Like Mrs Gandhi, Narendra Modi can also be called a directly elected Prime Minister.
Before me as I write is a yellowing single-page special edition of The Statesman published on June 26, 1975. “Internal Security in Danger” it warns above the bold headline “PRESIDENT PROCLAIMS EMERGENCY”. It’s a souvenir of the apogee of absolutism whose spectre haunts India again. Perhaps the danger always been there. Senator Adlai Stevenson III once pounced on my mention of “representative government” at a Chicago seminar. Universal adult suffrage had given India representative government, he said. America had democracy. They weren’t the same.
The distinction should be borne in mind as we ponder on those 21 months when Indira Gandhi formally suspended so many of the rights that are theoretically part of our Anglo-Saxon constitutional heritage. Often, however, those pious provisions mean very little in practice.
How many people even know what the right to privacy under Article 21of the Constitution means, leave alone being able to afford to enjoy it?
How many deaths in Jammu and Kashmir or the so-called “Red Corridor” fall foul of the clause’s main provision that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”?
The formal abolition or suspension of rights such as habeas corpus makes little difference to the vast majority of poor and illiterate Indians. Nor is a structured Emergency essential for a dictatorial regime to flourish.
Some newspapers, certain TV channels, recall those often quoted lines: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist,/ Thank God! the British journalist./ But, seeing what the man will do/ Unbribed, There’s no occasion to.” Only, it’s Indian, not British, journalists we are discussing.
Two additional points about the 1975-77 Emergency bear stressing. First, the Turkman Gate demolitions had been sanctioned and were long overdue, being delayed for not very creditable political reasons. Second, sterilisation was an accepted feature of the government’s family planning programme, and recognised as necessary, if runaway population growth was to be checked. It was the implementation that was at fault in both cases. To treat that as an indictment of the constitutional provision for Emergencies is like Raj Narain seeking a new name for hospital emergency wards because stalwart wrestler though he was, the word gave him the heebie-jeebies.
India doesn’t need an Emergency to revert to being Indian. It’s not only the present regime that is absolutist. My friend, the late Asoke Krishna Dutta, veteran Congressman and barrister, used to say long before those chaotic post-Emergency months when the Lion and the Unicorn fought for the crown: “The only difference between Indira Gandhi and Charan Singh is that she is a successful dictator, and he isn’t”.
Jawaharlal Nehru was enlightened in his outlook and civilised in his person and so his de facto one-man rule didn’t prompt fears of misrule. It’s different when the ruler is a crude bully whose social thinking is rooted in pre-British Raj medievalism.
The outcome is uncertainty and an imperceptible sense of menace. The controversy over Aadhaar is a case in point. Whether or not it is “an electronic leash” to which every Indian is tethered, the point is that it has absolutely no legal validity until the Supreme Court gives its imprimatur. Try explaining that to any nationalised bank where an account is being opened. The bank clerk or manager doesn’t deny that Aadhaar should be in limbo until the five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra which heard a clutch of 27 petitions against it during a marathon hearing that went on for 38 days spanning four months pronounces its verdict. But the Reserve Bank of India, acting under the government’s direct instructions, has ordered nationalised banks to insist on Aadhaar numbers.
Sanjay Gandhi was derided as the Emergency regime’s “extra-constitutional centres” of authority. The crack when Morarji Desai became Prime Minister was that India had three centres of power – the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and Jaslok Sabha, Jayaprakash Narayan being virtually resident in Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital. We don’t know who or where today’s centres of authority are located because there is an opaqueness about governance and that, too, is disturbing. But the snap decisions to demonetise certain kinds of currency notes and to topple Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, proclaimed loud and clear where they are not — the legally constituted authorities that should rightly handle such matters.
Flanked by the party president and his national security adviser, the Prime Minister does not give the impression of needing any other member of his Cabinet. The edifice of democracy foisted on impressionable voters steeped in traditional values tends to create an elective monarchy. Like Mrs Gandhi, Narendra Modi can also be called a directly elected Prime Minister. But with 44 per cent of voter support at the peak of her career (against Mr Modi’s 31 per cent), she, too, demonstrated that an absolute monarch does not need an absolute majority. The wider machinery of governance has gradually been sliding into irrelevance. The British have few illusions about the House of Commons or the Lords packed with life peers. But no Parliament could seem as redundant to decision-making on matters of vital importance as India’s. The United States Congress is possibly the only legislature in the world that still helps, advises and also restrains the chief executive.
Life has moved on. The modes of communication, investigation, interrogation, supervision and control, of reward and punishment, have changed altogether. What has not changed — and probably never will — is the absolutist ambition of ruling politicians. Not for them Thoreau’s aphorism: “That government is best which governs least...”They would probably regard that as weakness. There is no need for another Emergency. The emperor’s clothes are real in India.