Friday, June 9, 2023

Is India Emergency-proof?

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Forty years after the Emergency, questions are being raised if it can be replicated today. Will Narendra Modi get so besotted with power that he will crush dissent and become dictatorial? Not a chance, say experts

By Bhavdeep Kang

It’s that time of the year again, when victims of (India’s third) Emergency swap memories of midnight arrests and brutal beatings, the thrill of sheltering fugitives and posting “seditious” material on public walls. Some hike up their trouser legs to display 40-year-old scars of lathi-bashing. Others, not yet in their 50s, recall their adventures as child couriers, delivering money or letters to leaders gone underground. LK Advani warns against a reprise, as he did in 2003, 2010, 2012 and earlier this fortnight. The Congress maintains a sheepish silence.

The 40th anniversary of Emergency deviated from the standard, with the BJP making a bigger fuss than usual. Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his day with a tweet on the “darkest hour” of Indian history. BJP president Amit Shah held forth on the evils of a “dictatorial mindset” to a packed audience, which included MISA detainees draped in yellow scarves, against the backdrop of Modi in Sikh avatar, evading arrest in 1976. Doordarshan announced a five-part series on Emergency, lest we forget the excesses the Congress is capable of.

For the first time, the Congress—oblivious to the irony—raised the Emergency bogey and characterized Modi as a dictator-in-the-making. The centre-Left revived its authoritarian leader narrative, reading in Modi’s unperturbed demeanour in the face of scandals popping up like chicken pox sores, a sinister intent to crush dissent and seize absolute power.

The fact is that Modi couldn’t exercise absolute power even if he wanted to. Twenty-first century India is Emergency-proof. If Modi is under pressure because his ministers can’t keep their noses clean, in all likelihood, he will deal with it through the eminently democratic means of reshuffling his cabinet. A rap on the knuckles and/or a possible reassignment for Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Smriti Irani and life goes on. Even Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, who commands the loyalty of a majority of BJP MLAs and thus can bully the party president into publicly declaring support, knows she cannot indefinitely cock a snook at the center.

The pre-conditions for an Indira Gandhi-style Emergency are a weak judiciary, a vulnerable media, two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and a leader who exercises absolute control over the ruling party. None of those conditions exist today and—regardless of pessimists who insist that an Arab Spring is followed by a cruel ISIS summer, thereby diminishing the world’s democracy quotient—are unlikely to exist in future.


India’s first two emergencies were declared in wartime, from 1962-68 and 1971-75. In the wake of the Indo-Pakistan war, food shortages, industrial strikes and post-war economic fallout fuelled public discontent and made a hate figure of Sanjay Gandhi. Increasingly insecure, a victim of bad advice and uneasy-lies-the-head syndrome, Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency for the third time. Emergency in peace-time became a dictatorship, with all liberal institutions throughly cowed. It was a paradigm shift in the concept of governance, based on the belief that absolute power was needed to provide firm government.




It’s thanks to the judicial efforts of Justices (clockwise)YV Chandrachud, O Chinnappa Reddy, PN Bhagwati, , DA Desai and ,VR Krishna Iyer that the country is Emergency-proof

Parliament became a cipher, as did the higher judiciary. A situation that does not obtain today, says eminent lawyer Rajeev Dhawan. The judicial texts of the constitution, once weaker than the political texts, are now stronger. “The Gang of Five as I call them—(Justices) VR Krishna Iyer, PN Bhagwati, YV Chandrachud, DA Desai and O Chinnappa Reddy—ensured that the judiciary is now co-equal or even superior. The Supreme Court is no longer just a pillar of democracy, but it has made justice a participatory process. We see more OB vans parked
outside Supreme Court than parliament.”

“The Gang of Five— VR Krishna Iyer, PN Bhagwati, YV Chandrachud, DA Desai and O Chinnappa Reddy—ensured that the judiciary is now co-equal or even superior. The Supreme Court is no longer just a pillar of democracy, but it has made justice a participatory process.” —Rajeev Dhawan, eminent lawyer

The landmark Kesavananda Bharti Case placed limits on the power of parliament to amend the constitution. Indira Gandhi sought to emasculate the judiciary through a series of constitutional amendments. Today, any constitutional amendment or imposition of Emergency is subject to judicial review. Nor can the government of the day, regardless of its legislative strength, rig the judiciary. The Three Judges Case (particularly the 1993 Supreme Court ruling on appointment of judges) firmly establishes the collegium system and does not allow the government to arbitrarily pick, choose and supersede justices. The National Judicial Appointments Commission, so strongly favoured by both the UPA and NDA governments, is currently facing judicial review and being heard by a five-judge Bench.


With the multiplicity of political players and growth of regional politics, the era of two-thirds majority is at an end. The NDA enjoys a strength of 336 in the Lok Sabha, but just 64 in the Rajya Sabha. Nor is the BJP a monolithic organization. Amit Shah is correct when he says that the BJP can lay claim to internal democracy more than any other party. Free of dynasticism and subject to the moderating influence of the RSS, it does not lend itself to growth of autocracy. As political scientist DL Sheth said in a recent interview to “I may see authoritarianism coming from the Marxist Left, but not from the Hindu Right. There are just too many countervailing forces among the demographic Hindus.”

