Power and the People

Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, 40 years on

Just before Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, in 1975, posters appeared as part of a campaign calling for her resignation. In many ways, Indian democracy has found it difficult to shake off that episode’s after-effects, and Gandhi’s legacy remains bitterly contested. Rane Prakash / HT Photo
Just before Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, in 1975, posters appeared as part of a campaign calling for her resignation. In many ways, Indian democracy has found it difficult to shake off that episode’s after-effects, and Gandhi’s legacy remains bitterly contested. Rane Prakash / HT Photo
01 June, 2015

WHEN THE VETERAN JOURNALIST Inder Malhotra’s biography of Indira Gandhi was published in 1989, his subject had been dead for about five years. But the rancour she roused in her very many opponents remained as bitter as ever—made worse, if anything, by the misdeeds and shenanigans of her son and political heir, Rajiv Gandhi. In consequence, Malhotra’s biography—described by The Economist as critical but also objective and fair—was panned in India. Critics took umbrage at the fact that anyone could presume to present a balanced portrait of Gandhi. Even Malhotra’s friends told him off, he writes in a recent, updated edition of his book, for going “soft” on “the woman that had practically destroyed Indian democracy and done the country incalculable damage that could not be undone.”

Despite the unremitting hostility of much of the intelligentsia and commentariat, Malhotra wryly notes, Gandhi has remained an icon for the masses. Her memorial in Lutyens’ Delhi continues to draw throngs of visitors from across the country every day. Opinion polls regularly rank her the best prime minister the country has ever had. In 2012, Malhotra was part of an elaborate exercise, undertaken by two television channels, to identify the “greatest Indian after Mahatma Gandhi.” A distinguished jury prepared long and short lists, and massive marketing-style surveys and online voting gauged popular opinion. Eventually, BR Ambedkar topped the popular vote, while the jury chose Jawaharlal Nehru. Malhotra was, however, struck by the fact that “in every list of the top ten greats, irrespective of whoever prepared them, Indira Gandhi’s name was not only included but also in each one of them it was a few notches above that of her illustrious father.”

According to Malhotra, Gandhi’s posthumous popularity lies in her unflinching focus on India’s security and national interests throughout her rule. The second United Progressive Alliance government’s “pusillanimous” stance towards China and Pakistan, among other things, burnished Gandhi’s image: “people at large consider Indira ‘the strongest and most decisive’ prime minister India has had and yearn for a leader like her.” Malhotra wrote these words before the general election of 2014. Presciently, he pointed out that Narendra Modi was best positioned to present himself as such a figure.

On the fortieth anniversary of the Emergency, this month, we can expect Indira Gandhi’s legion of critics to underline the deleterious impact of that dark episode—and, indeed, of all her years in power—on our democracy. They would be right in doing so. The Emergency not only resulted in the subversion of public institutions and suppression of rights, but also mobilised the state’s power against the weakest sections of society. The upshot of this period of authoritarian rule continued to roil Indian politics long after it ceased. In particular, Gandhi’s centralising and distrustful style of politics generated a backlash in several regions of India, resulting in protracted periods of violence. In many ways, Indian democracy has found it difficult to shake off the after-effects of the Emergency.

Yet neither the Emergency nor Indira Gandhi’s political life should be distilled into a morality play. The temptation to lapse into this mode of analysis remains strong. After all, this was the only authoritarian aberration in the celebrated history of the world’s largest democracy, and the affirmation of our democratic virtues seems incomplete without a moral denunciation of Gandhi. But bowing to that desire doesn’t allow for the possibility of the Emergency telling us something deeper about our democratic experience. Yet even scholarly work on the Indira Gandhi years seems unable to resist this idiom. In his recent biography of Charan Singh, titled An Indian Political Life, the American political scientist Paul Brass writes, “Indira Gandhi had no scruples … For Indira Gandhi power came first … her policies covered an otherwise naked pursuit of—not just power—but domination of the country, which she clearly considered to be her birthright.” The yawning gulf between such dark assessments and Gandhi’s popular image suggests that her impact on Indian politics was much more complex than the picture that emerges from just the condemnation of critics or the adulation of admirers.

A quarter of a century after its original publication, Malhotra’s book remains the best political biography of Indira Gandhi. To be sure, there have been other books on her in the years since—notably, a biography by Katherine Frank, Indira, which sought to combine high politics and low gossip, only to end up inviting a lawsuit from her subject’s daughter-in-law, Maneka Gandhi. Malhotra continues to hold the field partly because Gandhi’s papers remain closed to everyone till date, and no “official” biography has yet been written. In any case, his political insight into her years in office remains unrivalled. As such, the publication of a new edition of his book is more than welcome. Malhotra has appended three fresh chapters to the original text, covering Gandhi’s legacy and the fortunes of the dynasty she founded.

