"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; Great men are almost always bad men.”… The words of Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th- an English politician talking about the monarchies in Europe attaining status of demi gods.
Time and again it has come across in history that great leaders went on to reach a status of total power over their subjects. They were good as leaders, decisive and ruthless against external threats and also with a sense of care and concern for their people. But at some point, the power and sense of judgement turned foes and leaders turn into demons.
Exactly 40 years ago - 25th June 1975 is one such date in the history of unified India- when a democracy went through a phase of Political Emergency with everything and everyone coming under the direct rule of one person- the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A period that might have been the darkest hour of unified India till date.
So why is this even relevant today? Its past, history, dead and buried…. Yes, it is. But what remains to be recalled is how a country can drive itself into doom without realizing the effects till very late. I openly say that I am not a fan of Mrs Gandhi (I’m not Nixon as well) but I do feel that as the 2nd longest serving Prime Minister of India, there are actions of hers (especially post 1971) which continue to affect us even to date.
Though I was not around when it happened (if I was, I’m sure I’d have been in jail for writing something like this), I have read a lot of accounts from journalists, historians and other who witnessed the drama unfold to help me find understand the times. Not to mention, my journalism classes and “India after Gandhi” by Ramchandra Guha (I regard this as the most in-depth account of India post- independence) to be the basis of my writing.
Mrs Gandhi was not a politician, not even someone who might have has anything to do with the freedom struggle or a nationalist. An estranged daughter of Nehru; she was more like a personal assistant who was not even a member of the Congress party. But the unofficial influence got her to be the Party president in 1959 and a cabinet minister for I&B in the cabinet led by Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1964. All this while, her party leadership was more of a coy to keep away an ambitious Morarji Desai; the infamous Kamraj Plan. Even on her appointment as the Prime Minister in 1966, the tag of “Moom ki gudiya” did reflect the fact that no one had faith in her abilities to lead India.
The concentration of power started to happen when Mrs Gandhi on being expelled from the Congress due to fall out from the senior leaders, formed Congress (I) and pulling along the entire but 65 members of the existing people in power. Nehru was a Socialist, but his ideology of keeping government away from business was well defined. Indira broke this line and prior to the 1971 elections, 14 banks were nationalized and the allowance to the princely state heads was abolished. This naturally led to a lot of dissent amongst the people, but opportunity presented Mrs Gandhi very soon.
December 1971 and the Bangladesh War saw Mrs Gandhi take the ruthless path against Pakistan and paid no heed to the fact that the US Navy was on alert during the conflict. The fact that even an opposition leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee deemed her as “Goddess Durga” was a testimony to the way she handled the situation. The populist slogans like Garibi Hatao won hearts of the people and the whole country stood behind the lady. With a lot of support, Congress (I) swept the state elections in 1972 without anything given away to the opposition. It had become a scenario where “Indira is India” was actually happening. But this was possibly where things went wrong and the power structure turned amorphous. Indira Gandhi self- conferred upon herself a Bharat Ratna – much like Nehru.
Failed monsoon, rise in unemployment, rising inflation, the pending expenses of a jubilant but costly war with Pakistan and the state resting with all the powers for finance and wealth; it was just an explosive situation. With her son Sanjay Gandhi acting as an advisor, draconian powers were unleashed on the people. While students and youth came out on the streets following an able socialist like J P Narayan, new leaders like George Fernandes crippled the railways with a strike. Former royalty stripped of their privy purse used all their might against Mrs Gandhi. Adding fuel to the fire was the Allahabad Court verdict regarding election malpractices which dismissed Mrs Gandhi’s membership to parliament.
Was it the romance with power or the fact that you have people’s support behind- not prepared to step down and the social uprising at hand; a Political Emergency was imposed. It was now a crazy circus that was controlled by Indira and Sanjay Gandhi for the next 21 months. What followed was definitely something that I feel was short of the Simon Commission Report.
Ordinances were passed and constitution amended in a manner by which all political opposition was crushed with people suspected of anti-government activity being imprisoned. The press was gagged and power to newspaper offices and presses was shut off. How can one not talk about the courageous R P Goenka printing blank spaces in Indian Express as a mark of protest against the government imposed censorship?
Ruling with an iron fist got a whole new meaning and fear became the currency of the government machinery. Civil liberties were curtailed and with brutal activities like forced population control programmes and dismissal of any state government not in tune with the central power was the biggest blow to democracy. Certainly the darkest hour – and a trauma for all those who saw the worst of it.
I’m happy that such things might never happen again in India. Changes in the constitutional framework have now eliminated the possibilities of an Emergency being imposed unless absolutely critical and agreed upon by 2/3rd of the parliament. Media today is much more deep rooted and India is no longer in a space to be isolated from the rest of the world. The biggest difference – people now have access to ways and means where they cannot be dominated by a force that is suppressing them and anything that is against national interest meets stiff opposition.
But the impact from the days of the Emergency is still around. Dynasty politics is now deeply entrenched in our system. The son-daughter distant relative of a politician becoming a successor is a common thing for today. Also, the feeling that an MP’s relative is above the law is somehow still a law. Going back to privatization of the financial system is still work in progress. There are some other misdoings from the tyrant leadership in those days which led to a lot more complications – but 1975 to 1977 was by far the worst we saw as a nation in terms of a democratic state turn into a pseudo dictatorship.