Not the Emergency by any stretch of the imagination

  • Ramachandra Guha
  • Updated: Feb 28, 2016 01:47 IST
Indira Gandhi announcing Emergency in June 1975 (HT Photo)

Last Sunday, the features sections of newspapers were largely devoted to the police intervention in Jawaharlal Nehru University and its aftermath. Interviewed by Deccan Herald, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), remarked that ‘it’s a replay of how nationalism and jingoism [was] used by Hitler. Recall the name of Hitler’s party — the National Socialist party’. Meanwhile, in an interview with Business Standard, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court, Kamini Jaiswal, was reported to have said that ‘there is no free speech, today we are in a situation worse than Emergency, an undeclared “emergency”’.

I single out Yechury and Jaiswal because one heads a major political party, while the other is a greatly respected lawyer. But in fact such comments are now very nearly ubiquitous; in newspapers, on social media, and in private conversation. Liberal and left-wing Indians are increasingly prone to compare the situation today with that which prevailed in this country in the mid 1970s, or in Germany in the late 1930s.

These comparisons are untenable and misleading. For, Hitler’s Nazi party wished to exterminate not just Jews but also gypsies and homosexuals. It also sought world domination, launching unprovoked wars against Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Russia and other countries. On the other hand, the sangh parivar may fantasise about Akhand Bharat, but it has not been planning wars on our neighbours. The RSS believes in the subordination of Muslims and Christians to Hindus, but it has never (so far as I know) contemplated their wholesale extermination.

The comparison with the dark days of the Emergency does not hold, either. I was a student in Delhi University at the time, and vividly recall the atmosphere of fear and terror that pervaded the campus. There were no political discussions permissible. When the leaders of the Delhi University Students Union were picked up, there was not a murmur of protest. The BJP government’s attack on JNU was unfortunate, but it was by no means as draconian as what the Congress did during the Emergency.

When the Emergency was promulgated, the Congress was in power in almost all states of the Union. As a result, the situation in Delhi was reproduced across the country. Protests were not just impermissible in DU, but in all colleges and universities in India. The large show of pan-Indian support for the JNU students now visible would have been inconceivable during the Emergency. 

The BJP is in power in less than half of India’s states. This situation makes an Emergency impossible, even if one assumes that the Union government wants to impose one. Why, even in the national capital, the BJP’s hegemony is continually being challenged by the Aam Aadmi Party.

Parallels with the regimes of Hitler and Indira Gandhi break down for another reason. Those two leaders were in total control of their party, and of the state apparatus. On the other hand, Narendra Modi is in control of neither. In a moment of delicious irony, Dr Manmohan Singh recently accused his successor of being ‘silent’ on the major questions of the day. That he is; meanwhile, he is absent too. During the JNU troubles and the Jat agitation, Mr Modi was criss-crossing India, one day in Mumbai, another day in Odisha, a third in Chhattisgarh, a fourth in Varanasi, speaking on many subjects, but not those of immediate consequence.

As is increasingly evident, Mr Modi is not in control of his Cabinet ministers or of the RSS. He is not even in control of the ABVP. And he is not remotely in control of the governments of Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, West Bengal, Odisha, and some other states of the Union. In comparison to Hitler or Indira in their pomp, Modi is a very weak ruler indeed.

To call out false historical analogies is not to say that Indian democracy is alive and well. It faces serious challenges, of which I shall here mention only four. First, contrary to what many people expected or hoped, the RSS is laying down the agenda for governance at the Centre. In Gujarat Mr Modi may have marginalised the sangh, but after he moved to New Delhi he has largely deferred to them. And the sangh remains a patriarchal, chauvinist, organisation with a medievalist mindset, wholly unsuited to taking India forward in the 21st century.

A second worry is the continuing degeneration of the Congress. Unless it is rescued from the hands of the Nehru-Gandhis, it cannot play a constructive role in the 21st century either. Every day that the manifestly incompetent Rahul Gandhi continues in politics is bad for the Congress, and worse for India, if only because so many citizens still hope for a viable national alternative to the BJP.

A third worry is the continuing collapse of our public institutions. State-run schools and public hospitals are in a shambles. The rule of law is increasingly arbitrary, as seen not only in the courts of the national capital, but also in places like Bastar, where the police and paramilitary have defied even Supreme Court judgments to harass and intimidate citizens (here, the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens, adivasis). 

A fourth worry is the environmental crisis we face. Alarmingly high levels of air and water pollution, the depletion of groundwater aquifers, the chemical poisoning of our soil — these have major negative impacts on economic growth and social stability, and yet remain wholly unaddressed by Central and state governments.

Tackling these problems will require focused action by many Indians, cutting across party lines and across generations. Hyperbolic invocations of the Nazis or the Emergency are an unnecessary distraction from the hard work that lies ahead.  

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India.

The views expressed by the author are personal. He tweets from @Ram_Guha

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