In 1975 – the year of our own Emergency – Chairman Mao’s views of the Water Margin, a Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) novel, were used to corner Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.
Compared to that, L.K. Advani’s interview criticising the Emergency – his lament that “forces that can crush democracy are stronger” today, and that he is not confident that it could not happen again – are more banal, if not obvious.
The India of today is not the India of 1975. But in some important ways, it is not all that different either.
There are important gains, in that our polity has become more inclusive and representative.
Institutions like the Election Commission have become stronger, as, to an extent, has the higher judiciary.
The media is totally transformed, but, only the brave will say that it has become the bedrock of our democracy.
Fewer still will argue that our political culture is more ethical and mature.
Neither will anyone stand up for our bureaucracy and say that it has become more upright and competent.
Significant civil society institutions have emerged, but they are dangerously dependent on foreign funding.
Can the Emergency recur again?
The matrix of the elements outlined above could possibly provide an answer.
Take the media first.
Advani’s most memorable quote: “You were asked only to bend, but you crawled” holds good today, as much as it did in 1975. Through the UPA regime, it was manifested in the absence of criticism of Sonia Gandhi, and now it is in the free ride that Narendra Modi gets.
You are free to kick a Manmohan Singh or a Sushma Swaraj, but woe betide you should you take on the supremo – and the media knows this well.
There is nothing in the media today to suggest that it has the depth or the resilience to face up to an authoritarian challenge.
Governments continue to use the legal system to muzzle the media.
The 155-year old Indian Penal Code is a convenient handle to ban books or get them pulped, as happened to Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus.
TV channels get taken off the air for allegedly screening obscene material or politically incorrect maps; a documentary on rape is prevented from airing on the bizzare grounds that it will promote violence against women.
None of this has been done through judicial due process, but through the decisions of bureaucrats and ministers.
Modern laws can be, if anything, more draconian.
Fortunately, this year the Supreme Court has struck down the obnoxious Section 66 A of the IT Act which sought jail terms of up to three years for posts and messages that were “grossly offensive or menacing” or causing “annoyance or inconvenience”.
India regularly tops the list of countries that request the removal of allegedly contentious material in sites like Facebook.
Another aspect of this is the attack on NGOs and their foreign funding.
Instead of prosecuting outfits that are breaking the law, the government is taking recourse to executive decisions to throttle these institutions which have played a significant role in evolving the Indian civil society.
Indeed, their mind works in the opposite direction, seeking at all times to control and manipulate.The real danger to democracy in India comes from the fact that its ruling elite – especially its politicians and bureaucrats – lack any passion for civil rights and liberties.
This is a result of the stunted intellectual culture of the country which has prevented India from achieving its true potential.
Despite 68 years of freedom, our political parties and bureaucrats have not developed any special commitment to a governance regime that gives salience to the civil rights and liberties of the people.
Arbitrary rule, injustice, torture and deprivation remains the lot of the majority of the country.
Were there to be circumstances in which a regime felt that it was under siege, it may not hesitate in taking to the authoritarian path because it will find a compliant bureaucracy and police force to assist it.
This time around, the process could well be incremental, in the manner of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
The Emergency of 1975 does not give us any cheer here.
There was little or no fight against the Emergency.
Most leaders, with microscopic exceptions, went tamely to jail and stayed there. By 1976, opposition had been virtually reduced to zero. With the political Opposition in jail, the media, judiciary and bureaucracy fell in line.
It was only the hubris of Sanjay Gandhi and his forced sterilisation campaign that allowed some opposition to the Emergency to coalesce.
But its end came because of Mrs Gandhi’s “blunder” in calling for an election in January 1977.
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