Although the book is subtitled “A Personal and Political Biography,” Malhotra doesn’t really offer us much on Gandhi’s personal life. Nor does he convincingly show how her personality shaped her politics, or vice versa. Still, as a political narrative the book remains highly serviceable. Its best parts deal with Gandhi’s advent and rise: the period from 1966 to 1972, when she touched the pinnacles of her success in domestic politics as well as foreign policy. In chapters that are at once brisk and brimming with insight, Malhotra covers her early political travails, especially after the elections of 1967, when the Congress’s strength in the Lok Sabha reached an all-time low and the party lost control of several key north Indian states; the tussle with the “Syndicate” of elder provincial leaders who sought to treat her as a marionette; Indira Gandhi’s decision to do the unthinkable: split the Congress party; her left-ward turn in politics and economics in a bid to find allies on the Left for her minority government; the sweeping electoral victory in 1971; the treaty with the Soviet Union and the liberation of Bangladesh; and the continuing run of victory in the state elections of 1972. If the storyline feels somewhat familiar, it is partly because of the influence of Malhotra’s book on subsequent accounts.

Once we get into 1974 and after, Malhotra’s account becomes less insightful even if it remains informative. The details of the popular anti-corruption movement aimed at overthrowing Gandhi led by Jayaprakash Narayan, or “JP,” the imposition of the Emergency, as well as the excesses and atrocities of these years, are well known. What we need after 40 years are explanations grounded in evidence as to why Gandhi chose to impose the Emergency. Was it simply her desire to hang on to power after the Allahabad High Court judgement that voided her election to the Lok Sabha on the grounds that she had misused the powers of her office during her campaign? Or was it because she believed the JP movement was aimed at destabilising the country? Both views have been aired from the moment the Emergency was imposed. Unfortunately, Malhotra does not revisit this controversy, or his original account, with additional hindsight or new material. More importantly, the central historical question, of what the Emergency signified, is not asked, let alone answered.

The Emergency is perhaps best understood as the outcome of a contest between two sets of competing ideas in Indian politics. These were evident from the time Gandhi came into office—and, arguably, earlier still. In the first place, there was an uneasy coexistence between the idea of the state and the idea of democracy: between the seductions of an elite using state power to reshape society, and the pull of democratic politics that allowed Indian society to take charge of its own destiny As the historian and political theorist Sunil Khilnani has argued, “The Emergency is best regarded as the parodic version of the desire to return the Indian state to the hands of a do-good elite.” This was a chancy decision because Gandhi’s own style of politics was simultaneously deepening Indian democracy. The move stemmed from the failure of her efforts to recast her party’s institutional structures, which might have let her better control the upsurge of democratic energies. It is often argued that she deliberately destroyed the Congress’s prevailing structures, but this rests on a rosy reading of the state of the party before Gandhi came to power. In any event, it is clear that she found it easier to break up the old Congress than to build her own party.

In the second place, there was a struggle between the ideas of democracy and constitutionalism. These are by no means entirely compatible: the former precipitates popular expectations and enthusiasms, while the latter seeks to impose a grid of rules and procedures on public life. The radical policies adopted by Gandhi resulted in a long face-off with the Supreme Court of India, which challenged the government’s right to amend certain features of the constitution. The prime minister insisted that she stood for the supremacy of the people. In so doing, she moved towards a radical, “Jacobin” conception of direct popular sovereignty.

THIS SHIFT IN GANDHI’S THINKING was clear well before the Emergency was imposed. In his memoir of the Indira Gandhi years, Pranab Mukherjee, India’s current president, reproduces a letter from the prime minister to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, written on 18 December 1971. Subtly contesting the Court’s vision as conservative, Gandhi wrote:

Legal stability depends as much upon the power to look forward for necessary adjustment and adaptation as to look backward for certainty. We have all to guard against the danger of substituting those inarticulate major premises of social and economic thinking of which we as individuals may happen to approve of at a given time for the will of the people as reflected in Parliament.

The letter was undoubtedly drafted by PN Haksar, her principal secretary, who was highly influential in giving concrete shape to her political instincts. The timing of the letter, as Mukherjee notes, was significant. It was written just two days after Indian troops captured Dhaka in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The fact that the prime minister wrote to the chief justice at the height of an international crisis underscores the importance she attached to the issue.

Mukherjee’s memoir—the first of a projected three volumes—is a must-read for its many such informative asides. The very publication of the book is a curiosity. For one thing, no president of India has ever published a memoir while holding office. For another, this is no anodyne account designed solely to embellish the author’s reputation. On the contrary, Mukherjee has chosen to write an intensely political description of a controversial period in our recent history. Citizens and scholars alike should be glad that he has done so while his memory is fresh and his diaries from the time are intact.

