Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point
by Gyan Prakash
Princeton University Press, 456 pp.
The history of independent India is bracketed by two midnights. One is Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous speech on the eve of independence, August 14, 1947: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” The other is midnight on June 25, 1975, when Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, suspended the rule of law, ushering in the Emergency, often regarded as the grimmest period in India’s postcolonial history. One midnight heralded the breaking of the dawn. The other ushered in the darkness.
Rationalized as a response to internal unrest, most notably the brewing opposition led by the socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) to Indira’s rule, the Emergency entailed the abrogation of democratic freedoms. Civil liberties were suspended, the press was censored, and habeas corpus and judicial review were gutted. With elections indefinitely postponed and the detention of her political opponents secured through the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, Indira ruled unchallenged. This dark state of affairs lasted until March 1977, when her decision to call elections backfired with her defeat by a coalition of opposition parties.
The Emergency has long been seen as a betrayal of the democratic ideals enshrined in the Indian Constitution, with Indira Gandhi portrayed as having desecrated her father’s legacy. On this reading, the Emergency was a state of exception attributable to Indira’s autocratic character and political ambitions. It represented nothing less than a complete repudiation of the previous three decades of democratic rule, the equivalent of a freak weather event. Some even take the unfolding of the Emergency as unlikely proof of the resilience of Indian constitutional democracy. After all, when Indira was resoundingly defeated at the polls in 1977, she didn’t cling to power. She left the stage—if only to return three years later.
In Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point, historian Gyan Prakash argues that the Emergency was not in fact summoned into existence by Indira, but resulted from the failure of Indian constitutional democracy to respond adequately to the needs of the people. The project of ruling elites who inherited and in some cases preserved a corpus of colonial legislation, Indian democracy was only skin-deep: as Dalit leader and key framer of the Constitution B. R. Ambedkar noted, its commitment to political equality was belied by entrenched social and economic inequalities. Moreover, it was forged in the context of the violence and upheaval that attended the founding of the new republic, from war in Kashmir to popular agitation in the princely states. Even figures like Ambedkar, who believed in the need for radical social change, sought to insulate the state from the ever-looming “grammar of anarchy.” The language of riots and street protest—acceptable, even necessary, under colonial rule—was now a threat to the new nation.
This gap between the governing and the governed, Prakash argues, was baked into the Indian Constitution, which sought to safeguard a highly centralized state, circumscribing the rights of individuals by asserting the prerogative of emergency powers. Liberal paternalists like Nehru and his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, carefully steered the apparatus of the state between the extremes of authoritarian control on one hand and lawlessness on the other. But in the hands of a leader like Indira, the “fine balance” of the Constitution came undone. Responding to widespread popular discontent, Indira marshaled the powers of the Constitution to lawfully suspend the rule of law. Her actions anticipated the crisis of democracy in India today.
Under Indira’s regime, a suffocating pall descended over the nation, expressed in the claustrophobic slogan “India is Indira and Indira is India.” Press freedom was extinguished, foreign correspondents sent home. But the tumult of the global was never far away. As Prakash shows, the wave of student-led uprisings that provoked Indira’s crackdown were part of the same upheaval that produced the 1968 student riots in France and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Similarly, he demonstrates how the most notorious aspect of the Emergency, the sterilization program enacted by Indira and enforced by her son Sanjay and his network of political operatives, had roots in the Indian state’s population control efforts. The family planning program was part of a top-down modernization project pursued by the postcolonial Indian state and bankrolled by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. Funded in part by U.S. largesse, the family planning clinics of the 1960s offered cash in exchange for sterilizations—not exactly coercion but, for the very poor, something close. The states of Kerala and Mysore went further, denying maternity leave to government employees with more than three children. The infamous sterilization camps of the 1970s, where vasectomies and tubectomies were carried out in accordance with statewide quotas, were simply the latest episode in this longer history.
As Indira sought to extend the scope of the top-down modernization project inherited from her predecessors, popular unrest was stirring. Indira’s main challenger in the run-up to the Emergency was JP, a seventy-two-year-old Gandhian socialist turned advocate of “Total Revolution.” The leader of the anti-corruption student movement in his home state of Bihar, JP sought to mount a grassroots challenge to the patronage-based rule of Indira’s Congress Party. Faced with a serious challenge, Indira decided to beat JP at his own populist game. She appealed directly to the people, attacking institutions that were seen as bloated and corrupt in order to harness popular discontent, even if it meant splitting her own party. Drawn into confrontation with Indira, JP shifted his energies to obtaining political power. “Total Revolution” was cast aside in favor of the more prosaic aim of defeating Indira.
Prakash sees these shifting dynamics of populist political mobilization as symptoms of a larger problem: the instrumentalization of democratic values. The Congress “system,” inherited by Indira and largely unaltered today, relied on cobbling together a diverse coalition of class- and caste-based constituencies, cultivated as voting blocs and held together only by the glue of power. Like the populist political ideologies that have risen to take its place, the system mobilized around the idea of equality while doing little to advance egalitarianism in practice. In response to this elite-dominated political landscape, caste-based political movements emerged, stimulated by the report of the Mandal Commission in 1980, which recommended the establishment of electoral quotas for “backward castes.” But with their focus on capturing vote share—“climbing the power ladder rather than kicking out the ladder altogether”—caste-based political parties have failed, Prakash argues, to nurture a deeper commitment to social equality. Today, the politics of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, seeks to obliterate democratic values altogether, casting religious minorities as non-citizens.
