In trying to destroy all opposition, Indira Gandhi actually created a credible, pan-national, pan-ideological cadre of new leaders whose talent and charm her legatees failed to counter.
With the imposition of the Emergency this day 47 years ago, Indira Gandhi subverted and, more or less, suspended Indian democracy. Unwittingly, she also enriched our democracy, helped create a bipolar polity, and created a new generation of Indian leaders.
Am I being contrarian for the sake of being so? Examine some evidence. What are the two facts common to this pantheon of Indian politics – Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, George Fernandes, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh, Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sushil Modi, Chandra Shekhar, Krishan Kant, H.D. Deve Gowda, Charan Singh, Parkash Singh Badal, and even Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat?
One, that all of them rose to the top in their parties. Two, that they were all jailed by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, most for a full 19 months and some, like Karat, very briefly.
Unintentionally, therefore, Mrs Gandhi gifted Indian democracy a new generation of political talent that ultimately reduced her all-conquering party to 44 in the Lok Sabha in 2014 and in control of just two major states, Punjab, and Karnataka in a coalition. Perverse as it may sound, you cannot dispute it.
In trying to destroy all opposition, she actually created a credible, pan-national, pan-ideological cadre of new leaders whose talent and charm her legatees failed to counter. I can safely say that had there been no Emergency, there probably would not have been a BJP government in power with a full majority, the RSS would not be such a pre-eminent ideological force, and Lohiaites, of some kind or the other, stalwarts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
It’s a larger argument for another day, but this was the first mass struggle in which the RSS, having mostly missed the freedom movement, participated and earned national respectability.
Go to the next level of search. Naveen Patnaik’s late father Biju was in jail, and now he is in his fourth term as chief minister in his home state, Odisha, and still looks formidable. In Karnataka, B.S. Yeddyurappa is also from the incarcerated class of 1975-77. Kumaraswamy’s father Deve Gowda, we mentioned earlier, was jailed.
In Rajasthan, the most notable entry on Vasundhara Raje’s CV is that her mother, Vijayaraje Scindia, was jailed. Sushma Swaraj didn’t go to jail but made her fame as a young lawyer, with husband Swaraj Kaushal, defending George Fernandes. Ram Jethmalani finally had a warrant against him after an army of some 200 lawyers, led by Nani Palkhiwala, failed to prevent it. But he escaped to Canada and stayed there in exile, as did Subramanian Swamy.
Go deeper down in Modi’s Cabinet and almost anybody who was an adult in the mid-seventies, from Ananth Kumar to Kalraj Mishra (now dropped), is of the same class. And as you probe further, it starts getting ridiculous.
Siddaramaiah, now the Congress’ top leader in Karnataka and, until recently, the chief minister, was jailed too. As was Shankersinh Vaghela in Gujarat, and even though both became “Congi-come-latelies”, the fact remains that they are Emergency’s children. The Emergency was India’s ‘University of Democratisation’.
In new, evolving democracies, leaders arise from mass movements. The first durable cast of our leaders grew from the freedom movement and the Congress became the umbrella that made diverse minds, from Left to Right, bury or suspend ideological disagreements and unite under Gandhiji.
There was some fragmentation post-Independence, but a vast majority remained in the Congress. Those that broke away to build opposition parties were no match to it, in spite of some efforts at unity, notably the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal, which shook the Congress in 1967 without defeating it. That had to wait until the Emergency, opposition to which became the platform for the first national political struggle in independent India.
Attempts at unity had failed the opposition so far, giving the Congress what latter-day psephologists described as the TINA (There is No Alternative) edge, given the low IOU (Index of Opposition Unity). Ideological unity wasn’t possible because the largest cadre-based party was the Jan Sangh, with wide differences with various socialists.
The liberal, if relatively elite, Right was represented by the Swatantra Party. In West Bengal, Kerala and, to a lesser extent, in Andhra, Punjab and Maharashtra, there were the Communists. With a common ideological thread missing, they tried unity variously against “dynastic” rule, “personality cult” and “authoritarian politics”.
