It is ironical in the extreme that the Congress Party should be jumping with joy at the veteran BJP leader LK Advani’s somewhat ambiguous remarks about the emergency. Ironical, on at least two counts: One, the alacrity with which it has discovered statesmanship in Advani, the man it had not tired of running down till very recently. Two, as the sole force behind the darkest period in the nation’s constitutional history, when there was an open assault on fundamental rights and freedoms, the Congress leadership should be the last to talk about the emergency. It should, in fact, introspect long and hard on the 40th anniversary of the most shameful chapter in the history of the young Republic. Indira Gandhi, morally bruised after the Allahabad High Court overturned her election to the Lok Sabha, chose to clamp down on democratic freedoms instead of stepping aside, as was the required norm, till the court verdict was reversed. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters were jailed under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act. While drafting MISA she had ignored warnings she had given a solemn assurance in Parliament that it would not be used against political workers. Soon, the very same MISA became an instrument of fear and oppression. People were arbitrarily picked up, some even tortured and then dumped in prison without any right to appeal to any court. The most stringent form of press censorship was imposed. Barring a stray case of defiance and courage, the press crumbled. In the famous words of Advani, when asked to bend, the press crawled. It was all the more shameful that those who do not tire of advertising their left-liberal views were the first to become the cheerleaders of the emergency powers. They disgraced themselves further by welcoming that the `reactionary and rightwing’ RSS-Jana Sangh were being fixed by Indira Gandhi and her wayward son, Sanjay Gandhi, who had emerged as the most powerful extra-constitutional authority during the emergency. Aside from the meek submission by the privately-owned press, the state-owned Doordarshan and AIR became an extension of the ruling Congress. There were enough jokers in the Congress Party led by the Congress President, Dev Kant Barooah, who proclaimed from housetops that `Indira was India and India was Indira.’
The official media highlighted the twenty points of the mother and five of her delinquent son as if these were the modern-day equivalent of the biblical commandments. The entire nation lay supine, barring stray pockets of resistance. And that is what should really concern us even today — a good forty years after Indira Gandhi first trashed the holy document which underpinned the founding of the Republic. Pity is that there were no mass protests; the people accepted the frontal assault against the Republic as if nothing had happened. That is why we at least do not agree with anyone who says the emergency cannot be repeated. It can be. Because the people at large did not rise in revolt against a dictator who in her own hour of great moral defeat had upturned the Constitution. If the threat of State repression and jail could so easily subdue the mass of people, we cannot see how the collective character of us Indians, we the people, that is, could have undergone a transformation for the better in the intervening forty years. In fact, that they voted back the same Indira Gandhi three years later, shows that Indians as a people do not have a strong commitment towards liberty and freedom. Indeed, not unlike the long series of foreign invaders whom our ancestors accepted without offering much resistance, the ease with which a home-made dictator was accepted raises grave doubts about our commitment to defend freedom. Everyone had submitted meekly to the mother-and-son duo. The higher judiciary included.
However, contrary to the suggestion that Prime Minister Modi can put the country in a straitjacket of emergency, we believe that this can be done, if at all, only by someone who like Indira Gandhi is the sole arbiter of his or her party. Cadre-based parties like the BJP will always find it hard to submit to the edicts of a single leader. Admittedly, most leaders while in power might occasionally feel frustrated at the always slow and noisy democratic process impeding the implementation of their genuinely wholesome welfare agendas and might feel tempted to do away with the unnecessary roadblocks. But the system of checks and balances is so inherent to democracies that the popular will is never expressed through a single leader howsoever strong-willed and powerful he or she might be. Remember even at the height of her popularity Indira Gandhi had the support of only 44 percent of the voters. Yet, she imposed her arbitrary writ with ease on the entire country. This should never happen again.