Before the Emergency

The past, therefore, is often seen to hold the key to present-day realities
These days, the academic and journalistic worlds have an engaging subject for discussion: How similar or dissimilar are the political tactics of former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the incumbent, Narendra Modi? If Mrs Gandhi tamed the “syndicate” (a band of veteran Congress leaders), nationalised banks, devalued the rupee, abolished the privy purse, and sliced up Pakistan into two, Mr Modi demonetised the rupee, carved the state of Jammu and Kashmir by creating two Union Territories, abolished “Triple Talaq”, and conducted “surgical strikes” against Pakistan. After Mrs Gandhi, Mr Modi is arguably the only prime minister to have assumed a larger-than-life image.

Political developments as have unfolded in independent India have often been seen as an outcome of policy shifts in an earlier period. For instance, the economic liberalisation ushered in by the P V Narasimha Rao government in 1991 has often been regarded as a consequence of the “Rightist Shift” of Mrs Gandhi’s early years in office, when the regime cemented its ties with the kulaks and the entrepreneur class while paying lip-service to socialism at the same time. Similarly, the fractured polity of the 1990s is seen as being linked to what political scientist Rajni Kothari described as the collapse of the “Congress System” during the 1966-77 period. The past, therefore, is often seen to hold the key to present-day realities.

For those interested in the Modi-Gandhi comparison, Suhit Sen’s The Paradox of Populism should be an important read. First, the disclaimer: In all the 278 pages of his meticulously researched book, Mr Sen makes no mention of Mr Modi and does not talk just about Mrs Gandhi. His essential concerns are the political structures and processes that emerged during the first 11 years of Mrs Gandhi’s prime ministership (1966-77) and the transformative changes that her policies brought about.

Arguably, Mrs Gandhi remains India’s most written about political personality. 

Journalists and writers such as Kuldip Nayyar, Tariq Ali, Inder Malhotra and Janardan Thakur have authored extensive articles or books on the massive subversion of constitutional rights following her government’s decision to impose the Emergency in 1975 — which was declared 45 years ago today—while bureaucrats, political leaders and intellectuals such as P N Dhar, T V Rajeshwar, Rajni Kothari, A G Noorani, Nayantara Sehgal, Uma Vasudev, Tariq Ali, Pranab Mukherjee, Shankar Dayal Singh or Pranay Gupte have come out with their own versions. Among the available biographies on Mrs Gandhi, the one by American author Katherine Frank is the most complimentary.

The Paradox of Populism: The Indira Gandhi Years, 1966-1977 

Author: Suhit K. Sen

Publisher: Primus Books

Pages: 278

Price: Rs 995


Mr Sen has done extensive research, trawling through an ocean of published and unpublished material relating to Mrs Gandhi’s pre-Emergency years in office to arrive at this important proposition: That Mrs Gandhi — far from being the dictator she is made out to be — lacked the resources or the capability to tame the messy affairs of the Congress during the pre-Emergency period. Therefore, the logical supposition: That the subversion of constitutional democracy — as witnessed during the Emergency years — had not been prefigured by the political developments of Mrs Gandhi’s earlier years in office. Needless to say this: This thesis is much at variance with the conventional belief articulated by some noted political scientists.

The author’s exploration is painstaking, as he navigates the reader through a maze of mindboggling twists and turns of a fascinating and critical period of the nation’s political history: The emergence of the non-Congress Opposition for the first time in 1967; the split of the Congress in 1969; and the implosions and explosions within and outside the Congress when the “Aya Rams and the Gaya Rams” emerged on the political scene and party defections turned a routine feature of Indian politics.

In just five years — from 1967 and 1972, as the book recounts — Bihar witnessed nine governments, three spells of President’s Rule, and a mid-term election. This was also a period when chief ministers “imposed” by the Centre did not last long in their tenures — as was witnessed in various states including Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh. Mrs Gandhi, at the peak of her political career following the overwhelming victory in the 1971 parliamentary elections, had failed to install Ram Niwas Mirdha as Rajasthan chief minister. Based on such and related evidence, Mr Sen makes this observation: “In the prelude to the imposition of the Emergency, Mrs Gandhi had no overwhelming preponderance either within the party or in the government — except what could be expected in the case of a Prime Minister who was also the undisputed party leader”.  In 1977, she announced general elections in the hope that she would get rewarded by the people for having disciplined the country but got unceremoniously thrown out of power.

Mr Sen’s book contains this important message: That current, past and future political narratives often have an umbilical link. The book strengthens theories that Indian political trends have continued to be marked by continuity and change.

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