But nothing convinced either their leaders or their voters to be together. These alliances were seen as opportunistically targeted at “poor” Mrs Gandhi, and she exploited this devastatingly with her slogan of “woh kehte hain Indira hatao, Indira kehti hain garibi hatao, ab aap faisla keejiye (they say remove Indira, Indira says eradicate poverty, so you decide which is better)”.
The Emergency changed this in three ways.
First, all the great political crimes that Mrs Gandhi was charged with – authoritarianism, personality cult and dynastic rule (Sanjay was anointed her successor in December 1976) – now looked convincing. Second, it gave thousands of political leaders and activists the halo of struggle, sacrifice, and courage by ticking that all-important box on their political score-sheets: A term in jail as political prisoners. So far, this was exclusive to freedom fighters. As a result, many student activists, including Lalu, Mulayam, Nitish, Sharad Yadav, even Yechury and Karat, came of age.
And third, these followers of diverse ideologies were forced to bond in jails, exchanging thoughts, sharing lives, understanding each other better, whether talking or playing badminton or volleyball. Many personal friendships were struck.
If we called the Emergency a ‘University of Democratisation’, Mrs Gandhi’s jail was a very effective boot camp for her adversaries. It isn’t for us journalists to imagine how Indian politics would have evolved but for this agnipariksha.
It will, however, be a great plot for a political fiction writer. Post-Emergency, we did have some significant mass movements, notably ‘Mandir’ and ‘Mandal’. The first produced some notables of varying importance, from Uma Bharati to Vinay Katiyar. I am not listing Kalyan Singh because he was an Emergency detainee too.
Mandal produced more, starting with V.P. Singh, and created space at the top for the three Yadavs: Mulayam, Lalu and Sharad. We had to wait two decades for the next wave, Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, but it seems to have left us with just one new significant leader, some talking-heads and two respected dissidents.
This puts Mrs Gandhi’s contribution to our democracy in perspective. Almost everybody she jailed, including her own party’s ‘Young Turk’ dissidents, Chandra Shekhar (Prime Minister), Krishan Kant (Vice-President), Mohan Dharia and Ram Dhan (Cabinet ministers), rose to high positions. Every non-Congress Prime Minister 1977 onwards, besides V.P. Singh, was from the Class of Emergency: Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Vajpayee, Gowda were in jail, and I.K. Gujral was fired as I&B minister for disagreeing with press curbs and therefore a victim, and ultimately beneficiary, of the Emergency.
That leaves out Narendra Modi. But wait a moment. Read my former colleague Coomi Kapoor’s racy new book The Emergency: A Personal History.
While Subramanian Swamy was ducking arrest disguised as a Sikh, and wanted to secretly meet Makarand Desai, a Gujarat minister, a committed young swayamsewak was sent to receive him at the railway station and escort him safely. Here was a young “undercover” Narendra Modi, thereby another Prime Minister politically baptised in the fire of Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency.
Postscript: My personal history of the Emergency is thin because I was just a journalism student in Chandigarh. But I do have one story to tell.
On Independence Day, 1975, the then Haryana chief minister Bansi Lal (later defence minister) was addressing the parade in Rohtak, where my parents then lived. He made three memorable points. One, that newspapers had so much poison in them, nobody should even use them to wrap pakoras. Two, he said, looking at rain-laden clouds, that India had such a wonderful monsoon in 1947, when all “sinners (paapis)” were packed off to Pakistan, or now, when the rest were locked up in jail.
And third was his insight into why Indiraji had signed the Simla Agreement with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. At Simla, he said, Bhutto fell at Indira’s feet and begged for mercy. As he finally raised himself, Indiraji noticed his trousers were wet. So she took pity, signed the Simla Agreement, and returned 93,000 prisoners.
Now, the first comment was fine, he could as well have called the press cockroaches. Second was objectionable, but passable in those times. But the third, given its diplomatic fallout, was unacceptable even to dictator Indira. Instructions were accordingly sent to all newspapers to delete his comments on Simla and Bhutto. In a way, it was the ultimate absurdity of censorship as the government ended up censoring its own chief minister, no less.