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Indian democracy imperiled
In the Name of Democracy, by Bipan Chandra

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

The years 1974-1977 were Indian democracy's most testing and turbulent times. Hacks had been sharpening their knives to prove the unsuitability of liberal democracy to an underdeveloped and impoverished India, using the "bread versus freedom" analogy of Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew. They felt vindicated in the wake of Jayaprakash Narayan's extra-constitutional struggle (JP Movement) to dislodge prime minister Indira Gandhi and the latter's decision to suspend political and economic rights through a state of internal emergency. Of course, the epitaph writers were wrong and India's democratic "political miracle" (W H Morris-Jones) continues to this day.

However, there is no doubt that the JP Movement and emergency gave Indian democracy a close shave without cutting the skin. Veteran historian Bipan Chandra's new book sheds light on the totalitarian-fascist potential in these two watershed developments that could have overturned consensual form of government for good. "Not all popular mass movements lead to or strengthen democracy ... [and] regimes which claimed to be defending democracy have themselves ended up as dictatorships." (p 3)

During 1972-1974, deep economic recession, unemployment and inflation created a groundswell of discontent, agitation and anger all over India, laying the socio-economic carpet for upheaval. The Congress party had been declining as an organization and was unprepared to deal with the snowballing crisis. Growing corruption in large areas of public life and belief that higher echelons of the ruling party and administration were responsible for the rot gained ground. Indira Gandhi's refusal to acknowledge corruption as a serious socio-political malady compounded matters and eroded her phenomenal standing and charisma.

If the urban middle classes were upset about rising costs of living, rich peasants were getting alienated from the Congress rapidly, no longer seeing it as an effective instrument for serving their group interests. Big business houses went on an "investment strike" to protest Gandhi's radical leftism, thereby exacerbating the economic downturn. Opposition parties' desperation and reliance on massive extra-legal agitational politics to remove elected ministries and dissolve tenured legislatures also contributed to the atmosphere of turmoil.

Trouble broke out first in Gujarat in early 1974, with large-scale rioting and the burning and looting of shops. For more than 10 weeks, the state was in a condition of near anarchy. Though urban workers and rural landless poor kept out of the fracas, disaffected urban middle classes and students managed to bring government functioning to a standstill. From Gujarat, the tensions spread to Bihar, where the city of Patna was "under almost complete control of the mobs" and the state itself "gave the appearance of a vast armed camp". (p 40) Jayaprakash Narayan suddenly emerged from reclusive Gandhian social work to take charge of the anti-government rallies in Bihar. Believing that the youth were historical agents of social change, J P announced that the moment for "total revolution" had come.

J P's holistic agenda for revolution included all-round changes to the pattern of education, elimination of corruption, checking moral decline in politics, basic electoral reforms, building up "people's power" and "saving democracy from authoritarian trends". Most of these grandiose objectives remained non-starters and J P soon narrowed down the focus of the movement to the removal of Indira Gandhi from office, even though general elections were not due until 1976. The prime minister believed that having secured political power via democratic and constitutional means in the 1971 elections, she had every right to continue ruling. Eyeing the opportunity of piggybacking on J P's moral image, opposition parties joined the chorus for Gandhi's ouster without waiting for the people's verdict in 1976. Lacking the strong mass base and mobilizing cadre of workers that parties like Jan Sangh, Congress (O), Bharatiya Lok Dal and Akali Dal could muster, J P also accepted this marriage of convenience.

Despite the strategic alliances, the J P Movement ran out of steam by early 1975. "Students had lost their enthusiasm ... their luster and credibility in the public eye had also begun to fade." (p 54) Indira Gandhi sensed the opportunity and openly challenged J P to fight her in the constitutional arena, ie the elections of 1976. With the movement at an impasse, J P accepted the gauntlet thrown at him and started organizing for an electoral battle. Just as unrest and agitation were being directed into the conventional channels of the system, the Allahabad High Court delivered in June 1975 a super-controversial verdict that Gandhi's 1971 election victory as an MP was invalid due to two minor technical offenses under electoral law.

The movement's strategy took a markedly radical turn as opposition allies converted J P to the coup d'etat school of thought and went on the rampage, demanding immediate resignation of the prime minister. Gandhi's popularity among the rural poor and urban workers was undisturbed by the pandemonium of the last two years and her chances of getting re-elected in 1976 were still bright. Morarji Desai, the opposition leader, saw the Allahabad court decision as a shortcut to power and said, "One must strike the iron when it is hot ... it's increasingly difficult to defeat her in a general election." (p 88) A gigantic civil disobedience campaign was unleashed by J P, calling not only the people but also the armed forces, police and government servants to disobey orders from a "dictatorial and fascist" regime.

