Interview: 'Many Differences but Also Similarities Between Now and Emergency in 1975'

Christophe Jaffrelot, professor of political science at Sciences Po, speaks to The Wire's Sidharth Bhatia about his latest book 'India's First Dictatorship'.

The Hindutva right was a fringe force for decades but has been on the ascendant in India for the last 25 years, and now it is in power. How did it get here, and what are its dominant characteristics? 

Christophe Jaffrelot, a professor of political science at Sciences Po in France, has been keenly studying India, and especially the rise of Hindu nationalism, for over 30 years. Jaffrelot, who has also taught at King’s College London, Columbia University and Yale, has written several books on Indian nationalism, caste politics and Indian nationalism. His latest work is India’s First Dictatorship, about the Emergency imposed between 1975-77, written with Pratinav Anil and published by Harper Collins, which was released earlier this month.

Jaffrelot spoke to The Wire about the rise of the right-wing in India, the Emergency and more.

Your latest book is on the Emergency of 1975 and is called India’s First Dictatorship. Very provocative name, by the way. It was a time when fundamental rights were suppressed and many dissidents, including political leaders, were thrown into jail. Many commentators today call the present condition in India an “undeclared emergency“. Would you agree or how would you see it?

Well, I would say that there are some common features and some clear differences, and I would begin with the differences. You know the Emergency resulted in the arrest of about one hundred thousand people, if you add up everybody, it resulted in mass sterilisation of probably more than 10 million people and many other dramatic features including of course the “rehabilitation” of slum dwellers including those of Delhi under the aegis of Jagmohan and so on and so forth. It was in a very short span of time –  21 months only – a somewhat cataclysmic you can say political and social development.

This is not what we are seeing today after six or even seven years. I’ll return to that. Only Mrs Gandhi decided the Emergency without any preconceived plan. It was somewhat improvised. Certainly, the idea of the Emergency was in the pipeline since January ’75, but if there had not been the Allahabad high court judgement, if the Gujarat elections had not been lost by Congress, she might have not declared the Emergency. So it was not that pre-planned.

And last but not least, there was no ideology behind it, really. In fact in the book, we emphasise this dimension. She had a leftist discourse, she introduced to her socialism into the preamble of the constitution and the word ‘secular’, but that did not give the Emergency an ideology. In fact, she pleased the big industrial families, industrial houses more than the workers. Strikes were banned, bonuses were abolished, and in fact, the great beneficiaries were not the workers at all. So the idea that it was a dictatorship of the left is certainly wrong. It has no ideology.

It was what we call a ‘Sultanist’ moment, a moment of personal dictatorship. That said, you can certainly see affinities and compare different features of the two moments. One, the formidable personalisation and concentration of power in the hands of one man and woman and probably two persons on both sides. In that sense, the Emergency is not an aberration. It is the culminating point of the evolution of Congress since the 1969 split. Gradually Mrs Gandhi concentrated power in her hands and with the help of Sanjay, she replaced old-timers, Congress veterans, with sycophants. And sycophancy is one of the reasons why you could see Congress becoming so deinstitutionalised. And therefore, that made, the Emergency possible, in fact. There was nobody to resist her.

Well, very similarly, we’ve seen the BJP changing dramatically from a party that was known for its collegiality, a party that was known for its organisation, cadre-based organisation, being transformed into a much more centralised party apparatus. And again, you have two persons at the helm, of course, Narendra Modi, but clearly, also Amit Shah, who has been party president.

So that’s the concentration of power effect that is very similar. And that goes with another dimension that you can compare. And that’s why you can apply the concept of Sultanism to both. And by the way, this is a very brilliant concept. Max Weber was the first one to define Sultanism on the basis of discretion. When you can almost freely decide, when one man can almost freely decide how the state should be run, you enter in the Sultanist moment. And that’s something Juan Linz, another very perceptive political scientist said about many regimes across the world in the 70s and 80s.

Also read: The Ones That Didn’t Make It to NYT: The Valiant Bar and Bench During Indira’s Emergency

This is something different from only concentrating power in your hands. It’s what you do with this power. And most of the time this discretionary power resulted in the making of cronies, in the making of a clique, in the making of you can say a small group of people who will benefit in a rather nepotistic way. You create oligarchs, or you cultivate oligarchs. Never forget that under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and slightly before and even more clearly after, we saw the making of Reliance and the making of the man who was behind Reliance.

The last thing I want to say in terms of comparison: you know the Emergency was made possible because many institutions preferred safety to opposition – and many people in these institutions. For instance, the judiciary. You look at what the Supreme Court of India became during the Emergency and you realise that except on a couple of occasions, the judiciary bowed to the executive power instead of resisting. The most telling case of this is of course the habeas corpus case. If Justice Khanna had not saved the honour of the Supreme Court at that time, nobody would have.

Similarly, we see today a Supreme Court today that is not opposing the executive any more at any cost. That is not even taking cases, picking up cases, you know. You wait for months, years, before seeing something like the abolition of Article 370 is even considered. The list of these cases is very long. That works for the judiciary, that works for the media to some extent.

