The Emergency: When India Lost its Freedom 40 Years Ago

In June 1975, Indira Gandhi suspended individual rights and freedoms. Can the Emergency occur again? Yes, it can.

On June 25, 1975 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – without consulting her Cabinet colleagues in the then Congress government – sent a letter to the President of India recommending the suspension of individual rights and freedom. The infamous Emergency was born with this statement: “In exercise of the powers conferred by the Clause 1 of Article 352 of the Constitution, I, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, President of India, by this Proclamation declare that a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbance”.


From winning an astounding 352 of 518 seats in the 1971 elections to India’s Lower House of Parliament, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi, but the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru - India’s first Prime Minister) took India on its darkest journey through a dictatorial regime. A cartoon in Time magazine (censored in India) showed a fuming President Nixon caught up in Watergate looking on at a throne occupied by Queen Indira and lamenting, “Now, why didn’t I think of that!”


The Emergency lasted 21 months. Convinced that the people loved her and fed by a disrupted intelligence mechanism that had lost touch with reality, Mrs Gandhi lifted the Emergency on March 21, 1977 and sought to win legitimacy of her imperial rule via an election. The Congress was routed and ended up with 154 of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha – losing more than half of the seats it held. The fact that the Janata Party coalition that succeeded her collapsed in 1979 and that Mrs Gandhi was resuscitated as the Prime Minister is symptomatic of a story of promise, high expectations, and resounding failure now habitual in revolutions everywhere.


While the press has latched on to recent statements by senior members of the BJP ruling party, that the “conditions” for an Emergency still exist as an apparent reference to the leadership style of Narendra Modi, it is important to remember the broader factors that led to the Emergency, namely:

  1. A democratic elected majority regime can rapidly deteriorate into a dictatorial regime when its credibility or support erodes,

  2. Extra-constitutional authorities can have a magnifying influence on constitutionally elected representatives forcing the elected to tread on dangerous paths. In the case of Mrs Gandhi, it was the influence of her son, Sanjay Gandhi - whose death in a plane crash probably saved India from becoming a North Korea: a country doomed for social and economic disaster,

  3. The checks and balances inherently built into the constitutional framework of a democracy (the President, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and the press) can be made irrelevant by a determined, conniving set of actors.

And there is another aspect of the Emergency which is worrying: even after 40 years neither the Congress nor the members of the Gandhi family have apologized for the dark days of those draconian laws and actions.


Rahul Gandhi, the grandson of Indira Gandhi and the heir to the tattered Congress Party, has yet to say: “My grandmother messed up big time. She blew it. Much as I love so many things that she did, I abhor this criminal act of The Emergency.”


His cousin, Varun Gandhi – grandson of Indira Gandhi and son of the demonic Sanjay Gandhi who was credited with convincing his mother to suspend civil rights – has yet to say, “My father messed up big time and I abhor this criminal act of The Emergency. ” Ironically, Varun Gandhi is a senior member of the ruling BJP whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been busy reminding the country of the tyranny of the Emergency on its 40th anniversary - blissfully ignoring the fact that the son of Sanjay Gandhi is in his midst as a senior party functionary and remains silent on his father’s role. The BJP positions the Emergency as a “see how evil the Congress is” event.



The BJP has a challenge on its hands


Can the Emergency occur again? Yes, it can. India - as noted by author V. S. Naipaul - is a country with a million mutinies occurring at any point in time! Overly sensitive leaders can find them irritating. The BJP has won a majority in the May 2014 elections but done little else since then (it promised too much?) and a growing number of people are getting disillusioned.


Economically, though, India is far more stable today than it was in 1977. Inflation is under control (though still high compared to its peer group), labour strikes are less frequent, and the institutional framework of checks and balances has been strengthened. But all this can turn on a dime. A surge in global oil prices, a bad monsoon, discontent amongst famers, India’s perennial religious and social tensions, frustration among jobless youth…these can all lead to the vague rationale applied in 1975 by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed of “internal disturbance” and a “grave emergency”.


A threat to the then ruling Congress party and a desire to retain power, fueled the idea of the Emergency. A loss for the BJP in the crucial elections of Bihar in November this year may cause some in the BJP to question the “vote-catching skills of Prime Minister Modi”. The coterie around the Prime Minister is not the sort that tolerates any sort of dissent. Could the butchers in the kitchen – having banned the possession and consumption of beef to keep India pure - convince a weakened leader to impose an “Emergency”?


India remains a working experiment in democracy. The Emergency temporarily shut down the experiment. For those who were unaware about this dark phase of India’s history, it is a reminder of the continuous struggle to find the correct form of government that connects the people to its leaders and, yet, is given the time to deliver on its promise.


As the BJP is fast discovering, ruling India is far more than an exercise in speeches and management of social media. With the responsibility of charting the future for an additional 120 million young people, the BJP - inheritors of a dismembered economic framework from decades of Congress misrule – faces a challenging task. And hence it is more critical that they succeed within the democratic framework which Mahatma Gandhi and millions of Freedom Fighters fought so valiantly for in their non-violent war against the British.

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