Mukherjee makes no pretence of offering an “objective” historical assessment of the period. He does not show much contrition for the decision to impose the Emergency. Nor does he make any effort to tone down his loyalty to Indira Gandhi during those years—and, by extension, to her original political heir, the imperious and ruthless Sanjay Gandhi. Indeed, the book is best read as a loyal insider’s account of Gandhi’s politics. It is easy to do a hatchet job on a book like this. But Mukherjee’s account is valuable precisely because it provides a glimpse into why capable young politicians like him gravitated towards Indira Gandhi, and also because Mukherjee has managed, mostly, to leave behind the passions of that time.

Mukherjee’s comments on his own errors of judgement are remarkably detached. Take his account of the aftermath of the 1980 general election, in which he contested from the Bolpur constituency in West Bengal. Gandhi had “strongly advised” him against this, and he was defeated by a margin of over 68,000 votes—a decisive defeat, as Mukherjee readily concedes. When he met Gandhi afterwards, he was “unambiguously chastised” and “rebuked for taking the ill-advised decision of contesting from Bolpur, against her advice.” Still, Gandhi eventually inducted him into her cabinet as the commerce minister.

From 1974 to 1977, Mukherjee had been minister of state for finance and later minister of revenue and banking. This gave him a ringside view of the events leading up to the Emergency. Although he doesn’t provide any new revelations, his account is interesting because of his focus on the economy—a part of the backdrop to the Emergency that now tends to be forgotten. The Indian economy was wilting under the combined pressures of the Bangladesh refugee crisis, the war with Pakistan, the resulting termination of US aid, and the failure of the monsoons. On top of these came the international oil crisis of 1973, touching off rampant inflation and leading to a rapid slide in India’s balance of payments. At its height, from mid 1973 to September 1974, inflation reached about 33 percent. This was a major shock for an economy that traditionally experienced rather low inflation, and played an important role in triggering the popular anti-government protests that flowed into the JP movement.

Against this backdrop, the Allahabad High Court judgement dismissing Indira Gandhi’s election came as a thunderclap to Congressmen. Mukherjee recalls that his colleagues were resolutely in favour of her continuing in office:

such was the mood of the Congressmen in those days. They had to fight to survive, and for them there was no leader other than Indira Gandhi who could lead them to victory. Her ability to rake in votes for the Congress remained undisputed.

 Gandhi, Mukherjee avers, was then not even aware of the constitutional provision for proclaiming an emergency: it was Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the chief minister of Bengal and a close advisor, who apparently drew her attention to it. In any event, when she resolved to rule by decree, Gandhi did not take her cabinet into her confidence. When ministers were informed of the decision the following day, Mukherjee writes, “many of us … did not understand its deep and far-reaching impact.”

Almost four decades later, he writes that the Emergency was “perhaps an avoidable event.” He has stronger words for its consequences: “The Congress and Indira Gandhi had to pay a heavy price for this misadventure.” At the same time, Mukherjee notes, without irony, that a five-member Supreme Court bench led by the chief justice AN Ray—an appointee of Gandhi’s—acquitted her of the charges on which she had been found guilty by the Allahabad High Court.

The best parts of Mukherjee’s memoir deal with the time between Indira Gandhi’s massive defeat in the election of 1977 and her phoenix-like return to office in 1980. Her decision to call the 1977 election, which ended the Emergency, was even more puzzling and surprising than the imposition of emergency rule. The opposition was practically prostrate—in prison for the most part—and there was hardly any pressure on Gandhi to hold polls. Her critics—and even some admirers—have long claimed that she was assured by the intelligence agencies that she would be voted right back into office. Inder Malhotra surmises that she was eager to renew her popular mandate, and concerned about her place in history. Mukherjee, however, is categorical that it was prompted by “her concern that the continuance of the Emergency would harm Indian democracy, a concern that was in turn prompted by disquieting reports of the misuse of power at various levels.” So, Mukherjee would have us believe that the suppresser of democracy was secretly solicitous of its health. In any event, this is closest that Mukherjee comes to criticising the actions of Sanjay Gandhi and his coterie during the Emergency.

The Janata government’s arrest of Gandhi set off demonstrations in her support. In Delhi, protestors clashed with the police. Shank / AP Photo

Mukherjee presents a more vivid picture of the confusion, demoralisation and divisions that gripped the Congress in the wake of its defeat in 1977. “I made up my mind to remain with Indira Gandhi,” he writes, “come what may.” This could not have been an easy decision. It was clear that the party was heading towards another split, and that some of Gandhi’s senior colleagues, such as YB Chavan, were ranged against her.