The culmination of the remove Indira roar was J P's plan to gherao (encircle) the premier's residence in Delhi with hundreds of thousands of his supporters who would permit none to enter or leave the house. Gandhi viewed the last threat as taken straight out of Mussolini's march on Rome, a serious danger to democracy that would require the army's intervention to disperse the surging crowds. In fact, "One reason she imposed the emergency was because she did not want to rely on the army for dealing with the civil disobedience movement." (p 80) On June 26, 1975, in a lightning response, internal emergency was proclaimed under article 352 of the Indian constitution. J P and a slew of opposition leaders were arrested, strict press censorship imposed and all fundamental rights suspended. Defending the emergency as indispensable for state survival, Gandhi argued, "Some rights have to suffer a little if it is in the cause of strengthening and survival of our country." (p 79)

So furious was the government onslaught and so feeble the resistance to the emergency from civil society that the backbone of the movement was broken in a few months and J P was left ruing that his "world lay in shambles". Chandra highlights the weaknesses inherent in J P as a mass leader that led to the demise of his total revolution. J P was "unable either to diagnose the ills of the Indian polity or suggest effective remedies for them" and merely heaped all the blame on Congress and Indira Gandhi. Chandra employs adjectives such as naivete, confusion, woolly thinking, hazy, unrealistic, romantic, rhetorical, generality, Utopian, inchoate, commonplace, abstract, exaggeration, hyperbole, inconsistent, anomalous, arbitrary, opportunistic, nebulous etc for J P's schemes. Needless to add, the movement was "undemocratic" and "unconstitutional" in its composition, aims and methods. Having a social base in right-wing forces, it was "capable of creating a space for those of its constituents that were authoritarian or fascist". (p 154)

The monster that the JP Movement failed to uncork was more than compensated by the emergency. As many as 110,000 persons were arbitrarily detained for the 19 months of Gandhi's undemocratic governance. "People were arrested on the slightest suspicion or on the basis of rumors." (p 157) Parliament was emasculated to rubber-stamp government decrees, ordinances and constitutional amendments. The rise of Gandhi's younger son, Sanjay, and his Youth Congress musclemen sent signals that India was on the way to becoming a police state. Sanjay's coterie grabbed decision-making authority without holding any representative office and assaulted the parliamentary system severely by proposing, inter alia, that Gandhi be made president for life.

The first year of the emergency was, in hindsight, not that harmful for Indira Gandhi or the country. Poorer Indians still trusted the premier and intellectuals noted that they were under an authoritarian, not totalitarian, government. Arun Shourie, the famous journalist, called it "the mildest possible dictatorship" compared to China, the USSR or some of the banana republics. By mid-1976, though, the glow had begun to fade both among the masses and the intellectuals. Denial of civil liberties began to pinch common people and Gandhi herself admitted ex post facto, "The emergency did get a little bit out of hand because people started misusing power at different levels." (p 188)

Temporary authoritarianism was being transformed into a long-term dictatorship, thanks to Sanjay's growing clout. It was in his Youth Congress that the fascist potential of the emergency lay. Forcible sterilization drives, heavy-handed slum clearances to "beautify and de-congest" Delhi, banning of industrial strikes, linking worker bonuses to productivity, concessions to big capitalists, attacks on progressives, and "disciplining" of the poor - all pointed to a steep slide towards Nazification of the country. Most interestingly, J P confessed to be "pleasantly surprised" by Sanjay's anti-communist tirades. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), backbone of the JP Movement's mass mobilization, welcomed the "emergence of Sanjay Gandhi as a youth leader" and offered to lend its manpower to the government "for the upliftment of our country". (p 217) The slide of Indian polity towards fascism seemed well begun.

Confounding all speculation in January 1977, Indira Gandhi revoked the emergency and called for fresh elections, saving Indian democracy in the process. Why she abandoned Sanjay's advice to perpetuate the emergency is, to this day, hotly debated. Chandra lists four possible explanations. First, she wrongly assumed that since economic conditions were improving and democracy "mattered little to the masses", they would vote for her again, overlooking the excesses of the emergency. Second, she realized that the emergency was getting discredited and elections alone were an indispensable text of legitimacy. Third, she "could never forget that she was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru" and had an underlying commitment to liberal democracy. Fourth, she discovered Sanjay's clandestine contacts with foreign embassies, particularly the Americans, and feared the combination of internal fascism and foreign influence would be disastrous (a la Chile in 1973 and Bangladesh in 1975).

Chandra concludes that both the JP Movement and the emergency threatened Indian democracy. New Delhi in 1976 may not have been Berlin under Hitler, but the emergency was obviously "flirting with totalitarianism". The JP Movement, especially its RSS component, was positively hostile to parliamentary democracy. Its vanguard in the petit-bourgeoisie contained the "classic base of potential fascism". (p 274) Chandra warns of the consequences of an "unthinking mass movement" like JP's as well as the perils of strong-state ideologies and Rasputins like Sanjay Gandhi. The lessons learnt for India from 1974-1977 are that violent or coercive protests pose threats to the functioning of democracy, just as insensitive suppression of normal political agitation is undemocratic.

Debating the acceptable limits of popular protest in a parliamentary democracy and humanizing a great personality like Jayaprakash Narayan, Bipan Chandra has once again come up with a classic of contemporary political history.

In the Name of Democracy, by Bipan Chandra. Penguin Books India, 2003. ISBN: 0-14-302967-3. Price: US$26.25, 374 pages.

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Aug 16, 2003

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