Karan Thapar | Of Rahul, Indira and the ‘mistake’ of Emergency

The Asian Age.  | Karan Thapar

Opinion, Columnists

Indira Gandhi didn’t think the Emergency was a mistake and she certainly didn’t apologise for it

If Rahul Gandhi is going to be our Prime Minister one day, he needs to learn how to handle awkward situations, in particular those connected to his family’s past. (Photo: PTI)

One of the best tests of a politician’s skill and talent is his ability to handle awkward and embarrassing moments. Amongst the worst is when you’re asked to accept and admit your own mistake, that of your party or your family. It seems this is not Rahul Gandhi’s forte. Actually, the truth is his family is rather poor at it. His grandmother was no better.

Earlier this month, when Kaushik Basu of Cornell University questioned Rahul about the Emergency, he claimed Indira Gandhi had called it a “mistake” and added: “The Congress at no point attempted to capture India’s institutional framework.” He was utterly wrong on both counts.

The one that’s a flagrant violation of the truth is the latter. Under the Emergency, Indira Gandhi arrested at least 100,000 people, including most Opposition leaders. The press was censored. The judiciary and civil service tampered with. Elections postponed. The Constitution brutally amended. All of this should be known to Mr Gandhi, even if he was five at the time.

A less obvious error -- actually it’s an untruth -- is the claim his grandmother Indira Gandhi considered the Emergency a “mistake”. Indira Gandhi accepted responsibility for the Emergency and the election defeat that followed. Of that there’s no doubt. But that’s very different to calling it a mistake. In fact, she found artful ways of responding to the errors and lapses of the Emergency, while exculpating the Emergency itself. When she spoke of it, she justified it.

Her first tactic was to accept excesses may have been committed. In an interview to Mary Carass, in July 1978, she said “muzzling the press was too strong a step”. In other words, a less stringent form of control would have been preferable. But controlling the press was not a mistake.

A second tactic was to claim other people made mistakes but she was willing to take responsibility for them. Indian Express on January 24, 1978 reported her speech at Yavatmal: “Mrs Gandhi said even if others, who were responsible for the mistakes and excesses, were not willing to own up, she would own the responsibility for those mistakes.”

A third tactic was to actually minimise whatever errors or mistakes she was willing to acknowledge. To Mary Carass, she said: “Except for the detention of political persons and press censorship there was not much that was abnormal”. Of the killings at Turkman Gate, she had the effrontery to say: “There was no violence… just one or two isolated cases”.

Even on the critical issue of sterilisation, which, perhaps, traumatised North India, Indira Gandhi refused to accept the extent of what had happened. This is what she told Paul R. Brass on March 26, 1978: “The basic thing which defeated us was the false propaganda. It’s not that we didn’t make mistakes or any of those things, but they were blown out of all proportion. Even with regard to family planning, the way they spread things… frankly, I don’t think it was sterilisation at all. It was a propaganda… no such thing took place on that scale. There were some cases, but most of the cases we followed up did not turn out to be true.”

In each of these instances Indira Gandhi was only referring to specific things that happened under the Emergency -- censorship, arrests, Turkman Gate, sterilisation -- but not the Emergency itself. She was trying to distinguish between the Emergency and mistakes that happened. You don’t need forensic expertise to realise she had no problem with the actual declaration of the Emergency.

Indian Express reported on January 24, 1978 that, after accepting responsibility for other people’s mistakes and excesses, Indira Gandhi justified the Emergency. “She, however, asked the audience to recall the situation in the country when the Emergency was declared and said things were in a chaotic condition all around. If things were allowed to continue, the situation that developed in Bangladesh would have been repeated in India”.

The paper adds Mrs Gandhi said, “the situation just before the imposition of Emergency was very grave, and the very survival of the nation was threatened”. She described the Emergency “as a dose of medicine to cure the disease”.

When Paul Brass asked: “Would you have done anything differently in relation to the Emergency?” Her answer began with the word “No”. It couldn’t have been more pointed. Thereafter she said her mistake was not to have “personally” looked into the suffering the Emergency caused. Her exact words were: “My mistake was not to have looked into these matters personally and discussed”.

So let’s be clear, Indira Gandhi didn’t think the Emergency was a mistake and she certainly didn’t apologise for it. No doubt she accepted responsibility for the 1977 election defeat and accepted the biggest cause was the Emergency, but she never said it was wrong. Sagarika Ghose, her most recent biographer, who helped immeasurably with my research, concurs. I’ve found no record of Indira Gandhi accepting and admitting the Emergency was a mistake.

Rahul Gandhi also alleged while the RSS today is stuffing institutions with its own people, the Congress’ behaviour during the Emergency was “fundamentally different”. Again, he’s wrong. Its behaviour was almost identical -- from the Supreme Court, where a junior judge was made Chief Justice, forcing H.R. Khanna to resign, to the civil service, where his grandmother publicly called for “committed” officers and Nirmal Mukherjee was removed as home secretary. The commitment required was to her and her family.

Now I can understand why Rahul Gandhi flubbed. First, he wanted to distinguish the Emergency from the situation prevailing today, and make the former seem nowhere near as bad. Hence his claim “the Congress at no point attempted to capture India’s institutional framework”. Second, by asserting his grandmother called the Emergency a “mistake”, he wanted to ensure no further embarrassing questions would be asked. It was a way of conceding a point in the hope of ending the conversation.

But his answers have created a new controversy. There are now questions about his knowledge, his judgment, his truthfulness and, of course, his ability to handle awkward moments. On all these, he acquitted himself pretty miserably.

If this was a googly, Mr Gandhi got bowled. If it was a test, he didn’t pass. If the intention was to impress his audience, he didn’t succeed. So if he’s going to be our Prime Minister one day, he needs to learn how to handle awkward situations, in particular those connected to his family’s past.