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Bharatiya Janata Party veteran Lal Krishna Advani, who has seen the ins and outs of power and governance, rule and misrule, corruption and probity, vendetta politics and administrative justice, is perhaps more qualified than most politicians, including just about everybody in his own party, be it Murli Manohar Joshi or Rajnath Singh, to speak on any subject—from cabbages to kings—concerning the nation. He’s been there. He’s seen it. He’s done it. And even during his dotage, the crafty nonagenarian is far from senile.

In the “he’s been there” department, he spent over a year in jail during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, rounded up along with thousands of politicians opposed to the snuffing out of democracy and fundamental rights, and bundled into a cell about which he wrote eloquently in his prison diaries. It was a remarkable compilation of anti-fascist diatribes and musings that should have established his credentials as a die-hard liberal democrat.

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But that last attribute dims somewhat when we reach the “done it” department, in which he rode a chariot of communal fire across the country—the Rath Yatra—which catalyzed and deepened communal divides, and ended up in the demolition of the Babri structure in Ayodhya and re-established the BJP as a Hindu nationalist party.

Advani’s opposition to the Emergency established him as a liberal democrat. But, that image was tainted after he rode the chariot of communal fire.

Hindu governance returned to the Indian state as a viable political methodology of the ballot, as well as well a motivating ideology to counter the prevailing miasma of socialist-big-government “developmental” Mahalanobis-ism. He and his followers made it clear that it was not the business of the central government to build and run hotels. And unlike Rajiv Gandhi who had begun to surreptitiously junk his grandfather’s socialism—but without any clearly enunciated mandate to do so—Advani’s Hindu model—backed and led by the intrepid Atal Bihari Vajpayee—clearly had behind it a strong anti-big government, pro-business popular mandate.

Big, centralized government, autocratic and plutarchic economic policies had produced the kind of bureaucracy and system which made it possible for a would-be dictator like Indira Gandhi to subvert the Rule of Law—a system of natural justice and rights in which the people are the masters and the sovereigns and the elected politicians are the servants rather than the rulers—and emerge as the head of an arrangement in which dictatorship was euphe-mistically referred to as “Emergency”.

And now, Advani, the champion of yore, the hardened, sadder but wiser leader has issued a clarion call to prevent ourselves from falling prey to another Emergency. The nation, says, the patriarch is not Emergency-proof and constitutional rights are not as well protected as they should be from any future onslaught on fundamental rights.

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Now whether this is the aging war horse’s political farewell message to his country—his magnum opus summing up what he really stands for—or a call to his own party to awaken to the dangers of authoritarianism and autocratic tendencies in Prime Minister Modi’s style of governance (I suspect it could be)—is anybody’s guess.

Advani’s call to guard ourselves against another Emergency could be a warning for the BJP to see the dangers of Modi’s autocratic style of functioning.

But it could also be a message to the nation from a man who has really climbed some of the highest peaks—and there are no more to climb—to exercise judgment in voting in governments and subsequently falling asleep as their rights evanesce.

Many might say that Advani’s proclamation, given his own past record in promoting a gerontocracy within his own party, is hypocritical. Agree or not with political Hindutva, Advani’s democratic credentials, as the great liberal Jaswant Singh testified, remained more or less intact.

I wish Advani had gone a little farther than he did and warned that what we are witnessing today in India is a greater trend towards an illiberal democracy. There is a growing state-tolerated intolerance. Self-imposed silences among leaders. Frightened, cowering bureaucrats. Politicization of universities, syllabi, centers of learning, art, drama. Minority bashing.

We deal with these issues in our story: Who’s Afraid of The Emergency? Many thinkers, including veteran Law Minister HR Bhardwaj, eminent legal personalities like Justice Mukul Mudgal and Rajeev Dhawan and BJP intellectuals like Seshadri Chari express themselves. And the consensus is that India has not only grown more mature since the Emergency, but also that its legal system and countervailing centers of power are strong enough to withstand and prevent dictatorial governance, whether from the present dispensation or from other parties, regional or national, whose top-rung leaders are as authoritarian and autocratic. But kudos to Advani setting the tone for a solid national debate by changing the goalpost.

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