Who resisted the Emergency among the newspapers? A couple of them, a handful of them – Indian Express, The Statesman, the others preferred to play it safe. The parallels are in that sense very interesting. For us, in the book, we come to this conclusion that it’s revealing of the shallowness of democratic culture to some extent. To some extent, there is no appetite for freedom and the fighters were very few. Those who resisted were very few, and there again you can definitely make some parallels.

Indira Gandhi. Photo: PTI

So Christophe, the BJP and RSS leaders were in jail during the Emergency, many of them. We understand that even Mr Modi was either in jail or had escaped. And of course, Mr Vajpayee and others were. So was Balasaheb Deoras was chief of RSS at the time.

But now it looks like they’ve borrowed heavily from her in some ways. Except for the critical differences that you have pointed out and one of them is of course that there was a law enacted, so-called, at midnight. That hasn’t happened. Many, many critical differences are there, but some of the ideas in terms of the larger-than-life imagery, the populism, etc., they may not have been directly taken from her, but they certainly reference her in some ways.

So, it’s ironical that after that experience and after many years of insisting that the BJP was going to be very, very democratic, and for periods it was, we come to this pass so many years later.

Yeah, it’s definitely ironical. When you remember indeed the fact that Jan Sanghis joined hands with socialists, with Congress (O) people for saving democracy and saving democracy in the framework of the JP movement in the first place. And then of course in the building of the Janata Party.

At the same time, it’s very interesting to see that this amalgamation of forces was made of people who were following different agendas. And there, when you read, for instance, D.P. Thengadi, who was one of the most influential RSS leaders who had started the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and so on, he clearly said that this battle is not for democracy the way it was before. Because democracy the way it was before was imported from the West, and it will have to be transformed.

Also read: Ten Reasons Modi is Just Like Indira Gandhi. And That’s Not a Good Thing.

It was very clear that in the short-run, yes, everybody had to coalesce and dislodge Mrs Gandhi from power, but in the longer term, agendas would definitely diverge. And they diverged very quickly indeed because if the Janata Party imploded, it was precisely because, in terms of policies, there was no way all of these people could sit together. You know when you look at the way ex-Jan Sanghis pushed issues such as the anti-conversion Bill, the rewriting of history textbooks, the promotion of cow protection, you know that’s something the socialists could not consider as priorities. And on the contrary, they were at the loggerheads so far as reservations were concerned, land reform was concerned. So yes, they fought together for an immediate goal, but they were not supposed to work together for the same democracy in the midrange and longer term.

You’ve been seeing the Hindu right wing closely for nearly 30 years, and you know, in 1984 they got two seats in parliament. They were very, very demoralised. You’ve written extensively about the Sangh Parivar. From what you’ve just said it’s clear that they’ve always had their agenda, but they were weak, and now they’re in power.

So, has it grown, morphed, changed? Where do you see it today compared to what it was then, and how did this journey happen? Despite the fact that even Mr Modi is following the same agenda as they did, but fundamental things about the BJP compared to the Jan Sangh have changed.

Yeah, what is fascinating is to see that since 1925, when RSS was created, the core ideology remains the same. You know there are very few movements in the world that, which do not change fundamentally over one century you know. And not only do not change but prosper. Because you can shrink. You can remain true to your ideology, but that is the reason you become redundant and irrelevant. In their case, they have remained true to their ideology, and they have grown. I think it’s unique, really in the history of the world. Such an organisation, such a movement.

File photo of RSS workers practicing yoga. Photo: PTI

Of course, that is also because they have adapted. Not the core ideology, that has remained the same, but the modus operandi. And for me there is one big, well there are two, big transformations. One is the diversification of you can say subsidiaries, offshoots. They started with a student union, ABVP, in ’48, then labour union, BMS in ’55, then VHP in ’64. In between, you had the Vanavasi Ashram in the 50s. It diversified constantly. You have to add Saraswati Shishu Mandir, ’77, Seva Bharati, ’79. You know, there that is not penetrated.

Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, BKS, the lawyers, the ex-army men, name one, you have an organisation that is a position to infiltrate in a way, penetrate.

Also read: Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Was Open and Face-to-Face, Dictatorship Today Wears a Mask

Certainly the media, I can tell you–

And of course; well, you have two kinds of diversification. You have the official one, and you have the unofficial one. So, it can be unofficial in some professions. And the list is even longer, probably, if we go in that direction. But then you have another transformation that is of course much more obvious in politics. And that’s what Narendra Modi has achieved. For decades, the Sangh Parivar was an upper-caste, elite, you can say even Baniya-Brahmin organisation. Really Jan Sangh could never cross the glass ceiling of 10% of valid votes because it confined to this world, to this universe.

They could do more in the 90s because of allies. And for Atal Bihari Vajpayee and for L.K. Advani, there was no way out of coalition politics. They considered, and Advani considered till 2014 that coalition politics was the only way to make progress, and you can attribute the progress they could make in the 90s largely to coalition politics. And that did not last, 2004, 2009 they were back almost to what they were before.

