection of Indira Gandhi in the post-Emergency years. Even today, forty years on, I remember my feelings on the morning of 21 March 1977 – “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”- when a captive All-India Radio and Doordarshan had to admit that Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party had been decisively routed in the polls. At a juncture now in the country’s and world’s history when strong personalities bestride the political scene and when the tenets of liberal democracy are being seriously questioned by the inhabitants of such democracies, there is need to try and understand the social forces at work in a country like India and what these imply for a country which has defied its critics and sceptics by doggedly persisting with a democratic form of government, despite all its flaws and aberrations. A comparison of 1975/77 India and her offspring of 2017 bring out the bright and dark sides of present-day India and enable possible prognostications of what the future holds for us Indians.
1) The educated middle class expansion and its implications: Post 1991, the middle class population in India has grown significantly in numbers apart from being engaged in a variety of occupations. The 1975 Indian middle class was largely employed in government service and beholden to the rulers of the day. The present day middle class Indian could be an entrepreneur, one who works in the organised private sector or is self-employed, very often one with international footprints. She has had access to improved education opportunities, is far more aware of thought currents across the globe and has many more avenues to express herself openly. And yet, the educated middle class is today far more susceptible to the allurements of narrow nationalism, jingoistic pride and intolerance of the views of others, as evidenced by the vicious attacks on social media. The ideals which guided the framers of the Indian Constitution find little resonance with the millennial generation. The technocratic worldview has little patience for liberal, humanistic values. It is little wonder then that liberal democracy is facing an existential crisis today.
2) The explosion in mass media: Freedom of expression has been facilitated by the internet revolution and the humongous growth in electronic and social media. Those of us who had just All India Radio and Doordarshan for meeting our information needs during the Emergency find the current Babel Tower of the electronic media refreshing, even if somewhat irritating at times. Twitter trolls notwithstanding, there is opportunity for every Indian with digital access to put forth her views. And yet, the flip side can be disquieting. While print media in the past was privately owned, big business has now come to dominate both print and electronic media. Editors and news managers are under increasing pressure to conform to the business interests of their owners, unlike in the past. The dissemination of news is also coming to resemble a cricket Twenty-Twenty match, with inexperienced reporters (having little understanding of ground realities) excitedly putting forth garbled versions of the true picture. Even more dismaying is the tendency of news anchors (puffed up with self-importance) functioning as judge, jury and executioner, silencing all inconvenient voices and sending to the gallows those they consider lacking in patriotism and national pride.
3) The Big Brother syndrome – I am the State: We are now in the era of the strong man, whether in India, Russia, the USA, Turkey or the Philippines. Indira Gandhi in 1975 was strong in her own right but she did not have the wide, rapturous acceptance of her predominant position that a Narendra Modi enjoys today. The problem is that the person, party, state and nation are today all seen through the same prism. Criticism of any one of these is seen as opposition to the nation-state. An aura of invincibility is sought to be created around the superman, using the media and capitalising on an ineffectual political opposition. It is true that unlike 1975, when Tamil Nadu was probably the only prominent non-Congress state, today’s political scene is marked by a multiplicity of parties, especially regional formations, ruling in different states. Many of them are often hostile to the ruling party at the centre and lose no opportunity to oppose it on a variety of issues. However, with power and money rather than principles and convictions being the bases for political conduct, there is no certainty about the opposition either, as the recent events of manufacture of governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Manipur show.
4) Diversity – of language, customs and religion: Running a subcontinent of India’s size and heterogeneity is no easy business, more so for a centralised, authoritarian government, as Indira Gandhi found to her cost in 1977. The multiplicity of tongues, religious beliefs and customs, cultural and dietary patterns render the enforcement of a uniform, majoritarian worldview well-nigh impossible. But, in recent times, efforts are being made to impose straitjacketed versions of history, culture and ideas that are drawn from the Gangetic plains. Conformity with the majoritarian mindset is sought to be ensured through indoctrination, legislation and government action and, where these prove inadequate, through resort to vigilante action, whether to dictate what women can wear and do or what people can eat, see and talk.
5) Institutional capture: The first attempts by the government of the day to bend institutions of democracy to its whims and fancies started in 1975 with the supersession of judges of the Supreme Court and the enunciation of the concept of a committed bureaucracy, apart from very crude efforts to muzzle the media. History seems to be coming full circle once again, with steps being taken to exert the influence of the political executive on appointments to the higher judiciary and with no clear system being adopted for appointments to the elite bureaucracy at the level of the Government of India (the media has already been tamed to a great extent, as mentioned earlier). Institutions of higher learning and statutory bodies are being packed with appointees beholden to the reigning political order.
It is impossible (and highly risky) to hazard any definite conclusions about the likely direction of politics in India in the coming decades. Inferences can at best be drawn from the straws in the wind as revealed by the actions of the government and the averments of its spokespersons. In totting up the balance sheet for India’s political system, what gives cause for some comfort is the resilience of the Indian people and their refusal to tolerate incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian behaviour on the part of those elected to represent them. In the first volume of his memoirs, Pranab Mukherjee has glossed over the rationale behind the Emergency, apart from sticking to the usual Congress line of opposition indiscipline, unrest and the call for the resignation of the Prime Minister: having been a loyal Congressman for most of his life, it would be too much to expect him to frankly analyse the inner motivations of the primary actor in first imposing the Emergency and then calling for the elections that led to its end. What is important is whether, forty years hence, we as a people understand the significance of a functioning democracy and the rules and conventions by which it should operate. Sadly, we, the so called “thinking classes”, are ready to hand over our powers (and even our freedoms) in our quest for security and certainty, forgetting that democracy is eternally a story that is in the making. It is we, the citizens of India, who have to write that story, learning from past mistakes. Else, there will be need to revert to a perennially favourite quote of mine “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”