In the following months, Mukherjee appeared to toil tirelessly to place the party on firmer footing ahead of forthcoming state elections. The polls in Assam proved to be a dismal failure for Congress (Indira), the entity that remained after a faction opposing Gandhi had split off. But the party did extremely well in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, securing a two-thirds majority in the latter. It also put up a strong show in Maharashtra. Indira Gandhi was back in the game. Soon, she decided to contest a by-election for the Lok Sabha from Chikmaglur, in Karnataka. The seat was carefully chosen for her by Devaraj Urs, the state’s chief minister, who had stood by her all along. Urs’s fate, however, portended the problems that would plague the Congress in Gandhi’s final term in office, and thereafter too. Having leant on him to take Chikmaglur, she grew wary of Urs’s solid base of support in Karnataka, as well as of his hold on the state Congress unit, and eventually forced him to quit the party and join the earlier dissidents.

Even as Indira Gandhi gradually strengthened her political position, the Janata government that came to power in 1977 did more than its fair share to help her along. In the first instance, the government arrested Gandhi on flimsy grounds. Later, she was stripped of her seat in the Lok Sabha on the charge of holding the House in contempt. All this enabled her to play the victim. Further, the government proved incapable of controlling the escalating violence against the lowest castes in north India—groups that had benefitted from certain measures, such as land redistribution, during the Emergency.

Finally, the incoherent Janata government made a hash of economic policy. The oil shock of 1979, induced by the Iranian Revolution, led GDP to fall by five percent—the Indian economy’s steepest decline of the twentieth century. A caretaker government under Charan Singh, which took over after the Janata Party split, made matters worse by handing out huge agricultural subsidies. Cumulatively, these missteps set the stage for Gandhi’s return. In the 1980 elections her party outdid its performance in 1971, winning 353 seats in all.

Mukherjee’s account ends soon after the elections of 1980. We must now await his second volume, which should cover Indira Gandhi’s last term—when Mukherjee was among the three most trusted members of her cabinet. Let’s hope it won’t be long in coming. Meanwhile, we can turn to Diego Maiorano’s account of Gandhi’s final term.

Maiorano’s title, Autumn of the Matriarch, signals a certain lack of originality: it is evidently borrowed from the title of a chapter covering these years in Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. There isn’t much that is original in the rest of the book either. Maiorano’s treatment of his subject draws heavily on the older work of political scientists such as his mentor, James Manor, and Myron Weiner who wrote almost contemporaneously. Unlike them, however, Maiorano has little opportunity to interview key protagonists. More problematic is his complete disregard of the range of archival sources now available on this period. Even a trip to the National Archives in London, where he wrote his doctoral thesis, would have yielded interesting documents for the book.

After its massive defeat in 1977, the Congress, with Gandhi at the helm, outdid itself in the 1980 election, winning 353 Lok Sabha seats. N Thyagarajan / HT Photo

Without using such materials, Maiorano has little new to offer. The story he tells of Gandhi’s second term is well known and well worn: the increasing instability within the Congress; her pro-business policies; the rise of regional parties and conflicts; her failed attempts to deal with these problems, culminating in her assassination. The explanations offered are equally familiar. Like many political scientists before him, Maiorano invokes the combination of institutional decline and increasing popular demands to elucidate Gandhi’s travails. Others have used this formula to account for the problems she faced before 1975, too. Any explanation that works for two very different periods with different challenges is unlikely to be explaining much at all.

Maiorano’s account is also misleading insofar as it suggests that the period from 1980 to 1984 marked a sharp departure from everything that went before. This is because he assumes a static picture of Gandhi’s politics throughout the 1970s. In fact, there is a good case to be made that, somewhere between 1974 and 1975, there was a key inflection point when Gandhi abandoned her “socialist” economic policies, initiating a tilt towards big business. The brutal suppression of the railway strike in May 1974 marked the onset of this phase. This was the economic counterpoint of the move to the right that came with the Emergency. Indeed, most big businesses were rather pleased with the imposition of emergency rule.

Maoirano’s book ends with a balance sheet for Indira Gandhi’s final term. The verdict is quite starkly negative. This is in keeping with much of the writing on her years in politics. The problem is not about a lack of “balance” in such judgments. Rather, it is that an accounting approach may not be the most useful way to think about the impact of such a figure. What we need are more rigorously historical takes on her, with a keen eye for the ironies of democracy, the limits of political judgement, and the law of unintended consequences.

To get the measure of Gandhi, we must see her career in historical context. The period from 1966 to 1984—the long 1970s, for short—was the hinge on which the contemporary history of India turned. During these years, the country went from a broadly “Nehruvian” polity, economy and society, to one rather closer to the India that we now live in. The long 1970s was a time of extraordinary changes—both domestic and international—and these at once impinged on Gandhi’s politics, and were impacted by them. Only by placing her career in such a historical frame can we begin to make sense of the deeply paradoxical life and afterlives of Indira Gandhi. Over three decades after her death, it is about time we consigned her to history.