As I write this in the morning on the 40th anniversary (June 25, 2015) of the Emergency that the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had imposed on India, I come across the news item that the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tweeted that “a vibrant liberal democracy is the key to progress” and that “Let us do everything possible to further strengthen our democratic ideals and ethos”. Modi in fact has described the Emergency that Indira Gandhi had imposed in 1975 as “India’s darkest period, when the then political leadership trampled over the democracy”.
The “Emergency” marked a 21-month period between June 25, 1975 and March 21, 1977. It was followed by general elections as a result of which she and her Congress party were literally routed and for the first time in India a non-Congress coalition formed the central government. This coalition, later turned into a single political party— Janata Party— consisted of what is today’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and socialists of various hues, who now lead different parties like Mulayam Singh Yadav (his Samajwadi Party is in the government of India’s largest and politically most sensitive state of Uttar Pradesh), Lalu Yadav (former Chief Minister of Bihar who heads Rashtriya Janata Dal) and Nitish Kumar (present Chief Minister of Bihar of the Janata Dal-U). Ironically, these socialists are now bitter political enemies of the BJP and Narendra Modi; in fact, they are joining hands together to fight against the BJP in the forthcoming Assembly elections in Bihar.
But what is the bigger irony is that these socialists have now embraced the Congress party in their fight against the BJP and Modi. In other words, these “Children of Emergency” are now most comfortable with the Congress, the party that had imposed Emergency and has never repented for its imposition; for them the real enemy is the BJP many of whose leaders had fought shoulder to shoulder with them against the Emergency. But that is not all. These socialists have also joined the Congress in apprehending that democracy is not safe in India under Modi, who, according to them, could re-impose Emergency in the country. Such is the turn of events over the last 40 years in Indian politics!
It may be noted here that during the Emergency, Indira Gandhi gained the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed. For much of the Emergency, almost all political opponents of the Congress were imprisoned. Fundamental rights were denied to the citizens. The press was severely censored. And there were several excesses and atrocities that were believed to have been committed by her close political aides, including her son Sanjay Gandhi.
Are we Indians really heading for another round of Emergency that habitual Modi-bashers are predicting? Here I am not taking seriously what the BJP veteran L K Advani (who was an Emergency-victim and Deputy Prime Minister under Atal Behari Vajpayee during the NDA’s first term in power) said the other day. He had raised the apprehensions over another Emergency last week in an interview to a newspaper. The unmistakable conclusion of all the Modi-bashers was that Advani was hinting at Modi following in the footsteps of Indira Gandhi. But then Advani’s antipathy towards Modi is well known ever since the latter ruined the former’s dream of becoming India’s Prime Minister. And in any case, the brazen manner in which Advani has behaved and talked over the last three years, he, for me, seems to have lost all credibility, his rich past notwithstanding. In my considered opinion, another Emergency in India is extremely unlikely. And that is because India is not conducive for some of the crucial prerequisites for the imposition or sustenance of authoritarianism (which the Emergency was all about). Let me explain this.
Prof. Milan W. Svolik of University of Illinois has examined a fundamental problem of politics in authoritarian regimes and concluded that the dictator and the ruling coalition must share power and govern in an environment where political influence must be backed by a credible threat of violence. In his model of authoritarian politics, power sharing is complicated by this conflict of interest: by exploiting his position, the dictator may acquire more power at the expense of the ruling coalition, which may attempt to deter such opportunism by threatening to stage a coup (revolt). Two power-sharing regimes, contested and established dictatorships, may emerge as a result of strategic behavior by the dictator and the ruling coalition. This theory accounts for the large variation in the duration of dictators’ tenures and the concentration of power in dictatorships over time.
Prof. Svolik has studied 316 authoritarian leaders of the world who were in power of various lengths between 1945 and 2002. Some of them got out because of constitutional means such as elections (death or a hereditary succession). Some were dethroned from power through nonconstituional means—assassinations, popular uprisings and foreign interventions. But 205 dictators—more than two-thirds—were removed by government insiders, such as other government members or members of the military or the security forces.
Prof. Svolik’s basic point is that for a leader to succeed as an authoritarian, he or she must have perfect equations with governing elites, ranging from ministerial colleagues to party cadres to bureaucrats to military leaders to intellectuals. Political institutions in dictatorships, such as governing councils, legislatures, or parties, may therefore function to allow members of the governing authoritarian elite to reassure each other that none of them is trying to acquire more power at others’ expense. And having perfect equations depend on to what extent the leader shares his or her power with these governing elites. In other words, politics “among” the governing authoritarian elites is the key to determine the probability of the phenomenon of dictatorship and its subsequent durability. An “established” dictator keeps this politics totally under his or her control and hence remains in power for long (Fidel Castro in Cuba or the Communist oligarchs in China, for instance). The “contested” dictators, on the other hand, are unable to manage the sharing of power and get dethroned in the process—either military coups or judicial verdicts (we see this happening in Pakistan from time to time).
Technically speaking, Indira Gandhi had revoked Emergency and had gone for polls in 1977. There is not enough literature to find out as to why she revoked. Was it due to the fact that she was finding it difficult to manage the sharing of power with the governing elites? Was she apprehending problems from the military? Well, I do not know the answers. But I am quite convinced that Modi will not be able to manage the sharing of power of either ( he does not have total loyalty of his key cabinet colleagues and top leaders in the party, let alone the support of the bosses in RSS) and therefore it is next to impossible for him to become a dictator. In fact, unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi does not have the luxury of keeping two other important sections of the governing elites on his side.
It may be noted that for any successful dictator, it is absolutely vital to keep the judiciary with him or her. In Pakistan, therefore, we notice that its judiciary has virtually endorsed every spell of dictatorship under what it says “the doctrine of necessity” (It was only after Pervez Musharraf fought with the then Chief Justice of the country that his decline began). Similarly, when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency, she had a set of “committed judges” in the Supreme Court. It is impossible that Modi is going to have his henchmen occupying the positions in the Indian Supreme Court, even after the proposed judicial reforms are put into shape.
Secondly, all told, Indira Gandhi, thanks to her ostensible Left-inclinations, enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Indian intellectual elite, dominated, as I have argued always, by the Leftists in the Nehruvian fold. They continue to dominate even today and are among the foremost critics of Modi. Besides, it must be noted that the Indian press, though asked to bend, literally crawled during Emergency. And that was understandable because most of the newspapers (there was no television) depended for their very survival on the government advertisements. In the “command and control” (closed) economy that Indira Gandhi had promoted, there were not many vibrant private industries, which could have sustained a free media then. But today, the situation is different. Most of the leading and successful media houses are not dependent on the government; in fact, their owners and promoters happen to be among the country’s richest. So “an authoritarian Modi” cannot dream of having a puppet media in India today. And no dictator anywhere in the world can sustain power in the absence of a puppet media.
In sum, India has, over the years, shown great resilience in making the political climate highly non-conducive for any dictatorial moves. If still we are hearing some voices in this regard then that is not due to any solid reasons; most of these voices are essentially of those who are suffering from Modi-phobia.
By Prakash Nanda