The pre-conditions for an Indira Gandhi-style Emergency are a weak judiciary, a vulnerable media, two-thirds majority in both houses and a leader who exercises absolute control over the ruling party. None of those conditions exist today.

Nor can the media ever again be subject to censorship. Prasar Bharti chairman A Surya Prakash observes: “Today, there are 180 million TV households, out of a total of 250 million. And of these, 160 million have access to cable. According to RNI figures, the combined print order of our publications is 26 crore, out of a population of 125 crore.” Even if these figures are grossly exaggerated, clearly the Indian mass media cannot be policed due to its huge size.

Perhaps the biggest game-changer in this respect is the internet. A nation’s democracy is today judged by its citizens’ unhindered access to the internet. India is estimated to have the third largest number of cyber-citizens in the world and that is just 20 percent of the total population. Attempts to censor internet freedom have proved utterly futile, as lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi discovered when he tried to stop distribution of a controversial video clip featuring him with a lady lawyer. It continued popping up on YouTube, as did another juicy documentary on Robert Vadra.

Social media has emerged as perhaps the most significant deterrent to authoritarianism. It has fuelled civil society movements across the globe. In India, the political impact of social media platforms was exemplified by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption agitation of 2011. While cyber-savvy politicians like Narendra Modi can use social media for political advancement, they cannot control it. And nothing stops the opposition from exerting a counter-influence.


So, Advani’s fears of Emergency redux, echoing the paranoia of the center-Left vis-a-vis Modi, are based on factors other than a genuine threat perception. In 2012, he was similarly outraged by the arrest of political cartoonist and anti-corruption crusader Aseem Trivedi and moved to say: “I have started wondering: Is today’s political set-up worse even than the Emergency? Aseem Trivedi has been arrested, and charged with sedition, an offence punishable with life imprisonment!”

Advani was missing from the recent BJP’s anti-Emergency show, organized by the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Foundation, although the organizers claimed he had been invited. It is no secret that the BJP old guard has been feeling marginalized by Modi & Co. Rumor has it that Amit Shah was not scheduled to turn up for the function, but was advised to do so, in case Advani decided to show up and embarrass the current dispensation!

The grand old rath yatri has yet to reconcile himself to the fact that the “Atal-Advani” domination over the Jan Sangh-BJP since the early 1970s—made possible by the murder of Deen Dayal Upadhyay in 1968 and the retirement of Nanaji Deshmukh—has ended with Modi. It was Advani who bypassed the RSS and declared Atal Bihari Vajpayee the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee in 1996. He then groomed a stable of leaders—Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar—all of whom failed to make the prime ministerial cut. He took his own shot in 2009 and failed.

After which, RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat, sick and tired of the jostling for position between Advani’s protegees (with Rajnath Singh as the only outsider), decided to take the BJP in hand. It was the RSS which decided on Nitin Gadkari as party president, only to replace him after a full term with Rajnath Singh.

Again, it was the RSS which pragmati-cally (although not happily) chose to project Modi as prime ministerial nominee and—for the first time in its history—back him with everything they had. A fact that Modi and Shah are unlikely to forget.

“Emergency cannot happen again”

Justice Mukul Mudgal, who was appointed by the Supreme Court to probe the cricket betting scam, speaks to Ramesh Menon on why he thinks an Emergency will not happen again

One of the institutions that miserably failed during the Emergency was the judiciary. I see it as one of the darkest chapters of Indian democracy. All this was because one woman felt insecure due to political developments at that time. Only Justice HR Khanna stood up against the Emergency, while others just gave in. For this, Justice Khanna had to pay a heavy price. Mrs Indira Gandhi was so vindictive that she ensured that he never became the chief justice of India.

“I do not think that the Emergency can be imposed again. Today, a lot has changed since the seventies. Today, the media is stronger and larger. It has a lot of visibility and that itself will ensure that Emergency will not happen again.
“I sincerely feel that today the judiciary will also stand up against any move to enforce Emergency. At least, I hope that will be the case now because of the media.

“The minute anyone starts working towards an Emergency-like situation, there will be stiff opposition to it from every quarter. People are much more aware today than they were before. They have experienced one Emergency and that was enough to teach them what it would do to their rights. During the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi ran riot with the rights of people. No one can do that today and get away like Sanjay did.

“Look at how youngsters today are on their toes as they are better informed because they are hooked to the internet all the time. They know what is happening in their country and elsewhere. Information is so easily available. Today, you cannot control the internet. You cannot stop sms and Whatsapp. In those days, one of the rare protests came from The Indian Express that ran a blank editorial. Today, there will be many forms of protest that will come from all over the country.

“Emergency can only be imposed if there are serious reasons like an external aggression, financial crisis or internal danger. There are sufficient safeguards that we have today that will not let an Emergency happen again just because someone wants it.

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