About forty years after then prime minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, her staunch loyalist and President Pranab Mukherjee has disclosed that Gandhi “wasn’t aware of the Constitutional provisions allowing for the declaration of Emergency”.
In his autobiography “The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years” released on Thursday, Mukherjee describes the dark period in India’s democracy as a “misadventure” that was “perhaps an avoidable event”.
“It is believed then Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray played an important role in the declaration of Emergency; it was his suggestion, and Gandhi acted on it,” writes Mukherjee, then a junior minister in Gandhi’s government.
“In fact, Gandhi told me subsequently she wasn’t even aware of the Constitutional provisions allowing for the declaration of Emergency,” the President writes.
Ray later denied any hand in the decision before the Shah Commission, constituted to probe “excesses” between 1975 and 1977, the period Emergency was clamped. Gandhi called for elections in March 1977 and was handed a resounding defeat by the Janata Party, losing her own Rae Bareli seat.
Mukherjee’s book, released on his 79th birthday, is the first of a trilogy. This book looks back at the 1969-1980 period with the next two volumes covering the periods 1980- 1998 and 1998- 2012 respectively.
The Dramatic Decade has also been in the news recently after bookstores cried foul over a deal between the publisher Rupa and Amazon.com for its exclusive online sale for the first 21 days.
In his autobiography, the President writes he and other ministers hadn’t really understood the far-reaching impact of the Emergency.
“While there is no doubt that it brought with it some major positive changes…it was perhaps an avoidable event,” he said, citing suspension of fundamental rights and political activity, press censorship and large scale arrest of political leaders as “some instances of the Emergency adversely affecting the interests of the people”.
“The Congress and Indira Gandhi had to pay a heavy price for this misadventure,” Mukherjee maintained in the book.
The autobiography provides glimpses into his excellent working relation with Gandhi, whom he considers a mentor. Mukherjee also describes himself as a “restless child” who had to walk five kilometers to school.
In his book, the 79-year-old also says offices such as the President and the vice-president “should not be held by people other than politicians” and the role of presiding officers in legislative chambers has to be “similarly viewed”.
In India, presiding officers are elected with the support of political parties and one “cannot expect” them to be free of “political inclination altogether”, Mukherjee says. “Though they must strive to remain neutral, their neutrality cannot be stretched to a ridiculous extent.”