The real turning point is 2014. And this turning point, when BJP crosses the 30% valid vote mark, is due to a transformation that has been achieved by Narendra Modi, who gave BJP, you can say, a plebeian dimension. And this plebeian dimension was partly due to his own pedigree, his own background, and he could look at, I mean, project himself as a ‘chaiwalla‘, as a backward caste person, and that could work to some extent. But of course, it’s more than that, it’s more than his personal biography, it is his style of politics. It’s a populist style of politics.

BJP was not a populist party, it was an ethno-nationalist party that was an upper-caste, middle class, urban party, and Modi’s style of politics transformed that. And he transformed that because of the way Modi spoke to the people, the kind of discourse, even the way he pronounced words, you know the intonation itself matters. It’s a performance. And he spoke like most of the populist leaders, really.

In that sense you can compare the performances of Modi, Bolsonaro, Trump, Orban, they have much in common. They speak against the establishment, they speak against those who are English-speaking people, who therefore are seen as part of the elite, they are against the Lutyens intellectuals, which means the Khan Market gang, which means the establishment. That the populace should vote for. And I, “I am your voice.” You know, Donald Trump used to say “I am your voice. I am your voice against the establishment of, of both the East and the West Coast.” Well, Modi was the voice of those who felt discriminated against, who felt left out, and that worked.

And I think it worked in a very specific moment, the post-Mandal moment. Because OBCs, lower-caste, you can say plebeians, had started to emancipate themselves. And that was because of Mandal. And they had started to assert themselves. But of course they had reached a plateau because it’s very difficult from there to join the middle class. There’s a gap, a big gap. And middle class was in any case already behind BJP. And you could amalgamate to this core base the frustrated OBCs, whom he had rechristened the “neo-middle class”.

Also read: Indira Gandhi, the Final Days

Remember? In 2012, for the first time Narendra Modi says, there is a group of aspiring people, they are coming up, they come from the village but they are urbanised, they come from the OBCs but they don’t want to be in caste politics. That results in the 30% of votes that he got in 2014. So, this for me is new, it gives BJP a new dimension. Of course, the big question, and I close on that, what does the BJP do after Modi? Because when the party that used to be a cadre-based party relies so much on a personality, it has to reinvent itself again. It has been transformed. It will have to transform itself again. And in 10-15 years from now, this question may be even more acute. So that’s why parties are like living organisms in a way. Living or dying organisms because we’ve seen parties which have died also.

Narendra Modi gestures during a public meeting in Vadodra in the western Indian state of Gujarat May 16, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave

So, at the same time, it was a kind of perfect moment, partly engineered, partly natural, that you had a situation where he was emerging with the full backing of the business class, middle class, etc. He repositioned himself. In retrospect, I think even the repositioning was not really that crucial because I think his core audiences were in any case beginning to coalesce around him.

But at the same time, the Congress was very weak, strategies like the Anna Hazare agitation, which now we know was also similar to the JP one, where the RSS took a big part, the media allegations against UPA, corruption, which have not really been proved, that also came at the same time. Now you can say that this was orchestrated, but you can say he was the man of the moment, and the moment was created for him. 

Yeah, Certainly. Circumstances always play a big role in this kind of, I would say, transformation, really huge transformation of the political landscape. When you compare India today and you compare an India seven years ago, you just can’t recognise the political landscape. So that cannot be the work of one man only, certainly. You have structural forces which are at work.

One of them, I’ve just mentioned it, was the emancipation of plebeians looking for another step to move forward. And I really think that Hindu nationalism was this new identity for many beneficiaries of Mandal-caste politics, who were now frustrated and were looking for self-esteem, and he was very good at giving them self-esteem as the defenders of the Hindu community.

Another structural transformation was the disillusion with democracy. It’s very interesting to look at surveys, especially the CSDS surveys, state of democracy in South Asia, these are very comprehensive surveys. And, you have others, the Pew Center surveys are equally interesting, and they show one thing: the lack of attachment to democracy to the very least was increasing in India steadily. It’s not only in India. All over the world, democracy does not deliver sufficiently for the people anymore. But in India, it was particularly pronounced.

Also read: The Emergency, and the BJP’s Hidden History of Student Protest

And what was interesting was there was a kind of demand for a strong man. So, you can structurally you can say it’s conjectural, of course, it’s partly conjectural. Manmohan Singh was the anti-hero, you know. He was certainly not a strong man. He was many things, he was probably the best manager of coalitions plus democratic and economic reforms that India could get, from RTI to NREGA, but he was not a strong man. There was a demand for a strong man, and there was no one on the supply side, there was a clear scarcity, and Congress did not have the leader. The leader who could have cashed in on this demand that was emerging.

So yes you can say that it’s partly a manmade rise to power, it’s partly something that was latent and that crystallised at that moment. And I would really combine both factors, because as you said the anti-corruption movements of 2011, 2012, 2013 was largely manmade. So there was latent demand, but it was precipitated.

Transcribed by Ashira Shirali.