Prakash’s searing, methodical account is acutely attuned to the afterlives of the Emergency. The current coalition government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Prakash argues, legitimizes itself as a victim of the Emergency, sanctimoniously condemning the rollback of civil liberties under Indira while using the same populist strategies she did. Combining Hindu nationalism with market-friendly policies designed to win over apostles of growth and the rising middle classes, Modi has dominated the Indian political landscape since his landslide electoral victory of 2014. He consolidated power with another victory in May 2019, in which the Congress under Rahul Gandhi, Indira’s grandson, failed once again to win enough seats to take its place as the official opposition.
“Today there is no formal declaration of Emergency, no press censorship, no lawful suspension of the law,” Prakash notes. But Modi is poised to occupy the same unassailable position Indira once did, “equipped with the powers of the administrative state,” including statutes that allow for preventative detention and the use of special powers in “disturbed” areas.
On August 5, Modi stripped Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, of its autonomy, originally granted by Article 370 of the Constitution in the wake of the accession of the princely state of Kashmir to the Indian Union in 1947. Revoking Article 370 through a legal loophole that took advantage of the dissolution of the state legislature in 2018, Modi has paved the way for increased central control of the state, which is to be split into two union territories and administered from Delhi. Modi’s rhetoric of development and integration notwithstanding, Kashmir remains cut off from the outside world, with all telecommunications, including landlines, suspended; a curfew enforced by the thousands of Indian troops that have flooded into the state; and politicians of all parties under indefinite house arrest. Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister of the state, declared before her arrest that August 5 would be known as “the blackest day of Indian democracy”—a term of shame previously reserved for the Emergency.
Kashmir may be the most obvious place where democracy is under assault, but it is not the only one. Under Modi, democratic institutions, from the press to the judiciary, have remained nominally independent—but for how long? Prakash notes the presence of “a largely compliant and corporatized electronic media, which did not exist in 1975–1977,” but fails to mention the diminishing power of the courts. Upon coming to power, the Modi government passed the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act, which sought to replace a system in which new judges were appointed by sitting judges with a government body that would oversee all judicial appointments. The law was ultimately scrapped by the Supreme Court, but allegations of pressure on the judiciary led four Supreme Court justices to hold an unprecedented press conference in January 2018. “All four of us are convinced,” Justice Jasti Chelameswar told the cameras, that “unless this institution is preserved and it maintains its equanimity, democracy will not survive in this country.”
It isn’t hard to find parallels with Indira. From 1971 to 1973, she bent the judiciary to her will, restricting the scope of judicial review, passing legislation that allowed Parliament to amend the Constitution, and overriding judicial norms to install a government loyalist as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The current situation is made worse by the concentration of wealth and the influence of money on Indian politics, both of which are far greater today than in the 1970s. Neoliberalism, Prakash writes, has released “vast quantities of unregulated capital” that “slosh around to twist the machinery of laws and administration.” Like Sanjay Gandhi and his gangs of enforcers before them, an intermediary class of fixers and middlemen pull the strings, doing politicians’ dirty work. Yet Prakash’s take on Indian politics as “a chess game of power,” all grubby machinations and political infighting, doesn’t capture the ideological force of the Modi regime.
In her fourth term as prime minister, Indira sought to win over business leaders through a program of tax breaks and reducing red tape. She also began publicly invoking Hinduism in a bid to draw votes away from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hardline Hindu organization that served as ideological incubator for the BJP. Through strategic moves like these, Indira was able to advance across the chessboard, inflicting blows on her opponents. But, as Prakash contends, she was unable to read the broader historical forces that ultimately led to her end. In 1984, underestimating the strength of separatist agitation in Punjab, she made the fateful decision to send Indian troops to storm the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh sites. She was later killed by her own disaffected Sikh bodyguards, and her assassination was followed by a wave of vicious anti-Sikh pogroms. Political maneuvering had been blotted out by communal rage.
Unlike Indira, whose belated embrace of Hindutva represented a last-ditch attempt to cling onto power, Modi came of age as an RSS trainee and pracharak (volunteer organizer). Forced underground during the Emergency, when the RSS was banned, he emerged with his ideological commitment to the organization intact. Even as Modi has sought to distance himself from his RSS roots, Hindutva has animated his political agenda: during his time as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was accused of complicity in the communal riots of 2002, standing by as the state’s minority Muslim population was targeted in a systematic campaign of rape and killing. Far from a matter of political expedience, his alliance with Hindu nationalism is central to his vision.
By contrast, “All we can say about Indira in 1966, the year she became Prime Minister,” Prakash writes, “is that she was shy, reticent, and without a defined political ideology.” While her shyness and reticence soon disappeared, to the chagrin of those who had underestimated her, her lack of ideological conviction arguably remained. Beyond her zeal for centralizing power, Indira’s political convictions can be characterized only by their inconsistency, swinging wildly from radical reformism to poverty eradication to economic liberalization.
The charge of standing for nothing has stuck to her descendants: in the run-up to the 2019 elections, Rahul Gandhi was portrayed as a scion without a plan. In contrast, Modi has mobilized a powerful political vision that casts India as a Hindu nation. Prakash writes of the hierarchical and unequal nature of Indian society, the challenge to visions of a truly democratic polity. One solution to “democracy’s cohabitation with inequality” is the inculcation of democratic values, a process that entails a fuller reckoning with the promise of equality enshrined in the Constitution. Another is the cooptation of egalitarian impulses through the framework of authoritarian populism. Under Modi, long-suppressed undercurrents have made their way to the surface. Will they be channeled, or unleashed?
Divya Subramanian is a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University.