Rahul Gandhi’s SOS for India’s Collapsing Democracy – Is It a Crime?

This is not the first time India’s democracy has been discussed on foreign soil. During the Emergency too, the revival of democracy in the country was the subject of global discussion.

During his recent tour in the UK, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi repeatedly said that Indian democracy is under threat, blaming the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government for it.

During a discussion at the Chatham House think tank in London, he said: “Democracy in India is a global, public good. It impacts way further than our boundaries. If Indian democracy collapses, in my view, democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly fatal blow. So, it is important for you too. It is not just important for us. We will deal with our problem, but you must be aware that this problem is going to play out on a global scale.”

He attributed this dangerous development to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a fundamentalist, fascist organisation, which, the Congress leader claimed, has captured pretty much all of India’s institutions.

To a dispassionate individual like me, who has gone through the experience of the Emergency era imposed by Indira Gandhi, and has been closely watching the recent political developments and governance style, Gandhi’s observations sound true and sincere.

Civil rights stalwart Rajni Kothari has described the state-of-affairs during the Emergency in the best way:

“It was a state off-limits, a government that hijacked the whole edifice of the state, a ruling party and leader who in effect treated the state as their personal estate. It was the imposition of a highly concentrated apparatus of power on a fundamentally federal society and the turning over of this centralised apparatus for personal survival and family aggrandisement. It was one big swoop overtaking the whole country spreading a psychosis of fear and terror…”

Are things any different? Has democracy not collapsed now as it was during that dark era?

An alarming report from Sweden-based V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), University of Gothenburg, said that India is one of the worst autocratisers in the last 10 years.

In 2021, this institute classified India as an “electoral autocracy”. In the same year, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance classified India as a backsliding democracy and a “major decliner” in its Global State of Democracy report. The data made available in this report demonstrated that in 2020 India’s representative government score stood at 0.61, i.e, closer to the score India had in 1975 (0.59) when it was under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

Besides, a political system where corporations own most of the media, where billionaires buy politicians, where private interest lobbyists shape policies, projects, and legislations cannot be described as democracy. It is called plutocracy. That is what India is today and the Adani saga is the standing testament.

Yet BJP is protesting vociferously. Former Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said: “Rahul Gandhi has tried to embarrass the country by saying that Europe and America should interfere in the internal affairs of India… He has sought to shame India’s democracy, India’s polity, India’s parliament, India’s judicial system and her strategic security from a foreign land.” And BJP spokesperson Shehzad Poonawala tweeted that Gandhi was demanding “foreigners to meddle into our affairs on the soil of a country that once ruled us.”

Debunking the lies, Sam Pitroda, who was present at the Chatham House discussion, has said in a Facebook post:

“Please, stop promoting and propagating lies about what Rahul Gandhi said in London. For clarification please, note that Rahul Gandhi basically said the following 1. Indian Democracy is Global Public Good. 2. The state of democracy in India is of concern. 3. It is an Indian problem, and we will deal with it. He never invited any foreign countries to help.”

Despite this clarification, the assault on Gandhi is continuing in parliament as well as in favourable media outlets. They want him to apologise. Ironically, none of those attacking Gandhi is countering what he said in the UK about the state of India’s democracy. They only speak about cliches like “Mother of Democracy” and “strategic security”.

Also read: Has India Ever Been a Democracy?

Intervention of international communities

The question is, whether this is the first time India’s democracy has been discussed on foreign soil. Not at all.

There have been several instances during the Emergency which had compelled Indira Gandhi to return to the democratic path and call for general elections in January 1977, in which she lost power in a humiliating manner. And the media, as well as eminent personalities, played an important role at the time.

In fact, both the US and the UK had actually extended support to the revival of India’s democracy at the time.

The New York Times published a long and stinking article titled Ruler of 600 million—and alone by Claire Sterling on August 10, 1975. The last paragraph of this article appeals to the patriotism of the Indian Army to effect a regime change:

“Somebody once told me, as I was traveling around India, that the one thing worse than trying to govern the country by democratic persuasion would be trying to govern it by force. Yet that is how Mrs. Gandhi is trying to do it now. Depending on how fast and how far she goes in changing from a traditional Prime Minister to the onewoman ruler of a police state, the Indian Armythe one group with the power to stop the processcould intervene. If it were to do so, it would almost certainly be not to replace her with a military dictator but to restore the institutions it has been drilled into defending since birth.

Indira Gandhi. Credit: Public.Resource.Org/Flickr CC BY 2.0

In October 1975, I was the district magistrate of Chandigarh and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), the “Enemy-No: 1 of the State” was my prisoner in custody.

On October 22, 1975, we received a letter bearing the insignia of a lion and a crown addressed to JP directly from the prime minister’s office. Chief commissioner N.P. Mathur handed it over to me saying: “Only the Prime Minister has read the content of this letter and the envelope was sealed in her presence. The letter is to be delivered to JP without anyone opening it.”

I went straight to JP and gave him the letter. It was from Lord Fenner Brockway, eminent Labour MP of England, who was a member of the Cripps Commission and a good friend of India. After JP, I also read the letter, which expressed deep sadness about the Emergency and the damage it had caused to India’s democracy. It was both an apology statement on behalf of Indira Gandhi and an appeal to JP to end the torment by reconciling with her because the ball was now in his court.

If this sincere effort had worked, the Emergency would have been lifted and democracy restored well before the end of 1975. But that was not to be, because of palace intrigues and sabotage by elements who did not want the restoration of democracy. And that is a riveting story.

Though the western political leadership was indifferent to India’s Emergency and the damage it has done to its democracy, the media and intellectuals kept badgering Indira Gandhi. Intellectuals included Bishop Trevor Huddleston; Lord Fenner Brockway; the economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher and political scientist Wyndraeth Humphreys Morris-Jones.

Newspaper headlines such as ‘The Indian dictator’ in The Times of London, ‘India’s iron curtain’ in the New York Times, or ‘India’s puritan nanny’ in the Guardian did rattle T.N. Kaul and B.K. Nehru, India’s envoys in Washington D.C. and London, who were among the closest advisors to Indira Gandhi.

Among all the media houses, it was the BBC which was the most active, resulting in its expulsion in 1975. The BBC’s then-Delhi correspondent, Mark Tully, was given 24 hours to leave the country after the organisation refused to sign a censorship agreement.

According to Tully, the BBC’s role during the Emergency proved crucial for its Indian audience.

“We were very widely listened to, but Mrs [Indira] Gandhi hated us and the government [did] too, since we were defying them…. They thought that by closing the office and throwing me out, they would close the BBC down, but they didn’t–the BBC continued. There were lots and lots of people who were very grateful to the BBC, and we had not damaged our credibility.”

The newly elected President of the United States, Jimmy Carter may have played a role in persuading Indira Gandhi to return to democracy by holding the postponed parliament election. The dates suggest this. Jimmy Carter was elected President in November 1976 and was sworn in on January 20, 1977. And Indira Gandhi announced the election on January 18, 1977.

Democracy in India is not confined to its borders and cannot be reduced to mere slogans and empty cliches. It is the precious asset of “We, the People” who constitute one-sixth of the human race. When it is in danger and on the verge of collapse, every citizen has the right and duty to raise the voice in the international community. That is what Rahul Gandhi has done. He has committed no crime and there is no need for him to apologise.

M.G. Devasahayam is a former Army and IAS officer and coordinator of the Citizen’s Commission on Elections.