LEARNING FROM EMERGENCY
Emergency Chronicles is perhaps the most comprehensive scholarly examination yet of the Emergency. Looking back more than four decades after Indira Gandhi stunned India and the world by suspending democracy, historian Gyan Prakash argues forcefully that this was no momentary distortion in India’s democratic record or a nightmare that came from nowhere and vanished without a trace, leaving only its villains and heroes.
He instead views the Emergency as a tale of a political system’s crisis and failure. To make his point, Prakash musters an impressive pile of factual and anecdotal details of that period and places them in a historical context. The DaytonStockton professor of history at Princeton University also underlines the abiding fragility of Indian democracy. There are several indications, he points out, of the Emergency having an afterlife.
Recalling how draconian preventive detention laws were brought back soon after and despite the ouster of the Emergency regime in the late 1970s, Prakash shows that the political and social crises it tried unsuccessfully to resolve have kept throwing up fresh challenges. He explains how backward caste politics, Hindutva, and market liberalisation have emerged out of the Emergency’s ashes. Each holds serious implications for Indian democracy and together they dominate today’s political landscape.
Describing Hindutva as “fundamentally undemocratic”, the historian says it seeks to resolve the crisis of governance by building a Hindu nation with a resentmentdriven majoritarian politics that reduces the minorities to second class citizens. He feels that the surge of Hindu nationalism has catapulted Narendra Modi into the kind of position that Indira Gandhi occupied during the Emergency. He is bemused that Modi and other BJP leaders do not see the irony of assailing Mrs Gandhi’s accumulation of executive power when they themselves strive for a oneparty state and display intolerance for minorities and disdain for ‘antinational’ dissent.
Prakash feels that constitutionally protected democratic institutions and procedures have to depend crucially on their social and historical context and that underlying the crises facing the country today was Indian society’s troubled relationship with democratic values.
There are several references in the book to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, hailing him for his profound grasp of society and politics. The author notes that despite paying ritual obeisance to Ambedkar as a Dalit icon and a constitutionalist few realise the full meaning of his belief that democracy was only the top dressing on India’s soil and that it should not be just procedures but a value, “a daily exercise of equality of human beings”. He laments that the enticements and compulsions of power proved too overwhelming for the political elite to make democracy into a value.
Prakash ends the book quoting from Ambedkar’s speech at the Constituent Assembly in 1949, pointing to its contemporary relevance at a time when Narendra Modi is at the helm of Indian democracy. Indians, the architect of the Constitution had said, “were particularly susceptible to bhakti or devotion. This was fine in religion, but in politics it was a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship”.
The author feels that the surge of Hindu nationalism has catapulted Narendra Modi into the kind of position that Indira Gandhi occupied during the Emergency
EMERGENCY CHRONICLES Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point by GYAN PRAKASH Penguin `699; 456 pages