It is quite common for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders to remind the public that the Congress had declared the Emergency. Top leaders of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) never fail to caution citizens against the trauma of the Emergency and the abuse of power that occurred more than 40 years ago and the curbs on political freedom imposed by Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977. Undoubtedly, the Emergency was the first clear evidence of the danger that democracy faced from the turn to authoritarianism purportedly in the national interest.
The Emergency suspended political freedoms and set off nearly two years of widespread arrests, censorship of the press, severe curtailment of civil liberties and limited the power of the judiciary to review and check the executive’s actions. Opposition leaders were rounded up in midnight raids, arrested and jailed. For the 21 months that the Emergency lasted, it seemed that India was going to follow the political fate of many of its neighbours and newly independent states as its democratic ambitions were rudely shaken. But in 1977, Indira Gandhi called elections and suffered a major defeat, signalling mass opposition to authoritarian rule. Democracy was not only restored. It took stronger roots.
The Emergency’s aftermath gave legitimacy to new forms of dissent. It witnessed an upsurge of political activism, most notably the birth of the civil liberties movement which made a significant contribution to the restoration of democracy. Mass protests enlarged the political arena and expanded the field of political democracy. Jana Sangh was in the forefront of these protests, in fact, the BJP itself, was formed in the heat of the anti-Congress protests. The greatest beneficiary of the new atmosphere of freedom has been the Hindu right.
Four decades later, the right-wing establishment stormed to power in 2014 by winning a majority on the back of the anti-corruption movement (2010-11). But now that the BJP is in power, the party regards protests and dissent as anti-national and against the nation. But with job famine, banks in trouble, rising petrol prices, falling rupee, the NDA government is having difficulty in convincing voters that “acche din” will arrive any time soon. Despite attempts to curtail dissent, public protests have rocked India against economic policies, agrarian distress, caste tension and mob violence.
Curbs on freedom come in different guises
Recent political events indicate that curbs on freedom come in different guises and forms. In this regard, historian Gyan Prakash notes the differences between the political trajectories of Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi; Indira Gandhi acquired absolute power during the Emergency, but the decision to impose it wasn’t purely political, it was shrouded in a constitutional framework. At the other end of the spectrum, Modi’s climb to authoritarian power is political; he enjoys untrammeled power without a formal declaration of Emergency or press censorship or arrest of opposition leaders.
- Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi is powered by the surge of Hindu nationalism and mobilisation by the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres.
Unlike Indira Gandhi, he is powered by the surge of Hindu nationalism and mobilisation by the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres. One thing is clear: Emergency is not the only method available to contain anti-regime opposition. There are other strategies such as the national/anti-national labeling to corner critics or the “development” slogan to vanquish opponents. It is a well thought out strategy – speak against the government and you’re anti-national and anti-development. Hence, those who highlight government failures or speak against the excesses of the government are silenced or arrested. Targeting of dissent on such a large scale has not been witnessed since the Emergency.
It is no wonder that the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, the BJP president Amit Shah and finance minister Arun Jaitley have denigrated mass actions from below and attacked recalcitrant institutions in the name of “nation is above institutions”. None of their arguments are entirely new but the political weight of majoritarian ideology has reinvigorated them in recent weeks. Jaitley warned against the dangers of popular politics and assertions of independence by “non-accountable institutions”, while Shah took up cudgels on behalf of Ayyappa devotees who are mostly BJP workers and sympathisers doubling up as devotees.
A false binary
At the India Foundation’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture, Jaitley wondered, “Are we weakening the authority of the elected and creating a power shift in favour of non-accountables?” He claimed he was not providing any answer to the vexed questions, but the answer is obvious: the binary between the elected and the unelected is false. To project the former and disparage the latter as anti-national is unmistakably undemocratic. Oddly enough, by pitting an elected government against existing institutions, Jaitley seems to suggest that you can have one or the other and not both.
Significantly, Jaitley’s statement comes close on the heels of his party president ticking off the Supreme Court for passing what he deems an unenforceable order allowing women in the age group of 10 to 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple, while threatening to uproot the Kerala government if it persisted in enforcing it. Shah’s statement that the Supreme Court should only come out with orders that can be followed sends the message that the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution are not to be implemented.
Politicians in India know only too well that elected majorities are not permanent. Democratic politics shouldn’t be about the dominance of numbers. Those who believe so tend to ride roughshod over the opposition and trample dissent. This binary rests on another false assumption that permanent majorities exist from the start, and are fixed forever. This notion is based on a conflation of ethno-religious majority with a political majority as both are invariably treated as the same.
What is more, the BJP’s political majority is not nearly as impressive if you consider the party’s vote share. The party has 31% of the national vote. But under the first-past-the-post-system it translated into an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Importantly, electoral majorities are contingent and don’t endure. For example, the Mandal (caste) interregnum of the early nineties upstaged Hindutva politics which had been catapulted to centre stage by the Ayodhya movement. A major consequence of this power shift was that the Hindu right could not consolidate its popular mandate. In 2014, the BJP won a majority. But numbers change and what now appears to be an invincible majority may slip when the tide turns.
India’s democracy has stood the test of time
Despite the good and bad times, India’s democracy has stood the test of time, it has proved resilient and stable in large part because of its institutional structures – an independent judiciary, election commission, and the central bank – have helped democracy to grow and take deep roots in India. Also, one might add regular institutional innovations such as the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments (the panchayati raj amendments), which came into effect in 1993, and creation of new institutions such as the Central Information Commission which came into effect in 2005, has helped the consolidation of democracy.
The Modi government’s uneasiness with institutional autonomy is understandable because it weakens their authoritarian claims to power, especially as several institutions have begun to guard their turf against government interference. The latest in the line is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), whose deputy governor Viral Acharya warned that undermining a central bank’s independence could be “potentially catastrophic”. This statement came in the context of the ongoing conflict between the government and the RBI with the former invoking never before used powers under the RBI Act that allow it to issue directions to the central bank governor on so-called matters of public interest.
There’s no question that Congress has played its part in weakening institutions. Indira Gandhi was responsible for centralisation, de-institutionalisation and politicisation of institutions including the bureaucracy, judiciary, parliament and the presidency. But this has not changed. Rather, the shadow of authoritarianism and fascism (with Indian characteristics) is hanging over our democracy like never before.
The autonomy of important institutions such as the Election Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Central Vigilance Commission and he Union Public Service Commission has been compromised. The demand for a law to build a grand temple in Ayodhya even when the matter is sub-judice is a way to run down the Supreme Court as an institution. The environment in universities has been vitiated and dissent stifled to a point of choking critical inquiry.
Overall, the last four-and-a-half years have witnessed a steady hollowing of public institutions with leaders of the BJP and the government leading the charge against constitutionally mandated rights and against the autonomy of institutions to serve the interests of the ruling party and the supreme leader.
Zoya Hasan is professor emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.